I was an altar boy, an All-Star, All-Pro altar boy. Smartly togged out in cassock, surplice, collar and ribbon-bow tie, I paid my dues to the Lord in the sanctuary of the Our Lady of the Assumption church. I served crack of dawn 7 weekday Masses, and on Sunday I was assigned everything thing from the 8:30 Mass, which was reserved for the school children, to the final disreputable 12:45 Sunday Mass intended as a kind of liturgical safety net for their older and more dissolute brothers and sisters. Not only did I faithfully serve Mass; I was recruited for acolyte attendance at the Stations of the Cross, endless Benedictions and a very Perpetual Novena to the Miraculous Medal. The Miraculous Medal, which I also wore around my neck, got a lot of play in those quarters because it was given, for reasons never quite clear to me, to St. Dominic, and it was his nuns who shaped the minds and consciences of the children of Our Lady of the Assumption Grammar School.
I was a paragon.
Introibo ad altare Dei
“I will enter unto the altar of God”
I wasn’t the one doing the entering. I was kneeling at the side of the priest who had just said those words.
Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.
“To God who brings joy to my youth.”
My line, mine and my classmate Tommy Baker’s, uttered a thousand times as we knelt on either side of the Rev. Francis Flattery who stood at the foot of the altar in his alb and amice, his maniple and stole and stiffly brocaded chasuble. We were his acolytes and respondents in the Latin Mass that was about to begin. It was 8:30 AM at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption on any Sunday morning between 1939 and 1945.
I had myself approached the altar of God aged ten, when I presented myself to the same Father Flattery as an altar boy recruit. It was the equivalent, in that sheltered and very Catholic corner of the Bronx, of joining a gang. Most of my pals at the local parochial school were already in the ranks of the cassock and surplice uniformed junior Levites in the Temple of the Lord, the one who brought joy to our slowly emerging youth.
I began like everyone else as an apprentice, a “Torchbearer,” which meant carrying an otiose (and carefully enclosed) candle, in the occasional procession. Then, if the candidate showed up consistently enough when assigned, he was allowed to ascend through the ranks of liturgical functionaries , starting with lowest of the low, the “Boat,” the menial who held the brass receptacle filled with incense and who stood next to the far more exalted “Thurifer,” the trustworthy youth who tended and tendered the smoking pot-on-a-chain filled with red-hot charcoal upon which the incense—a nudge from the Thurifer—would be decanted.
So the apprentice passed upward through ranks and grades as complex as those at the Byzantine court of the Palaeologi and as jealously guarded as those of a university faculty. Tenure came in the form of being assigned to serve Mass, an irrevocable honor granted only after demonstrating the ability to recite the entire Latin responsory, including the devilishly complex and lengthy “Confiteor.” There was even a kind of Emeritus status. Most left the altar boy ranks after a year or two of high school, but it was always possible to make a kind of cameo re-appearance as the exalted “Crossbearer” at the head of some really important procession, like that on Corpus Christi.
I got my altar boy tenure at the dawn of the seventh grade, and because Baker and I had shown up for all our assignments and had neatly combed hair and relatively clean hands, we were given the plummiest of liturgical assignments, to serve, exclusively and permanently at the 8:30 Sunday Mass. It was the parish’s “Children’s Mass” which meant an audience of one’s peers, the entire parochial school population with their supervisory nuns, boys and, yes, girls, particularly the older ones who had an opportunity to admire the handsome young acolyte with the neatly combed hair who genuflected so gracefully, poured the water and wine with such careful but elegant ease and who spouted Latin as if he were a native speaker of that dead tongue.
I was an altar boy for eight years, rain, shine or World War II; I was out there spouting Latin and handing off incense not only at glamorous Sunday Masses before sellout audiences but at the dim and dark and lonely weekday liturgies at 6:30 and 7. I was invariably on hand for funerals, where I learned the astonishing word “catafalque.” It also got me excused from midmorning class. And I was of course front and center at church weddings, which often meant a buck or two for young servants of the Lord. I even donned the cassock for the hateful Sunday afternoon Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and for the endless and tiresome Stations of the Cross in the fading sunlight of Lenten Friday afternoons.
