Nota Bene: The events and discussion in this post refer to my youth when I was younger and more foolish. I have realized that some notions I held as a much younger man were wrong at best and asinine at worst and, like most of my screwups “worst” was pretty much de rigeur.”
It has been long accepted among those who know me that I was born sans the mental “tact” filter normally present between a person’s brain and mouth. While this lack of parts has proven to be of small consequence to my general intelligence, it has been somewhat deleterious to my ability to form or maintain solid interpersonal relationships. I feel this issue to be largely because the majority of people who ask, “How are you?,” don’t really wish to know and those who ask, “What do you think?,” could generally care less. Normal people realize this disparity and speak accordingly.
I do not.
In what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “my younger and more vulnerable years,” this predisposition towards speaking my entire mind on matters in a plain, unvarnished and unrepentant manner was nowhere more apparent than my conversations with friends, family, acquaintances, and even perfect strangers on the subject of religion.
Now as a boy, my catechismical education was split by expedience borne of necessity between my beloved mother, who was a moderate Pentecostal, and my nearly equally beloved Granny Wham, who was a staunchly conservative Southern Baptist for whom the Martha Wham Bible Class at Beulah Baptist Church remains named for to this day. In strictly moral matters, Mama’s Pentecostalism was functionally equivalent to Granny’s Southern Baptistism. Doctrinally and theologically, however, their lessons with me often met at jarring perpendiculars rather than running in smoothly harmonious parallels.
One day, it is possible that I may endeavor to explore the differences between the faiths of Mama and Granny Wham that caused me no end of anguish in my formative years, but that will not be today. At present, though, I would rather concentrate on one of the few facets of their instruction that was practically identical. This rare accord extended to the dubious claim that Catholics had to salvation.
Please try to understand that growing up in Upstate South Carolina in the 1970s and 80s, I was but slightly less likely to have a meaningful conversation with a Martian than speak to a practicing Catholic. This region of the state was settled by several strains of Protestants who rode north centuries ago to escape the Catholic and Episcopalian domination of Charleston and the rest of the Lowcountry. Simply put, Catholics were as rare as screen doors on submarines. Until I went to college, I knew a grand total of ONE Catholic personally. It would be fair to say I knew more about flying a jet airplane than about the workings and doctrines of Holy Mother Church.
What I DID know, having been taught by Granny Wham and Mama, was that Catholics probably were not going to
Heaven because they didn’t pray to Jesus, they prayed to the Virgin Mary; they didn’t confess to God but to a priest; their forebears had burned our forebears at the stake; and, obviously most heinously of all, Catholics drank ACTUAL WINE during what we called The Lord’s Supper but they referred to as Communion. Please understand that this final point had nothing to do with the fine points of Transubstantiation versus Consubstantiation. It was VASTLY more simple. Catholics drank REAL HONEST-TO-GOD ALCOHOL IN CHURCH. In my part of the South, where to be Christian is to be a teetotaler, full blood libel could have been overlooked easier than drinking.
In any event, neither Mama nor Granny would ever state unequivocally that Catholics were damned. Both had room in their theology for the forgiveness of even the most mortal sin of wine-bibbing in the House of God. Had I confined my religious education to their lessons, I probably would have spared myself a slice of embarrassment. Unfortunately, I was also influenced by a few radio preachers I listened to on occasion late at night when I couldn’t sleep. These men were my first encounter with Fundamentalism and at that tender and impressionable age, I sopped up their neat, accurate determinations of black and white as if it were the best milk gravy Granny Hughes could make. One point these men agreed upon — if they agreed upon little else — was that Catholics were well and truly and eternally headed for Hell, apparently on the express train. These firebrands would have been quite at home in Henry VIII’s court handing down execution and confiscation orders on the heads of Catholics.
I listened and internalized what I should not have, to my embarrassing harm.
It was sometime around my eleventh summer when I was visiting some member of the family in the hospital with Granny and Papa Wham. My memory is vague on the specifics because of what happened during the visit. This particular day, we were not at the local Hillcrest Hospital nor even at the monolithic Greenville Memorial Hospital. We were downtown at St. Francis Hospital. That would be St. Francis as in St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of the poor. That would be patron saint as in CATHOLIC. St. Francis Hospital was, at that time, run by the Sisters of the Poor. Also, at that time, the Sisters had not abandoned the traditional penguinesque habits I was familiar with.
In any event, we were all crowded into this hospital room waiting to see our ailing relative off to surgery for an ingrown toenail or some other equally life endangering procedure. Suddenly, two of the Sisters of the Poor appeared in the doorway with a gurney to pick up our family member. They asked the occupant of the bed if they might pray for him before they left the room. I remember he gave his assent and it was then that I had one of those unfiltered moments I referred to at the beginning.
I said, “Hold on a minute! You can’t pray for him.” The two sisters turned to me. As I said, I was 11. They were ancient. I supposed they were 30 if they were a day. One of them spoke, “and why not young man?” Recalling both my formal Sunday School lessons at Granny and Mama’s knees AND, more importantly, what I’d heard on the late night airwaves from Brother Jim-Bob’s House of Glory Holy Tabernacle of Fire and Brimstone, I stated bluntly, “Well, aren’t you two nuns?” The spokeswoman nodded her agreement so I continued, “and that means you’re Catholic, right?” Again, affirmation followed and Granny Wham finally guessed what was coming but couldn’t reach me in time. Instead she heard me say with all the righteous confidence of an 11 year old Pauline scholar, “Well, it won’t do you no good to pray; you’ll rub your Catholic damnation off on him because everybody knows ALL CATHOLICS ARE GOING TO SPLIT HELL WIDE OPEN AND ROAST ON THE DEVIL’S PITCHFORK! ”
Gentle readers, I won’t describe the ensuing pandemonium. Suffice it to say that for one of the only times in my life, Granny Wham grabbed my arm in anger and pushed me towards Papa Wham, who incidentally seemed desperate to keep a grin off his face, to have me removed from the room but not before both of the sisters managed to let it be known in no uncertain terms what they thought of my ideas AND upbringing.
The incomparable Mark Twain wrote, “A man who picks a cat up by the tail gains knowledge he could get no other way.”
With that in mind, ladies and gentlemen, the moral of the story is this — should you ever have the opportunity to tell a nun either directly or by implication that she is going to split Hell wide open and roast on the Devil’s pitchfork, take my advice and no matter how tempting it may be, just let the moment pass!
Love all of y’all, my Catholic brothers and sisters especially!
Keep those feet clean!