My little church in a tiny town in New England where the winters get so cold you can’t feel the hair on your head, and the summers get so hot you wish you didn’t have any, has a slanted roof. The roof slants so much that past the altar up and to the left you can’t see the corner where the wall meets the ceiling from the pews. Where the Earth meets heaven. When I was younger I thought that’s where God was in this house of his. I thought every church had a corner for God. I believed that so much. I knew that God was in his corner in my little church in my tiny town. Sundays came and Sunday went and each time we bowed our heads to pray I would cock my head, open my left eye, and pray to the corner, knowing God was there.
“Every house is a house of the Lord if you open yourself to the love of Jesus Christ.”
Every Sunday for a nearly two decades I prayed to that corner. I prayed for those I loved, for those I hated, for the ill, the healthy, the poor, the rich, the transgressors, and those who had been transgressed against. When I prayed not at the church I closed my eyes and pictured that obstructed corner, because that’s the closest I got to see God.
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
One day I went to that little church in a tiny town in New England where the winters get so cold, and the summers get so hot, and I walked right past the altar, looked up, and saw God’s Corner. I guess he wasn’t home that day.
I told my Grandma about this and she was taken aback. She told me that what I needed to do was find a different church, a “better” church. I didn’t know exactly what she meant, but I had a feeling. Ever since my parents had stopped taking me to the big fancy church with Grandma, and started taking me to this little church, she had talked about how she wanted her grandkids raised in “the one true”; whatever that meant. But I, being the ever inquisitive child, asked her where I could find this “better” church, and she told me that if she spent the night with me on Saturday, she’d show me what she meant Sunday morning. I had no objection to this, summer Saturday nights with Grandma were pretty awesome as a kid. Late night baseball games and as much chicken parm as I could eat? Sign me up. But when she told me to bring dress clothes, tie none optional, I was hesitant. As I left that night my dad told me not to be “indoctrinated” while I was gone. I didn’t know what that word meant but I could tell it was bad from the way my mom glared at him, but not too bad since he laughed it off. Saturday was lovely, the Yankees beat the Mariners 6-4, and Grandma let me talk to Rose on the old timey phone I liked. But Sunday was a different story.
My grandma woke me before the crack of dawn Sunday morning. It was pitch black as my Grandma hollered from downstairs,
“Breakfast is in twenty minutes, we leave in 30.”
Now I’m not great at math (not then or now if we’re being honest) but that seemed like neither enough time to get dressed in my fancy church clothes, nor enough time eat breakfast (which should be long enough to allow for quiet reflection), two critical steps in leaving for any event; especially church.
“I don’t hear any footsteps up there.”
I scrambled to get dressed. My grandmother was not one to upset. Once she threatened to “stove in” our waiters head when he stated that the Huskies women’s basketball team wasn’t as good as the mens (my Grandma was right of course, the Huskies where on the longest undefeated streak in the league’s history at the time, and would go on to win two more seasons securing their towering status as the best college basketball team in the nation. Go Huskies!). Fumbling with my buttons in the dark of the early morning, hastily tucking my short sleeve blue dress shirt into my GapKids khakis, I tripped and fell over my late grandfather’s cane that was lying on the floor of the hallway. I fell down all fourteen steps of my Grandma’s house; banging a new body part on every step. I landed battered and bruised at the feet of my mom’s mom.
“How come you’rr not ready?”
“Stairs” I mutter.
“You gotta watch your feet there stunad, and make sure you put pennies in those shoes.”
“Are you talking back to me? Put the pennies in your loafers.”
They were penny loafers, I guess it made sense, so I complied.
As I sweat in the backseat of her 1999 Buick Century (it was a particularly hot August day) she told me that they were short an altar boy that Sunday because little Tommy Two Shoes (or whatever his name was) called in sick. I told her I was sorry to hear that. She told me not to be because I would be filling in for him this Sunday. I told her that I could not possibly have the qualifications needed to be a “alter boy” whatever that meant. She told me it would be fine so long as I introduced myself with her last name. She wouldn’t tell me why exactly it was important to do that, just that “her last name carried weight”. It felt both weird and wrong to lie in church. I told her as much. She told me that it was just playing pretend, and I did like playing pretend, so I went along with it.
I stood at the door of the big fancy church smiling and shaking the hands of the people who walked in, holding the door for the elderly and the ladies as Grandma instructed me to do so. When people asked me who I was, I told them very proudly that I was John Paganelli and they told me I was precious, cute, and one particular lady told me I looked just like her long-dead husband, a strange compliment that I would hear many more times that day (and indeed throughout my life). My Grandma told me it was my curly hair and my sense of “old school charm.” It made me feel good that my Grandma thought I was charming. It felt good to hold the door for those people, and see them smile at me as I smiled at them. And so when my Grandma told me that the Father needed help in his office I was more than happy to lend a hand.