I did it all faithfully and scrupulously, without recking the cost or, in fact, the rewards. It was only later, when my mind turned briefly from girls to theology, that I bethought myself of how a just Lord, the one who went on about “hundredfolds,” might want to compensate His acolyte for his long and faithful service in the Sanctuary. No sin escaped unpunished and so, I reasoned, no good deed would go unrewarded in Roman Catholicism, which had the most elaborate spiritual bookkeeping system known to man; and though I couldn’t put my finger on the exact sum, I was certain that I had a substantial account tucked away up there “where neither moth nor rust can destroy.”
My compensation would not be in the form of your classical Indulgences, partial or plenary, which were useless for my rank purposes since they were only redeemable in the Afterlife; rather, it was a matter of what I began to think of as my “Alter Boy Credits.” These were kept for me, I imagined, in a gangster suitcase crammed not with greenbacks but with accumulated celestial goodwill, divine bearer bonds that would, down the line, buy me out not of Purgatory, which was abolished in any event, but of broken limbs, sexually transmitted diseases, bankruptcy, jail time, military conscription, jury duty, libel suits, flight cancellations, car crashes, bad reviews and, of course, fatal illnesses.
Sound familiar? It didn’t to me wherever I was on the cammin di nostra vita when I conceived my Pelagian pipedream of earned altar boy credits, packets of indulgence that were banked in my name and perhaps even compounded annually by the same generous Savior who had promised from his cross eternal bliss to a convicted felon on the basis of the latter’s single offhand remark.Perhaps it was the mid-60s when I was sitting over a cappuccino outside the Café Reggio on MacDougall Street soaking up the Spring sunshine and with my eyes resting complaisantly on the deep dark eyeliner of the undergraduate sitting opposite.
A new and very pleasant thought intruded my reverie, prompted not by a madeleine but by the sun, the setting and, doubtless, Ms. Margulies. Does it get any better than this, I thought. Here I was, a single male with an Ivy Ph.D., laying it down in a pad, comme on disait, in the Village, wrapped comfortably in a guaranteed lifetime professorship in the best city in the world with a job that I loved and that was both interesting and ridiculously easy. I had just had my first book published, and in two months I would be in Damascus, the city of my romantic dreams.
Really? said that spoilsport Augustine. What about Original Sin? Aren’t you doomed like the rest of us? Well, yes and, well, no. I had been raised, like everyone else, as an Augustiinan Catholic: the sin of Adam had rendered the entirety of his human progeny, that’s us, a massa damnata of sinners and, boys and girls, we will never escape the eternal consequences save by the free gift of God’s grace. Hair-raising, but there it was, in black and white and Latin.
No, said Pelagius, that paragon of good British common sense. Nix on Original Sin. Adam had to pay the consequences of his own lower case original sin, but the rest of us get only what we earn and deserve. He didn’t illustrate that latter with the instance of The Constant Altar Boy blessed with good fortune, but it all made sense, to me at least, if not to the tormented Augustine who was, to put it mildly, not happy with Pelagius: the good Lord would never permit misfortune large or small, Hell or Hemorrhoids, to befall his faithful Levite.
And yet…. I am a lifetime apartment dweller, and one of its benefits of that state is that when the water goes off you call downstairs and Pedro comes up and fixes it. Then I made the careless misstep of buying a weekend house “in the country,” Houses do not come with Pedros attached: when the water goes off, it stays off for a week until you find a plumber who then tells you that your septic –”What’s a septic!”— needs cleaning. And the water will always go off, you can count on it, or come through the roof or, God forbid, freeze in the pipes. There, in the rolling faux farmland of Columbia Country, I had discovered entropy.
Behind entropy lies the definitive statement of what is truly Original Sin, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, brilliantly restated in more moral terms in Murphy’s tergum on Second Thermodynamics, “Whatever can go wrong will,” which I prefer with the O’Leary Gloss, “[inevitably] will.” I could easily enough dispose of Adam, Eve and the Apple as a myth starring an anthropomorphic Yahweh and a talking snake, but neither entropy nor Murphy-O’Leary could be so easily brushed aside. Would jealous Entropy come and steal my Good Fortune? Would Murphy arrange that I get meningitis in the morning or be hit by a car on my way home? Or would Ms. Margulies’ father [inevitably] stab me in the street?
No, not me. I clung uncertainly to my Pelagian rewards. The trouble with the Roman Catholic accounting system, which by the way has never been audited, is that it is kept on the most offshore of offshore islands and so there is no way to check your balance. I have no idea how many of those precious credits I have cashed in —a good number I’d guess— or how many remained in my account. It’s been a long life; have I overdrawn?