Altared States

altar_boy_fredPeople are often surprised to discover that I went through twelve years of Catholic school, but it’s true. The collective trauma of those twelve years is most likely the leading cause of my lapsed Christian status today. But there was a time when I was nearer my God to thee in a very up close and personal way. I was an altar server, or as we sexist, Neanderthal pigs called it back then, an altar boy.

When our Pastor distributed a recruitment flyer in our class, the first thing I did (after sniffing the purplish page for a mimeo rush) was notice that there was a nine o’clock Mass every day of the week. I was so giddy with the possibilities this seemed to promise that I thought it might be a typo. This meant that at least one lucky altar boy would have to leave school for an entire hour to serve the mass. Miss Math or Social Studies to instead strut the walk on stage at Mass? That was a no-brainer. Add in the fact that I would appear extra-pious in the eyes of my teachers, and this really looked like a big win-win for me. I couldn’t wait to stroll out of class for the first time, my teacher gazing fondly at my halo, while those other suckers sat watching a public television show about the Metric System.

It turned out to be a decent amount of work to become an altar boy, which was an unexpected turn of events. We needed to learn, from memory, every single prayer recited during the Mass. No peeking, no pausing, no nonsense. Say the prayer from top to bottom without a hitch, or hit the holy bricks back to your nine a.m. class. If anyone in charge objected to the fact that we all sounded like auctioneers ripping our way through these very heavy, poetic verses, they never let on. I could say the Our Father like it was the eighth race at Belmont Park.

Of course, it wasn’t all work. There were perks—peeks behind the holy curtain that made a new altar boy feel special. I remember our instructor flinging Communion hosts at us when we got rowdy at Mass rehearsals in the church. We stopped, goggle-eyed, at this heresy, until he told us that it was okay because those hosts were unconsecrated. He should’ve realized this world-changing news would cause a mass rush to the altar for a host flinging free-for-all.

The feeling of being on stage was unmistakable, and a very new experience for so many of us. I was a nervous kid anyway, so the thought of walking onto the altar for the first time was terrifying, mitigated only by the thought of how jealous my classmates would be that I was in on the big production under the bright lights. Before becoming an altar boy, I hankered to ring the shiny, gold bells during the preparation of the Communion offerings. To think that I would be jangling those very bells not once, but three times per Mass! Three times! I couldn’t even stand it, a point not lost on our instructor who often had to give the throat-cutting enough! hand signal to this aspiring Quasimodo.

Once fully trained, big events loomed on the Altar Boy schedule, the sexiest of which we called the “paydays.”  Weddings and funerals involved getting some juicy cash tips, so those assignments were much sought after. The Church’s teachings would, no doubt, frown on the gleeful rejoicing we did upon receiving a twenty dollar tip at a funeral, but we weren’t hearing any of that. I can still smell the incense that the priest swung around in the censer during those events. To this day, when I smell incense, I think of money. That’s probably a reason to go to confession, right?

Less lucrative, but much more prestigious was the rare occasion when a Bishop would be present at the Mass. I got one of these plum gigs when I was assigned to serve at my older brother’s Confirmation Mass. My family loved this idea, as it would now be a true family celebration with both my brother and I in high visibility positions at the church. The Bishop was treated like a visiting Beatle, his presence even necessitating the service of two extra altar boys: one to hold his fold-up hat, and the other to hold his wooden staff. I prayed for the very light hat, but instead got the very heavy staff. I was a slightly built sixth grader at that time, probably under a hundred pounds—which is to say, only fifteen pounds heavier than that blessed staff. I had been instructed to not let it touch the ground, so I was soaked with sweat by the fifteen minute mark of a ninety minute ceremony. I felt muscle tremors in my upper body that made me long for just a simple eight o’clock Mass. No one seemed to notice when I rested the staff on the toe of my shoe at the forty-five minute mark, allowing me to tough it out the rest of the way. More confession necessary…

But all of these other occasions paled in comparison to the end-all, be-all date on the Church calendar. I’m talking about Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Being anywhere outside your house at midnight when you’re that age is exciting enough, but to stand up on the altar at that Mass, looking out and seeing everyone you know in your school and neighborhood dressed in their holiday best…that was the stuff of altar boy legend. Who didn’t want that assignment? Or, perhaps, a better question would be who didn’t get that assignment? The answer, of course, was me. I didn’t get the Midnight Mass assignment. But my older brother did.