I entered the office and the Father told me that I needed to change into the robes hanging on the filing cabinet and meet him by the organ. I did as I was told and immediately regretted it. I don’t know what they make altar boy robes out of but this was the coarsest fabric I have ever felt. My neck and arms were instantly so incredibly, unfathomably, mind numbingly itchy. It was like one of those wool blankets with the satin trim that made you think it’s soft, but it’s just a cruel trick. More than that there were these weird little beads that jabbed into my neck and back whenever the robes moved too much, which meant my fastest speed was barely a crawl. On the way to the organ I swung by my Grandma who beamed with pride to see me in those robes. I asked her if they were supposed to be so uncomfortable. She told me it builds character and that when I’m wearing them I had to act like an adult because God was watching. I said isn’t God always watching us? She told me not to be a smartass, I told her it was a sin to swear in church, and she told me she’d stove my head in. I shut up.
When I finally linked up with the priest at the organ he told me what I needed to do for the services today.
“So basically, you’ll stand here off to the right for most of the sermon, and then when I motion to you and the other boys you’ll start passing out the communion. When you’re done just go back and stand where you where standing.”
He then handed me a plate of wafers and a cup of wine and moved to the pulpit. I stood there with the two official alter boys. The one to my left was easily six feet tall and had more than a bit of a mustache growing, he hummed along in a low gravelly tone as the choir sang. A grizzly bear of a prepubescent catholic. The other one to my right was a greasy little boy, and he smelled like a rat. Sometimes when you know you know. Last summer during shark week my grandma told me that Italians can smell a rat a mile away.
“Likes sharks and blood, Grandma?”
She leaned in close, very close, “Exactly like that, John, and don’t you ever forget that.” Loyalty was everything to Grandma.
My stomach growled. I hadn’t had time to eat this morning, and my body was not a fan. I stood there, wine in one hand, food in the other, sweat dripping off my nose, and what I swear was a horse hair shirt scratching my body. I knew about hell. Grandma had told me bad people go there to suffer. I got that. What I didn’t get was why, after a morning of doing everything I was supposed to, I’d suddenly found myself squarely in the fifth circle. I stood there and sweated and suffered and resisted temptation like the good “old school charm” boy I knew I could be. I stood like that for an eternity, in the sweat, and the hunger, and the itchy scratchy-ness of it all. I could feel the hour tick slowly by, but Lord forgive me for I have sinned. When I thought no one was looking I ate a cracker. Just one. Certainly God would forgive me for this small transgression. After all it was only a cracker. But then my stomach growled again. I had tasted the body of Christ and I hungered for more.
I ate them. All of them. Easily fifty blessed pieces of our Lord and savor I consumed that sweltering Sunday morning.
“And now let us communion upon the body of christ together”
“Shit piss ass fuck shit crap damn fuck,” I think to myself, realizing that swearing in church doesn’t count if you do it in your head. Unless God can hear your thoughts. Holy shit, can God hear your thoughts? What a terrifying prospect, do I need to confess to all the bad thoughts I’ve had?
“Where have all the wafers gone, John?” asked the father.
“He ate them!” Piped up the fricken rat boy. Typical.
I prepared myself for the worst. The priest’s face hardened and he twisted his hips as he wound his hand into the air. He snapped back and landed his hand firmly on the rat boy’s back; knocking the air out of his lungs.
“Thank you for telling me what happened. Why don’t you two serve the congregation while John and I go get more wafers?”
As we walked to get more I mustered up the courage to ask,
“Are you mad at me?”
“No, my child.”
“Really. You made a mistake by falling into temptation, but hunger is not something to be punished for.”
“You mean it?”
“I do. Plus, your grandmother is going to literally kill you.”
As soon as the service ended, THWAP! My grandma smacked the back of my head with the front of her palm.
“You ate them all! I can’t believe it! One morning you fall down the stairs and don’t get your toast and eggs and suddenly you think it’s fine and dandy to scarf down on Jesus of Nazarth! Next thing I know you’ll be drinking the wine and playing hookey with the Albanian gangs behind the Stop & Shop! You’re going to confession. Now.”
As it turns out, they don’t always have confessions going on at church, it’s more of an office-hours kind of situation. So my Grandma resigned to simply read me the riot act in the car ride. When I finally arrived home that late afternoon I noticed my siblings playing in the backyard with water balloons and super soakers. I wanted nothing more than to be a kid again, so I flew up the stairs ripping off my church clothes and came down in just my swim trunks, ready to play outside. Blissfully unaware of the bruises that still covered my body from the tumble down the stairs. As I ran through the kitchen I heard my mom gasp and my dad quip, “See hon? I told you those nuns would beat him.”
I never did go back to church with Grandma. I never found God in a corner of that church either. But whenever I find myself praying (which is less and less, and soon I’m sure it will be not at all) I picture that corner of that tiny church. And even though I know he’s not there; I can still feel that which the pastor calls God in the corner.