The little devil in Religion 101

Father Finnarty turned his penetrating gaze on me...
Father Finnarty turned his penetrating gaze on me…

All right, all right, I was a bad kid. I’m sorry, all you long-suffering teachers, that I gave you such a hard time. I was bored. I was trying to liven things up a bit. (Those are explanations, not justifications.)

I went to Catholic high school on scholarship, like many poor peasants before me. If you ever want to be disabused of the notion that “religion” is anti-intellectual, attend a Catholic school. Many of the nuns who taught us had PhDs; what I learned in my sophomore year in high school was equivalent, if not superior, to my sophomore year in a state college. They taught us evolution AND the Creation story… never saw that it did us any harm.

I was a pagan really; kind of a nature-worshiper. I hadn’t given much thought to Christianity as a religion. But I was sure there was a God, as in a transcendent Something that was Life and God could be experienced out in the natural cathedral on the other side of the church doors.

But here I was, stuck in a class called Religion 101, the priest droning away and my classmates diligently taking notes, as I gazed out the window at rioting Spring. The priest said, quoting the Gospel of John, “Before Abraham was, I am.” “Sheesh,” I thought, “That’s not even good grammar.”

That was the first time I was surprised by spiritual goosebumps. Mystics know what I’m talking about: kind of an electric tingle passing through the body, which sort of means, “Pay attention.”

“Before Abraham was, I am.” What an odd thing to say. Jesus was being attacked by the Pharisees. Again. And he was giving as good as he got. Again. They had implied that he was a bastard, in that his mom and dad were not married when she got pregnant. And he says, “Before Abraham was, I am.”

Suddenly it became clear to me what Jesus was saying. He was saying that he was God, that he had always existed, I AM, I am not thirty whatever years-old, I AM. He was saying that somehow (somehow!) God was in him in a unique way; that he was here on purpose, to do something.

The enormity of that claim struck the Pharisees who did the usual, which was to try to stone him to death. The enormity of that claim struck me, too, and unfortunately I said (out loud) in my astonishment, “Holy Crap!”

Out loud. In Religion 101. Taught by the Jesuit Father Finnarty, who now slowly turned his penetrating gaze in my direction. Father Finnarty was on the exorcism team; I think he was sizing me up as a prospect.

He did conduct long interviews with me to discern my spiritual condition, which he concluded was merely mischievous and not diabolical. In fact, my teachers liked me. I always told the truth when I got in trouble, which was frequently. “Yes, I did skip mass and release all the white mice in the science lab. It’s wrong to kill the mice.” They made me catch them and promised not to kill any. “No, I didn’t draw a mustache on the statue of the Virgin Mary. I’m bad, but not that bad.”

If this were not a true story I would say I had now seen the light and became a good little Christian girl. But it is a true story, and life is a journey with many twists and turns, is it not? Many years would pass before I became a Christian and many years have passed since.

And quite frankly, I still might free the oppressed mice and I still insist there is Life outside the church doors.



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