Confessions of an Altar Boy

How Enchantment and Awe Gave Way to Indifference and Ennui

My cousin recently asked me to read a passage from the Bible at his wedding and knowing it was a favor to him, I gladly obliged.

The big day came and with a boutonnière on my lapel, I stepped up to the pulpit and slowly and crisply read the passage. I smiled in appropriate spots, gesticulated on the Hallelujahs, and made eye connection with those in the pews. I’m sure that everyone heard me, but tend to wonder about how many listened.

I know that my only concern while up there was to just do my cousin a favor and give an articulate speech that would look good for their wedding video. As for the passage itself, I could have been reading the back of a shampoo bottle for all I cared.

I wasn’t always this agnostic. I served as an altar boy at a Catholic Church from when I was eight until about 14. My career as a priest’s little henchman started off quite majestically. I was entranced by this magical world of adorning flowing vibrant vestments, being surrounded by lighted candles and gold-plated chalices, and being ensconced in a fog of ghostly incense.

I quickly rose through the ranks and became the captain of altar boy team five, which meant that I no longer carried the candles; I held the Bible for the priest and was in charge of the incense and bell ringing. This was big time. At 10, I thought pretty highly of my esteemed title of captain and tried to be more religious.

I wasn’t wearing a hair shirt or anything, but I did stop cussing, began reading "Bible Stories for Children," and even recruited my sisters to help me put on pious sketches for family members in the basement. Of course, as both director and producer of these performances, I cast myself as both Jesus and God and delegated the roles of sheep and lepers to my sisters.

But alas, this sacred novelty soon ebbed away over the years as our family church-goers was whittled down to just me. I don't know how my sisters got out of it, but because I was the altar boy, it was my duty to represent our family at 8 a.m. mass. My dad cooked scrambled eggs for my sisters and then my parents drank coffee while perusing the thick Sunday edition while I upheld my duties at the altar.

Don’t think my parents didn’t help me get ready for church. On the contrary, my mother would aid me by hounding me to make sure my patent leather shoes were polished. "You’ll look like a fool if they’re scuffed," she’d pipe, as if the main concern of the parishioners was to analyze the 12 year old altar boy’s footwear.

With a pair of my dad’s knee high socks (which touched my thighs), black slacks, and a white button down shirt my mother had ironed the night before, my outfit was completed with one of my dad’s neckties which he’d knot while standing behind me in front of the bathroom mirror. I felt like he was tying a noose around my neck. Come here. Stand still. Stop moving. Lift your chin up; I heard it all.

Next, Dad would comb, or rather sculpt, my hair. I’d timidly stand in front of the running faucet in the bathroom as he besmeared my hair with these enormous dollops of mousse and then carved up this axe wound of a part down the left side of my scalp. I nervously stood as still as I could, leaving the master to his art as the smoke from his smoldering Merit on the counter snaking towards my young nostrils.

The ten or so spritzes of hair spray he squirted on to my head left this chemical halo that would linger for hours after church was over. I looked like Roy Orbison with this helmet of shiny black and stiff hair that could easily tilt my head toward either shoulder if I didn’t keep it straight. "Bring home a bulletin," my mother would crow as I started down the street to the church.

I would occasionally read the Epistle at mass and I’d get such a rush from having a hundred or so people listen to me -- this freckled faced and prepubescent voiced kid from around the corner -- read a practiced passage from the New Testament. Seeing my name printed in the bulletin was like seeing my name in lights. Being given a spotlight during a service made me feel significant, like I was doing something more with my life than flipping baseball cards against the wall or reading Mad magazines in my room.

I steadily grew disenchanted with church over the years. My friends, girls, rock-and-roll, my writing -- everything had grown more important than church. I’d walk past a field on the way to mass, and like Eve, I’d be tempted. I once attempted to play hooky, but somehow, maybe by Divine intervention, my dad saw me and I received a richly unholy and ironic tongue lashing from him as he dumped me off in front of the church.

As I matured my mind began to explore deeper ideas as I attended mass, like: What if Jesus was hanged instead of crucified? Would Christians wear nooses around their necks instead of crosses? or If Jesus is supposed to be of Middle Eastern blood, then why do the icons of Him look like Barry Gibb? I had lost focus of why I was at church and what I believed. I can’t pinpoint the exact day, but sometime during the summer after eighth grade I decided that that was enough for me. My sentence was served as far as I was concerned and surprisingly, my parents never said a word about it. They either respected my decision or just didn’t realize that I began sleeping in on Sundays.

Going to church and serving as an alter boy did shape who I am today though. I am grateful for those Sundays of my boyhood and the experiences and idea they begot. Will I ever return to my Sunday ritual of my preteen years? I don’t know. A burning bush or bolt of lightning holds that answer.