Monday, November 27, 2006
Catholic Chronicles, Part Deux, on becoming an altar boy
I had TWO very traumatic experience when I was in 5th grade at St Pius Catholic School, and they were related to each other. When I reached 5th Grade, well, when the devout Sisters at the school stopped beatch slapping me long enough to get passed 4th grade, it was customary to be pressured into becoming an altar boy. The church was new, it was only like 5 years old at the time, the parish was smallish. That years class was about 8 kids to start, about 6 finished. It was a rite of passage for a boy at a Catholic school to do that. So I signed up, well, it was hard to sign up, since the nuns were twisting my right arm, but you get the picture. So this was considered “outside” activities, and was taught on Saturdays, by the priests. The Church had a Monsignor, and one other full time priest, and at times a standby priest when things got really busy, or when one of the priests got sick. My first traumatic experience, other than spending half the year standing in the back of the classroom for some infraction was on the very first Saturday we had altar boy training. My mom took me to the school. We drive into the walled “city”, and in doing so, the circular inner road inside the compound takes you past the back of the convent. To my utter and still deep felt amazement were the nuns, in jeans. My God! I thought, there is Sister Mary Ellen, the third grade nun I had a crush on. She was young, probably right out of high school and then convent school, she couldn’t be more than 24 or so, a woman, well, we never thought of them as women, they were nuns, but here she was. She was dressed in jeans and a blouse, working in the vegetable garden, behind the convent. I was devastated, I mean, all I ever saw was this woman’s face just above the eyes down to her chin. They were swaddled in clothing, wearing the black robe, the veil, the starched cardboard bright white fabric over the forehead, and the tight neck collar, also starched bright white fabric. We never saw any hair, well, Sister Mary Margaret had facial hair, but we never saw any head hair, and her she was, this woman, I mean this nun, with her hair in a bun, with her arms exposed, wearing regular people clothes. I don’t think I remembered ANYTHING that first day, I was in a state of shock!
Becoming an altar boy was my first lesson of sheer memorization. Back then, “The Good Old Days” according to some catholic purists, the mass was in LATIN. Only the truly devout knew what was being said. Well, as an altar boy, you had to learn all the recitals to say after the priest gave his. Mass was a choreographed event. There were about 20-25 recitals you had to know COLD. The priest would say his and then the altar boy would say his, on and on it went. And there were actually two altar boys at each mass, a “high” and a “low” altar boy. Each had separate roles, some recitals were the same, but about 3 or so, hey, I have slept since then, were different. Learning the Latin was hard, since you didn’t know what you were saying, it was pure memorization. Up till about 5 years ago, I still remembered the very first recital, something that the altar boys called the suschipiat. But after about 7 months, I was an altar boy. Now, all catholic churches have mass EVERY day. And only the truly devout go EVERY day. They are simple people, the silent, older frail, often physically challenged by age or disease. About 15 regular churchgoers and of course the nuns. So the very first Mass that each altar boy does is Monday mass, 7 AM. Now, here I am, all 4 feet of about 60 pound buck toothed squinting kid, about to play center court at church. Now, when we were learning to be an altar boy, we did everything in a classroom. The church was connected to the school by means of a long hallway, with the principals office, the priests office and the nurses office between the two along the hallway. But everything was done in a classroom. Yeah, we all went to mass, during lent, we went every school day. But you don’t realize the layout from behind the pews looking at the altar behind the railing between the two. So the actually choreographed part of the mass, the altar boys starting on their side, high and low altar boys, each on their starting side, then the crossing back and forth with the genuflection when you crossed the center. But the key moment for the altar boy is moving the “Bible” (catholic version) from the low side to the high side. This book, which looked like the giant Webster’s dictionary you used to see at library’s, sat on a wooden stand. Now, when we practice this, the book we used was a normal book, a textbook. So the very first time I really looked at this monster, which was sitting on the altar about shoulder high, I was mortified. It looked bigger than me, I was scared. So when the time came, I rose, crossed over the center, genuflected and then went to the altar. I paused, put both arms under the wood cradle, and with all my might lifted the book and cradle. Whooosh went the book, right over my head. It crashed onto the floor behind me, tumbled down the two long steps where it stopped. I was horrified. I was holding onto the cradle, not knowing what happened. The priest turned to me with a look that would make Sister Mary Margaret wince, and stepped down, picked up the book, trying to straighten out the pages that got bent and creased. He then laid it on the cradle I was still holding with a death grip, motioning to me to continue. I placed the book on the altar where it needed to go, and finished the mass in another trance. I don’t remembering ringing the bells, but I did and the rest of the mass until the communion. That I do remember, since all the people there on a Monday morning, the truly devout and all the Nuns came up to the rail for communion. During communion, the altar boy holds the tray under people’s mouths as the priest gives the wafer to each person. So you’re only a foot from the person receiving the communion. I looked at each nun, and they took it, and then bent down. Even Sister Mary Margaret, she never looked at me or made a eye piercing stare. After Mass, I went back to the robe room, took off my garment, then cleaned up the chalice and then along with the other kid, walked down the long hall to school. When we started to pass Sister Mary Margaret’s office, she called us to come in. She told both of us that she was proud of our work, and that was that. She never said anything about it ever again. My grade teacher at that time, I don’t remember her name, she said that she cringed when the book went airborne, but she knew it was a mistake. In reality, it was a mistake. The cradle was made from bamboo, and was really light, and the book was made from rice paper, really light. So while I thought it was a 25 pound book and cradle, and lifted it with that much force, in reality, it was only about 10 pounds, and well, I held onto the cradle, but the book took off. The priest also never said anything either.
Funny how times have changed... My Daughter was an alter server last year. Not as strict as the years past.... but still intimidating.
oh and I have lived in the deep FROZEN North... all my life.(40 years). Born and raised in the same city. November isn't usually this brutal. Just heard on the weather station, that a Chinook is on it's way.... it is a warm front(warm winds) that comes over the mountains and warms everything up. We will go from -30C to zero in a few hours... (massive headache for me) (-20F to 32F)
When my sister got married at a Catholic church, I was appointed to go up to the alter, and read a few pages from the bible that they picked out. We even had rehearsal and everything the night before.
Well, I asked the priest, do I bring the page that I have been studying on with me when I go up?
He said no.
Well, when the day came, I went up there with NO paper. They didn't want us fumbling around with papers when we had our nice bride's maids outfits on. Ugh--another horror story at another time!
Anyway, I saw that ALL the girls had their paper in their hand. When I walked up to do my reading, the priest yelled at me in front of 200 people, because I didn't bring my paper, that HE told me to NOT bring! Oy! Can you imagine the horror?
He had to flip through the bible to find where my passage was that I was going to read from.
Thank God everyone laughed, and it was quite embarrassing... But reading outloud in front of 200 people was sort of a blur now, because I was all flush in the face from embarrassment and rushed the reading so badly, cause I wanted to get out of there and hide my head under the sand!
This story sort of reminded me of mine. I loved the way you wrote this! Thanks for sharing!