A long time ago, when I was very young, Jesus was my closest friend. I went to church every Sunday: first at Christ the King in Commack, New York, and later, after moving to California at the age of 10, Sacred Heart Church in dusty, then-rather-backwoods Turlock in the Central Valley.
I can’t say I ever sat patiently through mass, or that I ever fully involved myself with what the priests were saying up there on those altars. I do, however, remember being in awe of the bright, stained glass windows, the pungent smell of incense, and the trinkle, trinkle sound of the bells during the presentation of the eucharist. Of particular fascination was Jesus himself, hanging on the giant cross behind the Sacred Heart altar: sinew-taut swimmers body, head on stretched-ligament neck lifted as if searching for something in the dark recesses of the giant, steeped ceiling. There was something about that Jesus that stirred fantasies that I couldn’t quite give a narrative to at that innocent age, before I understood that I was one of those children who were, as I would eventually be told ad nauseam, damned to hell for all eternity.
My Irish-Catholic grandmother, my favorite person in my entire world aside from my mother, was the keeper of the family bible, a humongous leather-clad edition with hand-written dates of birth and sacraments received. The pages were tissue-paper thin, save the florid illustrations that were bordered in gold leaf. I remember the pages always felt cool to the touch, and smelled vaguely of mothball and some spice I still can’t identify. I’d sit in the leather chair next to my grandmother’s credenza (there really was a piece of furniture called a ‘credenza’ back then) and thumb through the pictures, fascinated. Handsome Jesus always looked so sad, save for the one illustration of that big moneychanger/temple brouhaha, where he looked downright peeved.
After my first communion, while still in my little man sport suit, my grandmother gave me a scapular, which had illustrations of St. Joseph on either end of the black cord. The way my grandmother pronounced it, with her heavy Brooklyn accent, made it sound like “scapuluh.” (Which, of course, was easy to remember since it rhymed with spatula, which was a word I heard quite a bit, since my grandfather was a chef and always seemed to be searching for one. ) As she presented it to me, and then placed it over my head so that one St. Joseph rested on my chest and the other St. Joseph was lying against my back, she told me, solemnly: “Honey, if you die and you are wearing your scapuluh, you will go straight to heaven.” This puzzled me for a moment. Why all the talk in church about Heaven, and Hell, and Purgatory and that silly sounding Limbo place I never quite understood if all I actually had to worry about was keeping these scratchy sharp-edge pieces of plastic hanging around my neck? I didn’t question it, I just counted my good fortune at receiving this amazing, magical, straight-past-Saint Peter- pass.
That scapuluh..er, scapular…stayed on my body for the next two years. The only time I would take it off was when I’d shower. Until, of course, the time i’d taken a nasty spill on the slippery tub bottom, at which point I began wearing it even while bathing (how horrible would it be to crack my head open on the porcelain, and as I lie there, the life ebbing from my ten-year-old, sin sodden body, seeing the scapular hanging just out of reach on the towel hook?)
That scapular made me feel somewhat invincible, sin-wise. I could make my confession and leave out as much as I wanted to. I could even lie outright, knowing my Heaven Direct pass was sandwiching my body. I felt like I could talk freely, even conversationally, to Jesus. Before Scapular, I would only talk to him if I needed something…sometimes trivial things like “please let my school catch on fire tomorrow so I don’t have to go”, and “please make my dad stop giving me those boring yellow Tonka construction trucks and Erector sets for Christmas.”
After scapular, I kind of felt that I could talk to him about anything, that I could even make requests that were probably inappropriate, if not downright unsavory. I was certain Jesus wasn’t thrilled with these kind of requests, but the fact was, I had a scapular. So I’d talk to him about the kids at school I hated, the ones who picked on me – who called me ‘faggot’ and ‘fatty’ – and I’d ask him to please kill them – preferably in a gory accident of some kind, or at the very least some painful terminal illness that would require them to leave Sacred Heart immediately.
Before scapular, I’d never have been so bold as to ask Jesus to break one of the commandments he brought down from the mountain (yes, I went to Catholic school, but I never did well in the religious studies part). Now, the cool plastic square pressed against my back as I lay in bed, staring up at the giant, lacquered and framed jigsaw puzzle of The Last Supper my grandmother had given me, I felt like I could pretty much do as I pleased. I guessed my boldness probably irked Jesus a little, but hey…I’m wearing a scapular. Jesus was awesome, because he was everywhere. I liked that I had an invisible friend who would protect me, sometimes do what I asked him do. The “everywhere” thing got to be a little much, though, so when I’d sit down to relieve myself in the bathroom I took to running the water in the sink to mask sound, and folding a bath towel over my lap for a tiny semblance of privacy.
