Faith by Numbers
I learned faith by the numbers:
1 God: 3 divine persons
1 true Bible: 2 testaments (Old and New)
46 books in the Old Testament
27 books in the New Testament
1 true holy Catholic Church
12 Fruits of the Holy Spirit
14 Stations of the Cross
10 beads to a decade of the rosary
5 decades for a whole rosary
15 mysteries of the rosary:
5 joyful, 5 sorrowful, 5 glorious
7 deadly sins
4 Acts: faith, hope, love, contrition
40 days for the Great Flood
40 days of Lent
7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit
5 First Fridays for a novena
3 conditions of a mortal sin
2 types of contrition.
The numbers added up more quickly than I could add or multiply,
and math was never my best subject. I was what the Jesuits called
a language mind—especially when it came to bad language. You’d
look long and hard before you’d find someone as good at cussin’ as
was I in my young life. But the Nuns made lists, and I memorized
them all as if my 2 lives (body and soul) depended on them. After all,
who could count to infinity—the biggest number in the end, that “I
better make the pearly gates” number, or it was “fire and brimstone”
for me my friend—everlasting torment in a world without end. And that
was 1 thing I could count on.
Test of True Faith
We learned early the power of guilt, the pain of shame, the importance
of repentance. These had their own prayer with its own special name:
“The Act of Contrition,” which I learned so much better than the other
“Acts of Faith, of Hope, of Love.” To make an act of perfect contrition,
first, one must be “heartly sorry.” Next one must “detest all his sins.”
Lastly, one must “firmly resolve to sin no more and avoid the near
occasions of sin.” But I have to confess, these sins and their near occasions
made me feel at home, and I was at my best committing them all—free
to let go, free to be me. Though the Angel of Death was watching, and the
clock of eternity was counting down my chances to repent and be saved.
I survived conversion by learning to bend: the rules, myself, into ways
I never dreamed. And always in the background, the echoes of the saved
and the unsaved calling, “Follow, follow, follow me home where you belong.”
Once every month we were carefully herded,
neat lines of blue and white clad ladies and lads,
walked to church by sharp-eyed sisters,
doing our duty for First Friday Mass.
But before Mass, confessions had to be heard—
those private meetings held inside the wooden box with one door
and maroon velvet curtains on either side.
Their thickness and color reminded me of the curtain covering
the great white screen of the movie theatre in Norristown.
The nuns told us stories of how God sees all sins, and at the very end
of the world—all would be judged—nothing hid from view.
All deeds of darkness would be cast in light.
I imagined a great screen of bright white sky
and everyone watching the sins that I had committed.
I carried my milk bottle soul, all black as coal inside of me,
and waited for my turn to come.
I watched the other kids coming out and going in,
an endless stream of grade school children who knew about sin,
who would be found out by the absolving priest, hidden within
the enclosure of the confessional box.
I studied their faces—especially their eyes—looking for signs of fear—
a runaway tear caused by an angry word that Father might say—
separating the chaff from the wheat, the goats from the sheep.
I was so sure I was on my way—straight down the slide into the
Devil’s fire-toothed smile.
And when my turn finally came, I took the curtain in my hand,
disappeared behind its thick velvet back to kneel in darkness—
staring at the double-pane plastic panel of the small sliding door,
firmly closed, yet alive with holes that let me hear the mumblings
of priest in the middle and penitent on the other side—muffled voices
worming through the screen’s tiny round mouths opened wide enough
to let the sins through—sacrosanct revelations I was duty bound
not to listen to—under pain of sin—was it mortal or venial?
I couldn’t begin to tell, the sound of my own heart drumming
like a warrior running toward, away from hell.
Till the door slid open, and I, compelled by the trinity of rote, rite,
and fear, began, “Bless me Father”—enumerating my sins
by type, by number, by degree—the worst rattled off first
or saved for last—wanting to get it over with, yet afraid to go too fast,
lest I forget a transgression and beget another—a bad confession,
itself a sin of the mortal kind—a one-way ticket to hell if I died
before I had the time to return to the box to make amends,
to confess that I had sinned again.
Such were the lessons of third grade:
of crime and punishment,
of right and wrong,
of damnation and salvation,
of learning to belong to the place in between, where both worlds meet.
Commission, omission, and forgiveness formed a tricky trinity. The type
of forgiveness depended on the type of contrition—perfect or imperfect,
the difference between love and fear. But even after confession, the soul
would bear the residual shadow of sin. For this reason, indulgences were
helpful things—get-out-of-purgatory- or-hell-for-free cards in the Church’s
monopoly of truth. Indulgences could reduce one’s stay in the hot prisons’
flames, or avoid incarceration all together. Of indulgences, there were two
types: partial and plenary. Once confession had been made, both would work
on the after-glow of sin that stained the soul, but one was stronger than the other.
The partial indulgence would be like putting cold water on a chocolate milk spill.
The venial sin’s stain would grow lighter and lighter, but remain, even still. For those tough-to- remove mortal-sin stains, only a plenary indulgence would get the job done—discoloration completely gone—no purgatory for the slow burn to make a forgiven soul as good as new—gates- of- heaven ready. Yes, the indulgence of the plenary kind was the card up the sleeve, the rabbit in the hat, the winning ticket to get one in—fast track to heavenly reward, side stepping the consequences caused by the wages of sin. My legal-minded line of thinking determined this scenario: a definite win-win, an escape clause in the contract of judgment and salvation—a dotted line I would gladly sign, an insurance rider against the fires of damnation— a real chance at graduation from this life to the next. It was almost too good to be true, so I decided to do my best—say the prayers with the highest return on reducing my soul’s time to burn. I hoarded ejaculations, labored through litanies, recited rosaries, making my conscience all comfy-cozy with dreams of a free pass into heaven.