Father O’Staggers was leading us into the Lord’s Prayer when the enormous stained glass window bursts apart like shattered hard candy.
I’m not thinking about the masked commandos who pour through the jagged hole like so many somber gumdrops. Instead, I think about the ruined glass. Hundreds of hours of craftsmanship were laid to waste by men incapable of an honest day’s labor. My anger boils even before one brazen intruder cold cocks the deacon with the butt of his German assault rifle.
“You and the kids stay low,” I say to Mrs. Angry. One of the commandos directs a volley of lead into the crucifix above the alter. It smashes into a trillion pieces onto the floor, and the parishioners who aren’t already screaming fill the church with horror.
“What do they want!?” hisses Mrs. Angry, drawing Angry Junior and Angry Two close.
What these commandos want is unclear. What they’re going to get…is me.
I break the first commando’s neck before his buddies realize a wolf has infiltrated the sheep. The commando falls to the ground, and now I have his gun. I make a brief apology to The Man Upstairs. Snapping vertebrae is bad form for a houseguest, but I’m left with little choice.
I take out two more bad guys before the morons stop aiming at crucifixes and start aiming at me. They speak a tongue I don’t understand, but their rifles do all the translating. I dive into the choir section and pray to God to make me bullet proof.
Wooden shrapnel explodes like fireworks above my head. Waiting around is suicide, and according to Catholic doctrine, suicide’s a sin. I decide I’d much rather send these bastards to hell.
I do something they don’t expect: I roll towards them, and it’s like the padre blessed the bullets. Commandos crash to the Earth like fallen angels. Sadly, I run out of bullets before I run out of commandos.
“Arrogant American slime!” says the jerk behind me, and in perfect English no less. I don’t have time to admire his pronunciation. He wraps me up in a bear hug that could flatten a Volkswagen.
Thing is, I’m not so bad with the chop suey. I share the first lesson I learned from Master Li at the Shinto Temple; I break the bastard’s nose with my head.
The commando’s buddies stop laughing and start re-loading. I don’t have enough time for elegance. I kick Mr. Bear Hug in the nuts and hope he’s ready to negotiate a peace plan. Sadly, peace never has a chance. The remaining commandos attempt to air me out with machine guns.
The training and the bionic implants take over. Or maybe the Big Guy has decided to take sides, I don’t know. Regardless, I see that Mr. Bear Hug has given up violence, and he doesn’t mind a bit when I use his 9mm to blow his little friends away. I’m ready for my victory speech when I hear the voice.
“Surrender, Capitalist pig!” he says, “Or your woman loses her head!”
I turn to find some greasy commando with his paws all over my wife. He has an Uzi pointed to her temple. Mrs. Angry isn’t scared. She’s pissed off. I begin to feel bad for the commando.
“It’s gonna take a shit load of confession to get out of this jam,” I tell the greaseball.
“Silence!” he shrieks. “I want a helicopter. I want 10 million euros! I want–”
What else he wants is a mystery. Mrs. Angry drives an emery board through his chin and into the mostly-empty hole he once called a skull.
“Peace be with you!” says Mrs. Angry, dropping the lifeless thug to the ground. She finds her purse, fishes out a baby wipe, and she sponges the blood off her good Church dress.
Church never held my attention the way my trusty Picture Bible did when I was a kid. Within its cartoon format, I discovered the hairy-chested tales of Noah, Sampson, Joseph, and Joshua. I loved it when Lot’s wife was transmogrified into a pillar of salt, or when Cain lost his cool with that suck-up, Abel. Good stuff.
By comparison, Church was a mental chore on par with math homework. Math, I vaguely understood, would come in handy when balancing a checkbook. Church could be just as useful, but it wasn’t clear when or where.
By contrast, most of my classmates seemed to enjoy church. They lived it like a kind of second community. There were all kinds of camps for instance: Church Camp, Bible Camp, Young Baptist Camp. They’d return to school after summer vacation with steamy tales of debauchery that occurred on the church camp bus.
An unexpected voice was raised when the parish priest asked for fresh alter boy volunteers.
“My boys volunteer!” announced Angry Mom, pointing enthusiastically at my brother and me.
This Chinese-like form of volunteering had been administered without any discussion. Hell, I was wondering what poor bastard was going to be fool enough to volunteer for Chump Duty before my mom settled the question.
Truth be told, church proceeds in a more rapid-fire fashion when you’re hanging with the Big Wheels. You have big books to hold. Candles to light. Crosses to carry. The priest was generally helpful during the ceremony, sometimes whispering good advice like, “Get the communion wafers,” or “Hold the book higher.”
One year, we went several months without a permanent priest. (We were a small Catholic community.) One temporary priest was an ancient, bald man who had no patience for chicanery. There was one evening Mass when the second alter server and I began goofing off a little during the “Let us offer the sign of peace,” segment. (When everybody shakes hands with the person next to them and says, “Peace be with you.”) My Jesus Partner and me needed to cross the alter to shake hands, which would have been awkward. So we kept pretending to extend our hands across the void, stifling chuckles.
The ancient, chrome-domed priest leaned over to me and snarled, “Behaaave, boy.”
My mouth turned into a stick of chalk. I thought God was going to smite me right where I stood. Poof! For whatever reason, He saw fit to spare me, and that was the last time I goofed off behind the alter.