Was I angry? Yeah, I was. Was I jealous? No doubt. How angry and jealous was I? So much so that when my parents offered me the chance to go to the Mass with them, I begged off, saying I was too tired. In truth, I was afloat in a Christmas stew of envy and bitterness. It should have been me up there. Had the Church forgotten the superhero strength and stamina that I displayed by holding the two-ton bishop’s staff for over an hour? Had they overlooked the tuneful jingle-jangle of my mellifluous brand of bell-ringing at the Offertory? Obviously, they had. Well, if that was how they wanted it, then they could keep their overrated Midnight Mass for all I cared.

I’ve often wondered if my feelings that night somehow manifested themselves in the incident that took place on the altar at St. Ann’s Church on that Christmas Eve. Not even a half-hour after they’d left for the church, my parents came barreling into the house again, rushing my brother to the bathroom for his second round of hearty barfing. Second, as in, after the first round of vomiting, which had taken place…wait for it…ON THE ALTAR AT CHRISTMAS EVE MIDNIGHT MASS!  They had to stop the proceedings in order to clean up the wicked mess my brother emitted on the most sanctified place in the church building. The parish priests also had to re-consecrate the altar before the proceedings could continue. All in all, probably a thirty to forty-five minute delay. At that point, it’s safe to say that the shine was off the apple for me. I’d take a simple funeral or wedding any day.

After a few years, I garnered a certain veteran altar boy status, which brought on a jaded arrogance that was very unbecoming of a young, Catholic school-educated gentleman. I shook my head at the rawness of the new recruits, scoffed at their misremembered prayers, and reveled in the nervousness they betrayed before their debut Masses. To me, they were just fodder, standing in the way of my coveted paydays, which piled up as I became the old hand. Someone on high may have sensed my growing greed, as a tip for the servers was withheld after one particular wedding ceremony, despite the bulging envelope I saw the Best Man pass to the priest in the sacristy.

I was irate at the snub, but really, what recourse did I have? I knew there was no form to fill out to file an official Church complaint about not making enough scratch as an altar boy. When I told my mother about the non-tip, she said that it was wrong to be chasing a buck instead of letting the Mass seep into my consciousness, helping to make me a better person. “Who becomes an altar boy to make money?” she asked me, obviously overestimating her son’s sense of religiosity. It wasn’t the reason I had first joined, but it was right up there at the top by now. I vowed to not let it happen again.

I wouldn’t have to wait long for another wedding assignment, and it was only minutes after my Mom dropped me off that the Groom and his Best Man came a-calling. As expected, they handed the priest their bountiful envelope full of cash, which prompted this infamous sentence from my inappropriate mouth:

“Hey, maybe THIS TIME, we’ll actually get the tip!”

I had provoked a Man of God, and I was to feel his full, Biblical wrath the very second the groomsmen left the sacristy. “You!” the priest spat through gritted teeth. “Get out! GET OUT! NOW!

I was thunderstruck, and not in the good way that they often talked about at church. I didn’t know what to do exactly, but I scurried out of there because it looked like he wanted to hit me and things were already feeling scandalous enough. My mother, who had only dropped me off a scant few minutes before, was still outside talking to a friend from the neighborhood. She was shocked to see me, but not as shocked as I must have looked at that moment.

“What happened?” she asked. “Why aren’t you inside getting ready?”

“I got FIRED!” I blurted out as tears began to gush out of my eyes.

Technically speaking, fired is probably not the word Jesus or the Church would use in this case, but it seemed perfectly apropos right then and there. At about the same time that I had started crying, my mother started laughing at my unfortunate verb choice. I recounted the whole episode as she drove me home, and when my villainy was finally revealed, she shook her head and then gave me a look that said, you know better than that. Again with the overestimating…

I’m not in church so often these days, but when I am, my eyes are always glued on the altar servers. It seems things have changed since my time as Jesus’ roadie.  I’ve seen sneakers poking out from under many altar servers’ garments. Sneakers?! We wore black dress shoes only, so you can imagine my shock the first time I saw a kid wearing Jordans at Easter Mass. And as I’ve said, girls now don the cassock, but they have so little to do now.  The ringing of the bells has, sadly, been purged from the Mass, and I feel a bit let down every time the priest holds the Eucharist up in silence.  I know the world moves forward, but I still recall the days when altar boys used to wield that sharp-edged metal dish near every Communion receiver’s throat, lest they spill the host.  Many times, a wiseguy sibling or school friend would turn up on the line, trying to coax a prohibited giggle by making a funny face at me. They didn’t think it so funny when they got the business end of that dish right in their Adam’s apple. Now, that’s power.

And probably another reason to go to confession.


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