When I was a kid, grade school age, my devout Catholic parents forced me to attend catechism classes during the summer. Apparently the nuns had no space inside their house that could be used as a classroom. So they would convert the small one-car garage on their property into a temporary indoctrination center, setting up folding chairs in nice straight rows. The garage had a rough interior finish, only cardboard sheets covering the rear wall.
Each weekday we had to sit there and let a nun wield fear and guilt on our young minds to form us into perfect children of God. The nun would go into great detail about hell.
“Did you ever touch a hot stove,” she said, “and get your finger burned? Remember how much that hurt? Well, hell hurts more than that and it lasts forever.”
She also explained that the next world war would be fought with atomic bombs. One bomb would explode, opening up a doorway into hell, and we would all fall inside the fiery pit. Then she added we should make sure to tell the priest all our sins when he heard confession later that day. From her lecture I made the connection: even if there was just one unrepentant sin left on my soul, down the atomic hellhole I would go, straight into the sea of eternal flame.
At some point I was fed up with the fear-guilt crap. One time when no one was around, I took my catechism booklet, almost ripped it in half, and tossed the damaged propaganda into a gaping hole in the garage’s back wall.
Somehow – I don’t remember how – I was able to stay away from catechism classes for a few days. Maybe I pretended to be sick. Whatever. But my parents forced me to return.
On the day I reappeared, I took my seat. The nun came over, holding my ripped booklet, and handed it to me. How did she find it? Supernatural power? I doubt it. She probably happened to see me dump it in the hole.
When the nun imperiously returned the desecrated booklet, I noticed the other kids sitting near me shrink away. Why were they afraid? Maybe it was the prospect of sudden death: a divine bolt striking me down, also killing anyone too close to the blast. Or maybe it was a prolonged, agonizing death: my flesh would start rotting away, no hope of a cure, contagion permeating the air.
But I didn’t shrink back from the nun. It was one of those defining moments: I wasn’t like everyone else. (Thank God.)
I reason why I recall this incident is how a couple of different people seemed to shrink away from me yesterday. On two occasions I explained to someone I knew that the city police had harassed me for taking photographs and how my complaint was supposed to be on the agenda this evening during the common council meeting. I told each person that my rights were being violated, that I wasn’t going to allow the authorities to stop me from enjoying a legal hobby.
Each listener started to shy away, then leave. Maybe they were afraid of being struck and stricken by leprous lightning.