About a year into my scapular addiction, when I discovered masturbation, I would finish every furtive hiding-from-Jesus-under-the-covers jerkoff with a whispered, “sorry, Jesus.” Still, I considered him my friend, even though I sensed he was repulsed by this disgusting thing I was doing with my babymaker. Again, though, I was wearing my scapular, so…free pass to Heaven regardless of how many cotton tube socks I violated, right?
A couple of years later, I had an unfortunate encounter with Father Oliver O’Grady (often referred to as “The Hannibal Lecter of Pedophile Priests) that finally rendered my scapular absolutely useless to me. Jesus, my everywhere friend, had been right there when it went down, and to add insult to injury he was also hanging right there on a cross on the wall of the room it happened in. Granted, his head was looking away, more toward the ceiling than towards the event taking place below, but still. Afterwards, I tried making a few excuses for him, but eventually it dawned on me there were only two options as regards my friend Jesus. The first option was that Jesus was a total dick. This supposed friend could pretty much do anything, I mean, he was curing fucking cancer left and right and making statues cry blood in South American countries but he couldn’t step in and bitch-slap Father Feeley-Grabby’s hands away from my privates? The other option was that he just wasn’t real, that it was all just a bunch of bullshit, that everyone had lied to me just like they had about Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny, and that cheap bitch The Tooth Fairy.
I never wore my scapular again, and cursed myself for putting up with those sharp plastic edges for as long as I had. I went to church still, because my parents made me, but I made clear that I was attending under duress and never sang along with another hymn again.
Once I knew it was all a bunch of lies, that Father Holier-than-thou up there on that hideous, modern, red-carpeted altar preaching about sins of the flesh was actually a living, breathing cocksucker, I figured out that people were no more than a bunch of not-to-be-trusted hypocrites, and people in positions of authority were the most hypocritical of all. I went from being a shy, introverted, but somewhat happy child to an angry, sullen adolescent. I began trying desperately to sublimate my homosexuality…not because of anyone in “heaven” looking down on me and judging, but because I did not want to be the thing that O’Grady was, and I thought, mistakenly, that he had planted this seed (no pun intended) in me. I had forgotten, somehow, that before that incident I would masturbate and think about other boys, and it took a long time for me to understand that he didn’t make me gay, he saw that I was already gay. Also friendless and shy to the point of being almost non-verbal. in other words, a fairly safe choice.
My anger grew as the years went by, and I became not only an atheist, but a defiant, challenging, in-your-face atheist. If you had a God, well, then you were a fucking moron sheep being herded around by superstition and fear of dying. Eventually, this almost unbearable anger found the only relief that worked for me: drugs. The first time I smoked marijuana, it was like my heart had been punctured and all the bitterness had drained out of me for the time that I was high. I smiled. I laughed. I made friends.
Unfortunately, to maintain the happiness required more and more – then, harder and harder – drugs. And those hard drug eventually led to…well, everything you read on this blog, I suppose.
It was only recently, just this past year in fact, that I started talking to Jesus again. A few friends of mine re-introduced me, and it’s kind of funny that I had no idea that these three people i’d known for a while were such good friends of my ex-friend. They just seemed full of life, free of judgment, and funny as hell. Starting to talk to Jesus was weird at first, just like talking to any friend you left on bad terms thirty-five years ago would be. I’ll be honest…I cried a little and called him a few names early on, but we eventually agreed to give friendship another tentative go.
Almost immediately, the floating, gauzy, phantom monsters that would invade my field of vision at night…or in any darkened room…and the horrible nightmares that followed, began to subside. I began to sleep fully and deeply for the first time in years. His doing? Or my brain just healing itself from years of drug abuse? I don’t really care.
This time, I got to set a few of the parameters of our relationship: There would be NO RELIGION INVOLVED, not in any way, shape or form. This time, if I begin thinking that he’s some kind of magical wizard who fixes shit upon request or spends his days constantly righting human being’s fuckups, he’s gonna let me know that i’m giving him too much credit. This time, I can masturbate and watch porn all I want (though he’s agreed to let me know if it ever gets too excessive.) I can have sex with my husband any way I want and he’s just going to have to be okay with it (Jesus, I mean, not my husband.) He’s also given me his permission to imagine that he looks like Jean-Paul Belmondo in “Breathless,” because he thinks it means i will pray more (he’s absolutely right.)
MY Jesus is encouraging of my homosexuality, since he made me this way and would hate to see his special modifications not put to good use. The fact that I found my amazing partner of almost twenty years – and that we’ve remained firmly committed, even during the tumultuous years of my meth addiction, is proof enough for me that he smiles upon our union.
