On God, Baptism and Being Gay

Someone asked me recently if I believe in God.  She wondered if, as a lesbian, I’ve given up on God and religion altogether.

I told her what I know to be true hasn’t changed since I was six years old.  I was a first-grader at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School when I decided for myself the principles that have formed the bedrock of my beliefs.

It’s one of my most vivid childhood memories.  I’m pretty sure, however, what I learned that day was not the lesson Sister Francis intended.

Our school day always started with religion. This day, Sister launched into an explanation of the various levels of punishment we were in for, depending on our spiritual state at death. She had previously drummed into our heads the concept of original sin and man’s inherently sinful nature.

The good news: We Catholics had a leg up on everyone else because our baptism into the “one, true faith” erased original sin and gave our souls a fresh start. This is why we contributed our pennies to the charities in Africa, so the poor pagan babies could be baptized as Catholics and have a fighting chance at salvation.

The bad news: Because we kept sinning no matter what, every person who ever lived except for Jesus was destined from the get-go to atone for their sins in Purgatory before being admitted into Heaven.

As far as non-Catholics were concerned – well, too bad for the Methodists, Episcopalians, and others whose baptisms didn’t count. And God help the Jews (literally) because they not only were unbaptized, but they had also killed Jesus.

Sister described Hell and Purgatory. Terrible places both, but in Purgatory your sentence was finite. You would someday ascend into Heaven after your soul was totally cleansed.

What Sister said about people continuing to sin made sense to me. Take my classmate Dennis Slattery, for example.  At six years old, he’d already done enough evil deeds to earn decades in Purgatory. No matter how many times Sister slapped him, cracked her knuckles across his head, or dispatched him to Mother Superior’s office, he still misbehaved in class. Sister called him “a disruption.”  Dennis was a goner, in my opinion.

Next to me, Laura Malone raised her hand. Sister sighed at the interruption but with a grimace nodded at Laura to go ahead.  As Sister had taught us, Laura rose from her seat and stood next to her desk in the aisle, a tremor in her voice. “S’ter, what happens when a baby is born but dies right away? Suppose she dies so fast there isn’t time to get her baptized? Does she go to heaven to be with her mother and sisters and brothers?”

Laura sat down. The classroom became so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. Many of us had baby brothers and sisters, or mothers who were expecting.  I was sure I knew the answer.  Last week, Sister had told us God “suffered little children to come to Him.” Didn’t that mean unbaptized babies, too?

Sister Francis shook her head, her expression dour. The souls of babies who died without being baptized went to a special place called Limbo. Unlike Purgatory, though, they had to stay in Limbo forever because nothing they could do would atone for their original sin. Only baptism could do that. And since they’d never been baptized – no, they’d never see their mothers again.

Laura let out a muffled cry.  She lowered her head across her arms on the desk and sobbed.  I thought about those doomed little babies and their mothers and felt the tears welling up in my eyes, too. Here and there, a couple of the other kids started sniveling. Before long, the entire classroom was wailing, wall-to-wall.

Sister Francis had stepped to the blackboard, her back to us, but at the noise she whirled around in astonishment. She rapped her ruler on her desk and shouted for quiet. “Stop this nonsense! Stop it right now!” she commanded. Briskly she instructed us to open our math books.

Laura couldn’t stop crying. I dove under my desk for my book and suddenly was at eye-level with Sister’s wooden rosary beads. She had marched down from her desk at the front of the room and stood in the aisle between me and Laura.

“Miss Malone, are you quite finished?” Sister asked tartly.

Laura was too overcome to answer. In vain, she wiped her eyes with her hands but fresh tears continued to flow.

“Compose yourself!” Sister demanded. Her polished black shoe underneath her habit tapped impatiently.  “I am waiting, Miss Malone.”

A few more taps of her shoe and Sister had had enough. With lightning quickness, she grabbed Laura by the back of her neck and wrenched her out of her desk.  She dragged Laura across the room, through the door and down the hallway. We kids looked at each other in stunned silence. Even Dennis dared not move a muscle until Sister returned, alone.

I puzzled over the unbaptized babies the whole day. When I walked home, my head filled with images of tiny African infants swathed in rags, and wailing newborns floating in the zero-gravity darkness of Limbo. I wondered how happy Heaven could be for a mother without all of her children.

Mrs. Rosenthal waved to me as I passed by her house. She was young and pretty and recently had a baby of her own.  She always smiled at me.  The Rosenthals didn’t put lights on their house at Christmas, but they opened their door when we came caroling and gave us hot chocolate when our songs were done.

I hurried past her house and broke into a run. With each door I passed I counted the neighbors I’d meet in the hereafter and which I wouldn’t.  I arrived home breathless. I sat on the grass outside, worrying about Mrs. Rosenthal and her baby going to Hell like Sister said.

Who was God, anyway? Sister said God loved all of us, every one of us, because He had made us. But God must have liked me better than Mrs. Rosenthal and her baby because He made me a Catholic.  A few days ago, Sister said God was all-knowing and all-loving. Today she said he separated babies from their mothers for all eternity. The loving Father she described seemed a little random and capricious for all of His wisdom.

My head hurt. Sister said God the Father was kinder, gentler and more loving than our own fathers all put together. My father loved me – that I knew. And if God loved me more than my own father . . .

My six year-old brain synapses were working so hard I felt the sweat pouring across my forehead. Then suddenly, a simple, yet enormous realization filled my heart.  My sadness fell away, carried off like a speck of dust in the wind. I shook my head — Sister was wrong! I got up and skipped through the front door, relieved and happy again.

Many years later, I am still figuring out the rest of it. I abide by the golden rule of loving my neighbor and treating others the way you wish to be treated.  And though we may be sinners, I believe most of us try and try again, to do our best with our lives. I believe in an afterlife and I believe those we love are waiting for us on the other side.

But ever since that day in first grade, I’m convinced Sister Francis got it wrong.  As a lesbian, in her eyes I’m as sinful as it gets. But I believe that I am loved, just the way I am.

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Rachael says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this story. It really is something I am sure most lesbians can relate to in one way or another. It really touched my heart.

  2. Author says:

    Thanks so much, Rachael, for reading and for commenting. Funny how little things like that influence how we think years and years later. But I wouldn’t be surprised if most of my classmates had a different take-away from Sister’s lesson than I did. A license for bullying, bigotry and hate. Gotta love parochial schools!

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