IMPURE AT HEART by Peter Nolan Smith


In the early 60s the nuns of Our Lady of the Foothills taught their students that our sins were punished in the burning fires of Hell, until then Mother Superior subjected the palms of potential heretics and religious backsliders to a cane. Whisperers and jesters suffered the yardstick. All of her victims were boys, for Sister Mary Josef had a sweet spot for girls who were made of sugar and spice, while boys were scrapped together out of snails and puppy dog tails.

As the star student of my class I escaped her persecution by studying the Old and New Testaments. My grade for religion was always an A+ and no altar boy could fake the Latin of the Mass better than me. Mother Superior even spoke to my parents about a possible scholarship to a seminary.

There hadn’t been a priest in my family for a generation, however my reign as the Great Catholic Hope died on the day Sister Mary Josef had assembled the 6th, 7th, and 8th Grade Boys to hear the rant of a diocesan priest warning us against the temptation of touching ourselves.

We knelt on the floor throughout his hour-long tirade.

“That whisper in your ear is the voice of Satan. Your hand becomes that of Lucifer. Eternal damnation awaits any boy succumbing to the siren song of the Devil.” The priest glared at his captive audience, as if he were seeking out young sinners of the flesh and pointed over our heads. “The Lord knows your hearts. Jesus loves the pure. An eternity of flames will burn the hands of onanists.”

The last word was unknown to the 99% of the assembly and stupified heads turned to friends for guidance.

Mother Superior caught the slight movement and cracked the nearest trespasser’s cheek with an open palm. The perpetrator was a 4th Grader, yet she pinched his reddened ear with claw-like fingernails. The boy squealed in pain and the priest glowed with the ecstasy of reviling masturbation.

“Satan is everywhere.” HIs hands sought something to hold.

“Father?”

This was the Spring of 1965 and I had prayed to Satan that the Rolling Stones SATISFACTION would vanquish the Beatles from #1. My hair hung over my collar. No one knew that I was an atheist.

“Yes, my son.” The priest had been advised about my avocation to God . “Do you have something to say?”

If he was expecting an admission of impure thoughts, I had plenty. Cher from WHERE THE ACTION IS, Julie Christie in DARLING, the French Yeh-Yeh singer Francoise Hardy, and my classmate Kyla Rota were my succubus. I had never ratted them out in confession and I wasn’t about to start.

“Father, you said ‘eternal damnation’. Forever and ever.”

“Yes.” His eyes squinted with hesitation. “Hell will not freeze over.”

“Maybe not, but after the Last Judgment won’t the universe will be reincarnated with a new heaven and a new earth meaning that eternity will come to an end.”

“St. Luke says “‘I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! … ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!'”

His voice shook in anger.

“So there will be no new heaven and no new earth?” I rose to my feet; 13 years-old and 5-10. There was no fear in my eyes.

My best friend had drowned at the age of 8.

The priest’s god had done nothing to save Chaney from death.

Whispering footsteps announced the Mother Superior’s approach and I sought redemption in the Scriptures.

“Matthew 13:40-43: Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!”

“Exactly.” The priest waved for me to join him at the podium.

“They say that abusing yourself makes you have hairy palms.” He grabbed my wrists and turned my palms upward.

“Like a werewolf.” I unclenched my fingers.

“I knew it.”

My palms were bald and the priest smiled at my purity, placing his hand on my shoulder.

“And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. Revelations 20:11-12.”

“Yes, father.” I accepted his faith in those beliefs without questioning my disbelief in his.

“Then we are good?” He lifted his face to heaven.

“Yes, we are good.” I glanced over to Mother Superior, who was not so easily fooled by words.

“I’ll be watching you.” Her narrowed eyes studied me, as if I was a triple agent between her Holy Trinity and the Prince of Darkness.

“Yes, sister.” I was none of the above.

“Assembly back to your classes.” The lecture on masturbation had come to an end.

“Yes, sister.”

Like all good boys and girls of Our Lady of the Foothills we obeyed Mother Superior’s command.

Even me, for I was scared of someone damaging my hand and I needed my hands smooth for the better things in a young man’s life.

There was no telling when the real thing was coming in 1965.

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