If anything is ever going to absolutely condemn you to hell, it’s committing a sin while you’re in Church.
As a twelve-year-old in the 1970’s, I was positive that a sin on consecrated ground came with a multiplier. If you lied at home about the damaged rosebush that had a soccer ball-sized set of broken stems, that was worth 1-3 Hail Marys, depending on which priest you got in the confessional. But if you lied while in Church, that had to be worth at least ten Hail Marys. And that was just lying! Based on this math, several of my grammar school classmates were totally going to hell. And while I usually never took part in what they were doing, I worried that I’d get swept up through guilt by association.
The benefits of being one of the smart and well-behaved students is that I was part of the small group of 7th and 8th grade boys who would be called out of class to help with various tasks such as setting up folding chairs for a school assembly or helping in the library. But the best assignments involved assisting the church sextant with a church-related project.
Our school was associated with a beautiful Romanesque-revival church whose huge dome and two tall bell towers are visible from anywhere in that part of San Francisco. We would walk up to the church, genuflect at the altar, and then walk into the sacristy– the room just off the altar where priests would prepare for mass. It had wardrobes full of priests’ vestments, extra bibles and chalices, and other sacred vessels. In the center of the room were a few big, overstuffed chairs for the priests to lounge in while waiting for their cue to start mass. When I started doing theater in college years later, I realized how similar a theater’s backstage area is to a sacristy, with its costumes and props all ready for the actors waiting to go on. Except for two big differences.
First, the sacristy had a walk-in steel vault that held all the not-yet-consecrated communion wafers and wine, as well as several locked metal bins filled with the coins and paper bills gathered during collections. We loved the vault, and those collection boxes, in particular. After we’d helped the sexton with whatever task we’d been sent to do, he would sometimes unlock a bin, pull out a fist full of change, and reward us with some arbitrary combination of nickels, dimes and quarters. On days we scored big, our walk home from school would include a detour at a fish and chips place to buy ourselves fries and soda.
The second difference between a sacristy and backstage is that the sacristy is holy ground. So there was to be no screwing around. Ever. Unless the priests weren’t around and it was just us and the sexton. It’s not that he allowed shenanigans. It was more that many of my classmates knew that it was easy to take advantage of him and it was fun to exasperate him. The easiest way to do this was to talk loudly or to horse around, as newly minted teens are wont to do. He would shush us constantly, reminding us that we were in a place of worship, and our voices were disturbing parishioners visiting the church to pray. These were just trivial transgressions and I’m sure none of us ever thought to confess these actions.
But some of my classmates went in for bigger sins. They were drawn to the storage boxes that held the unconsecrated wafers that would later be blessed during mass, transform into the body of Christ, and handed out at communion. Sometimes those storage boxes wouldn’t be locked and my classmates would snag handfuls of the wafers. Some of them would stuff wafers into their pants pockets and eat the hosts later. The bolder (stupider?) ones would jam a handful into their mouths and chew away. Our church used a super thin, starchy wafer that acted like a whole mouth desiccant. The wafer would often stick to the roof of my mouth and it always felt slightly sinful to use my finger to peel Jesus’s body away from my teeth. How my classmates managed to swallow a whole mouthful without choking, I never knew.
The really big sinners, and I only saw this twice, were the kids who would swipe a swig of wine. When I’d protest, their disdainful response to my Goody Two-Shoes attitude was, “What’s the big deal? It’s not blessed yet.” I never understood how they missed the whole “stealing” point.
The sextant’s outfit made these thefts easy to pull off. He always wore generic blue or green coveralls with a thick leather belt whose sole purpose was to support a huge key ring with the biggest set of keys I’d ever seen. There were so many keys on the main ring that he had attached several smaller rings onto the large one to accommodate even more keys. Every step he took was a jingle jangle of keys hitting against each other. You could hear him coming from anywhere in the church which was useful when you were up to mischief. And distracting when you were actually trying to pay attention to mass.
On very rare occasions it was possible to convince the sextant to lead a tour of the large dome over the altar and then up to the bell towers. I was lucky enough to do this once. It may have been the last tour he ever gave. The day we convinced him to lead a tour we were an odd assortment of boys: a few of my good friends, who like me, were small-time sinners, and two kids who are certainly condemned to burn for all eternity.
The sextant led us to a door off the sacristy I’d never seen unlocked. Finally finding the correct key to this door, he led us along a narrow passage behind the rotunda. Just on the other side of the curved wall was the two story altar where the sacrament of mass occurred. We climbed single file up a narrow metal staircase towards the rotunda’s dome. I was towards the back of the group, only the two real troublemakers behind me. Part way up the staircase we passed two small glassless window openings on either side of the altar. I suppose they were intended to allow ventilation and ambient light to filter into this back area. They looked a lot like spy holes or arrow slits. We took turns peering down onto the altar and out over the church pews. I was just a few steps past the second of these windows when I heard one of my classmates, in as deep a voice as a twelve-year-old can muster, call out, “This is God!” I scampered back to the closest spy hole to see the effect. Two old women, still kneeling in prayer, were frowning up in our general direction. The sextant flew past me, grabbed the last two kids and scolded them in a whisper, including threatening to terminate the tour right now if we didn’t behave.
Things got worse from there.
Once we reached the top of the dome, our path took us along a series of catwalks and scaffolding. We had almost no light to guide our progress — just an occasional naked bulb or the sad light filtering through other spy holes. It was obvious that this was not a safe thing to do, which made the tour that much cooler.
We had been traversing a zig zag path that took us higher and higher into the dome when one kid behind me whispered, “Hold up. I have to take a leak.” What!? I was still processing what he’d said when I suddenly heard the distinct and clearly identifiable sounds of someone urinating out into the space over the rotunda’s dome. I was an experienced hand at using the word, “Fuck” by the seventh grade. I’m pretty sure I used it several times right then, holy ground notwithstanding. Fortunately, we were far enough behind the sextant that he never learned what happened. For years I wondered if the mysterious and short-lived leak in the dome roof perplexed church maintenance staff.
We eventually made our way to a door that led into one of the bell towers where we climbed a combination of proper stairs and ladders. Just before unlocking the hatch to the bells themselves, the sextant warned us, “Do NOT slap the bells. Do NOT slap the bells. Monsignor will hear that for sure and we’ll all get in trouble. Do NOT slap the bells.”
The bell tower commanded an amazing view. We could see Golden Gate Park and beyond that, the Golden Gate Bridge. The school yard lay directly below us and stretching out in every direction, rows and rows of city blocks. We sprinted from one side of the bell tower to the other, calling out landmarks. “I see my house!” “I see the candy store!” “I think I see the Ocean!”
And then someone slapped a bell.
For most of my life I felt slightly guilty about how we took advantage of the sextant. He was not the sharpest pencil in the box and I think most of us recognized that we were destined for more interesting jobs than his. I recently learned two things about him. First, that he had died just a few years ago. Second, that for a number of men roughly my age, now the sextant is dead, there is now a sense of relief. In comparison, stealing hosts and wine is nothing. I think of him now and hope that hell truly exists.