MY Jesus doesn’t give a shit about swearing, as long as it’s not used to hurt or demean someone. Which is a big, fucking relief, because i’m an inveterate swearer. I do feel uncomfortable when I reflexively growl out a “Jesus F_____ Christ,” and I’m working to curb that completely. MY Jesus thinks “Jesus H. Christ” is hilarious, though, which also shows you that my Jesus has a sense of humor.
MY Jesus has no issues with his theological counterparts…The Buddha, Mohammed, or the others…he assures me there’s no competition going on, despite what a bunch of loudmouth miscreants might claim. MY Jesus has no problem when those who don’t know him call him by other names…like Love, or The Universe, or even Positive Energy.
MY Jesus despises hypocrites, and rolls his (big-sleepy-Belmondo) eyes at pompously religious (ugh) people who make a grand public show of knowing him.
MY Jesus, as the Irish band In Tua Nua so eloquently put it, is in the innocent and the honest ones.
MY Jesus loves me no matter what mistakes I’ve made, or will make. And I will make many, many more. I have no problem calling myself a sinner, because My Jesus doesn’t think of sin as some horrible act of dark transgression. My Jesus believes sinning merely means missing the mark…basically, falling short of my own expectations of what a moral, compassionate, honest, spiritual life should look like.
My Jesus promised me that if I keep talking to him, keep asking him for guidance, and basically, just let him love me, he’ll help keep me clean and sober and make clear the path upon which I should be traveling. I’m counting on it.
And finally, MY Jesus speaks to me the way John Grant writes songs:
This pain it is a glacier moving through you
And carving out deep valleys
And creating spectacular landscapes
And nourishing the ground
With precious minerals and other stuff
So don’t you become paralyzed with fear
When things seem particularly rough
Don’t you pay them f*ckers as they say no never mind
They don’t give two sh*ts about you, it’s the blind leading the blind
What they want is commonly referred to as theocracy
And what that boils down to is referred as hypocrisy
Don’t listen to anyone, get answers on your own
Even if it means that sometimes you feel quite alone
No one on this planet can tell you what to believe
People like to talk a lot and they like to deceive
I think i’ve waited long enough…I’m gonna get my shit together and finally submit my “Punch-a-Priest” game proposal to Milton Bradley.
If these idiots weren’t actually damaging children all over the world, their obtuseness would be HILARIOUS. But they are, so it isn’t.
For the entire depraved interview, click HERE.
*thanks to my dear friend Mary Jo for bringing this to my attention.
“I’m writing a letter to each person that I have offended sexually in the past. I do want to apologize to them. But I don’t want that to be just a simple statement. I think that they…basically, what I want to say to them is that it should not have happened. It should not have happened. If I could invite these people to come and meet with me, one on one, and give them the opportunity to talk to me, tell me what I did to them, I need to hear that and I think that they need to say that. I can’t say that it’s hard to do this, and I’m happy that I am doing this. It’s going to be an interesting reunion, and I really, really, really hope they come.” I won’t be quoting scripture, I won’t open with a prayer, I don’t expect people to hug me when they leave. I hope they might shake hands with me, and say, ‘yeah, it’s over right now.’ And I’ll let them get on with their lives, and I’m sure they’ll be happy to let me get on with mine. And I’ll say Godspeed, and I hope I’ll see you all again real soon.”
Convicted child rapist, Father Oliver O’Grady
Turlock, located in California’s Central Valley can be a hot bastard of a town, even before the official arrival of summer.
My eighth grade teacher, Mrs. Shive, stalks back and forth in the front of the classroom, waving a piece of chalk and droning on about something history-related. She is completely oblivious to the fact that her twenty or so students slouch half-asleep at their desks, rendered lethargic by the high-carb cafeteria lunch we’ve all recently finished choking down.
There is a sharp knock on the door, and every head in the class pops suddenly upright, straining to see through the rectangle of wired glass above the doorknob. Mrs. Shive looks momentarily annoyed, then strides to the door, chalk still held out to her side, and opens it a crack. After a moment’s private conversation, the door open swings wide, and her somber face has gone suddenly sunny.
Father Oliver O’Grady strides – no, bounces – into the room, and every twelve and thirteen year old is suddenly wide awake, smiling wide at the unexpected appearance of this small-framed, hyper-white skinned priest.