For many people I know, Church is a hobby. Like golf. They spend their entire weekends sitting in pews and participating in groups, hoping to improve their relationship with the Lord.
People do free work for their church. I know co-workers who are constantly designing logos, producing videos, building web sites or even developing marketing plans for their church. They don’t receive a penny.
“Why the hell not?” I ask. It is sometimes implied to me that the reward waits in Heaven.
My favorite extra-curricular church activity is Men’s Bible Study. I’ve never participated in Men’s Bible Study, but I imagine it goes something like this:
Man 1: “Okay, what was the lesson learned after Isaac nearly sacrificed his son to the Lord?”
Man 2: “God works in mysterious ways. Who watched the British Open yesterday?”
I considered joining Men’s Bible Study so that I could pass around some business cards. But my fear was that, eventually, I’d be called upon to crack open a Bible. I never quite grasped the system. Chapters and verses and psalms. That’s why my old Picture Bible rocks. It’s like a comic book, only instead of Superman you have to settle for Moses.
When Mrs. Angry and I first met, she didn’t believe that I was Catholic.
“Can you recite the Hail Mary?”
“I have one. Somewhere.”
“When was the last time you went to confession?”
“Ugh…when I was fourteen?”
That night was Confession Night at St. John’s Catholic Church in Malvern, Arkansas. What made the evening special was that two priests had been imported by the parish to hear confessions. After Mass, many parishioners waited to have their deepest confessions heard, including my brother, my Angry Mom, and me.
In my mind, I tried to marshal my sins into a neat, easy-to-remember package. But when you’re fourteen, it’s hard to assemble any sins beyond “I smarted off to Mom.” Hell, I wasn’t even masturbating yet.
A woman emerged from the confessional weeping. When she had entered a mere five minutes earlier, she was confident and poised. Now she looked like somebody stuck her in the eye with a paper clip.
“Next,” said somebody, maybe the priest, or the deacon. I can’t remember. “Next” was me.
Our church was too modest for one of those cool confessional booths you see in the movies. This confessional was set in the vestibule, with only a small divider between the priest and the confessor.
“Bless me father for I have sinned. This is my first confession.”
He answered with something. “Proceed” maybe?
I tried to make my sins interesting. I defied my mother. I cursed. I told lies. I neglected to tell him about the unfortunate incident with my Angry Dad’s Playboy Magazine collection, or the fact that I had been staring lustfully at my classmates’ boobs.
The priest was understanding and kind, but seemed rather bored with it all. He prescribed some Hail Mary’s, which I guess I still owe because I can’t remember how the Hail Mary goes.
Mom was in charge of church in my Angry Family.
She wasn’t even born into it (a Cradle Catholic). She married a Catholic, and I suppose she decided that it made her Catholic. She carted my brother and I to church nearly every damned Sunday from the third grade until the time we left for college.
I can’t describe Angry Mom as spiritual, exactly, but she is steadfast in her determination. She wanted to make religion work, for herself and for her sons. She even taught several of our Sunday School classes.
Catholics have something called Confirmation. Don’t expect details, because I can’t recall what they are. The Reader’s Digest version: it’s the ceremony that officially makes you Catholic.
Confirmation for me arrived at the age of seventeen. We spent an entire year attending extra classes, learning how to be even more Catholic than we already were. You’d think serving as an alter boy would earn me a few credits, but no dice.
As my training drew to a close, we were requested to speak to the parish nun. There are two kinds of nuns: One is warm and fuzzy and you want to squeeze her. The second is a battle-axe. Our nun was the latter.
As far as Battle Axe Nuns go, ours wasn’t so bad. She never slapped anybody, for instance. But when she first arrived, she made a speech before the parish about “not singing too loudly.” We had a woman in the parish who liked to warble and hold her notes. It was aggravating but harmless. After the nun’s big speech, the woman never sang during the service again.
So I had to talk to the Battle Axe Nun about my impending confirmation. We sat down and exchanged some pleasantries.
“Do you believe in angels?” she said. I knew I was in trouble. I didn’t believe in angels.
“Ah, you mean people who fly around and help people and stuff?” I asked. I was stalling.
The Battle Axe Nun’s eyes narrowed. “Yes.”
I decided that the path of least resistance was the quickest route out of the conversation.
“And when you are to marry, will it be to a Catholic woman?”
This question came from outer space. First of all, I hadn’t made any nuptial plans. And secondly, this seemed more like a request than a question. There was a logistic problem, as there were few Catholic girls hanging out in Malvern.
“Um, I don’t know. Maybe.”
And that was the end of my meeting with the Battle Axe Nun, who would be proud to know that I married a Catholic.
One afternoon, Angry Dad and I were hanging out in my parent’s backyard, setting up the croquet game. I swear we went through a five-year phase of rabid croquet playing.
I was recently married, and I had revealed that my wife and I occasionally attended Mass at the cathedral in Memphis. I told him that Mrs. Angry wanted to go more often, but I was resisting.
“You know what I think about when I’m at Church?” asked Angry Dad, pounding a wicket into the Earth.
“No,” I admitted.
“I daydream that commandos have broken in, and I am the only man who can stop them.”
“That’s a good one,” I agreed, and I fished the black ball out of the canvas croquet bag.
“Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest. How can I rest if I’m at church?”
– Archie Bunker