Father O’Grady had arrived suddenly at Sacred Heart School last year, and his presence had revitalized a school atmosphere that until then had been informed primarily by the stodgy, semi-alcoholic rein of Monsignor Alvernaz, a tall gaunt Portuguese priest with a humorless, Jacob Marley-esque visage inspired near-terror amongst the student and faculty when he was sober and severe embarrassment when he not. Father O’Grady, or Father Ollie, as he insisted the children of Sacred Heart call him, was a small, wiry man with a heavy Irish brogue and an incessantly jovial demeanor that reminded me, absolutely, of the Lucky Charms leprechaun. Black Irish, my half-Irish grandmother called him, although with his whiter than white skin I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. Perhaps it was his black hair, which was slightly receding from his wide, pale forehead, save for one kewpie-doll like curl that hung forward, sticking to the white skin and giving him an almost cherubic appearance. He had brought joy to Sacred Heart, a youthful enthusiasm that had won everyone over, students, parents and most of all, the nuns. Even Sister Rose, our school principal and perhaps the most-hardboiled of the teaching nuns, was not immune to his boyish charms. “oh father,” she would reply, blushing and nearly giggling in response to one the playful ribbings he would give her. No one else dared joke with Sister Rose, but Father Ollie seemed supremely confident in his ability to engage and delight everyone, even this often cranky old woman.
“Hello, Children,” Father O’Grady says, waving his arms to quiet us down. Being called “children,” when we were so close to starting high school, would normally rankle. Coming from Father O’Grady, however, it didn’t sound demeaning at all. Even the toughest boys in our class worshipped Father Ollie, as evidenced by the increased number of boys volunteering for Altar Boy duty in the previous months. Father Ollie was fun, Father Ollie was a priest, yes, but Father Ollie was also our friend.
“I am here to ask if any of you would like to help me out with CCD this summer,” he began, with his oddly over-pronounced way of speaking. “I’ll need a couple of you for just a few hours on Saturday mornings.” CCD, short for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, is basically Sunday School for the catholic students who attended public schools, except it is taught on Saturday mornings here at Sacred Heart. The public school kids, who do not study religion as part of their daily coursework, are required to attend CCD in order to be eligible for the sacrament of confirmation at the end of the eighth grade.
Despite his popularity, this request is met with a stony silence. Not a single hand is raised, the thought of waking up early and spending Saturday mornings in a classroom during summer vacation keeping every arm glued firmly to every side.
Father Ollie seems momentarily disappointed, and turns to Mrs. Shive as if seeking support. She gives us a “come on, help Father out” look, but that’s it.
“Okay, well promise me you’ll think about it, and come see me if you’d decide you’d like to help me out.”, he trills, a little disappointment evident in his lilting leprechaun voice.
When I hear his voice, I can help visualizing the Lucky Charms leprechaun: “Blue Moons! Pink Diamonds!”
Later, after the 3:30 bell has rung and I’m heading down the long beige hallway towards the parking lot and my mother’s waiting Cadillac, Father Ollie steps suddenly into my path. I tend to walk with my head down, staring at the terrazzo tiles, so I almost bump into him before I realize he is there.
I lift my head to look into his smiling eyes.
(Yellow moons! Pink stars!)
“Andrew” he says, and I like the way it sounds when he says it, all Irish-ey.
“I’d really be pleased if you would help me out this summer. Do you think you could?”
I’m trapped. Of course I like Father Ollie, and of course I have nothing planned for any Saturday morning this summer, or for the rest of my life for that matter. I’m completely anti-social, one of the shyest kids in the entire school. I have only recently begun to make a concerted effort to speak in front of my classmates, having remained pretty much silent since I’d been ridiculed for my heavy long island accent upon arrival at Sacred Heart late in the fourth grade. For several years, I’d only spoken when called upon in class, and even then I had done so with a conscious flattening of my vowel sounds, swearing to God himself that I’d never, ever again open myself up to attack for accidentally saying “Dawg” instead of “Dog” or “Jawwz” instead of “Jaws.” Father Ollie has always seemed keenly aware of my lack of peer interaction, and has gone out of his way to demonstrate both his affection for me and his empathy for my social plight. That his hands have wandered seemingly absent-mindedly across the front of my school uniform pants during one of the hugs he would frequently give me would leave me feeling slightly confused, and strangely aroused in a confused way, I’ve chalked up more to my own confusion about my burgeoning homosexuality than to any malfeasance on his part.
I want to tell Father Ollie that I’d love to help him, but that I’m too shy around other kids, especially public school kids that I don’t know. I want to tell him that I’m afraid they’ll laugh at me, that the taunting and name-calling had finally subsided a bit amongst my classmates, and that the idea of it starting anew with a bunch of strange kids absolutely terrifies me.
But instead, wanting to please this funny little man, I find myself saying,
“Okay, Father. I’ll ask my mother if I can.”
Good, he says, and gives my shoulder a squeeze. He smiles at me, and maintains eye contact until I smile back. The smile is genuine. I put my head back down and head out to the long maroon colored Cadillac, my mother smoking her cigarette behind the wheel and my sister Theresa already in the backseat with her friend Mary, who lives around the corner from us. I climb into the passenger seat, shove my book bag down by my legs. I push a Linda Ronstadt cassette into the tape player, trying to drown out the chattering and squealing of the two third-grade girls in the backseat. My mother seems to have a lot on her mind, which is pretty common these days. Our family restaurant isn’t doing so well, and it’s affected the dynamic of our family in a hundred depressing ways. The only good thing is that it’s curtailed my mother’s annoying daily habit of cheerily inquiring, “How was your day?” on the ride home from school. When she asks me this, every fiber in my being wants to yell, “Well, I almost got beat up twice, I only got called faggot three times so that’s good, no one called me fat ass today, and I only intentionally fucked up one test to avoid being called a a nerd. And how was yours?”
As Linda sings of going back one day, come what may to Blue Bayou, my thoughts return to Father Ollie. He sought me out, I think. There were tons of kids in that hallway, and he picked me. I think of the smile he gave me, the twinkle in his dark eyes as he squeezed my shoulder. He likes me, I think. I’m not used to people liking me, not because I’m unlikeable, but mostly because I work so hard at being invisible. Even my teachers, except perhaps Mr. Jackson in the sixth grade, seem to look right through me. I like it this way, usually. The fact that Father O’Grady thinks I’d be a good assistant, which sounds important, and that he singled me out from all the popular, athletic boys, makes me feel good.. He sees me.
“Mom,” I venture, when we’re halfway home. “Father O’Grady asked me to help out with CCD on Saturday mornings”
My mother is thrilled. Anything that will give me something to do besides working in our restaurant this summer is a welcome idea to her. Over the years, she has made many futile attempts at socializing her shy oldest son. Judo lessons (three uncoordinated classes before stopping, no argument from my parents), art classes (not too bad), and worst of all, a disco-dancing class at the YMCA, where I hung at the back, doing a halting, chubby-kid version of the bus stop while secretly hating Ricky, a lithe, gymnastic fellow future homosexual whose expert moves in the front row and confident kick-ball-changes made me cringe in shame at my own stumbling efforts.
“That’s great”, my mother says, beaming. She, like everyone else in the Sacred Heart community, adores Father Ollie. In devout Catholic families, having a priest over to the family home is tantamount to hosting a foreign dignitary, and Father Ollie has spent a good amount of time in our dining room. Easter Sunday, Christmas Day, or just a regular old Sunday after mass, the priest has held court in our little green tract home, my grinning Grandmother at his side, clasping his arm in response to one of his just slightly off-color jokes, hand to her heart, “Oh Fathering” all over the place. We serve him lasagna, and eggplant parmigiano, and homemade cannoli. Though I’m generally not allowed at the table with the grownups, and we’ve never actually had a real conversation until today’s exchange in the hallway, he has always given me a smile and a warm, “Hello, Andrew!” No one calls me Andrew except Father Ollie and my grandmother, and I like it.
I find myself actually looking forward to helping out with the CCD classes, and am relieved when Father Ollie tells me the next day that before we actually begin the classes, he will need to meet with me privately for the next few Saturday mornings so that he can go over what will be expected of me. It reassures me that I’ll have a chance to learn what I’ll be doing before CCD actually starts, knowing that I’m less likely to look foolish in front of a roomful of seventh-grade strangers.
That Saturday morning, my mother takes me to the school adjoining Sacred Heart Church, and finding the doors locked, I wait on the brick steps, my mother standing by in the car until I get inside safely. At 9 am sharp, Father Ollie emerges from the adjacent rectory, wearing his black shirt, black pants, white-collared getup. He is one of the few priests at Sacred Heart who seem to wear their priest uniform constantly. Monsignor Alvernaz can often be seen shuffling/stumbling around in a cardigan, polyester leisure pants and white golf shoes, but not Father Ollie. He always looks like a priest. He waves to my mother, who waves back before backing out of her parking space and driving away.
Father pulls a ring of keys from his pants pocket, unlocks the door, drapes an arm around my shoulder and guides me in front of him and inside the building. It is unusually cool and quiet inside, and we proceed down the hallway, his arm still around my shoulders. The heavy doors swing shut behind us with a reverberating clank, and the shadowed hallway swallows us up.