IMPURE AT HEART by Peter Nolan Smith

In the early 60s the nuns of Our Lady of the Foothills taught that sins were punished not in this life, but for all eternity in the burning fires of Hell, but Mother Superior submitted pain to the palms of potential heretics, religious backsliders, note-passers, and jesters with a wicked yardstick. All of her victims were boys. Sister Mary Josef had a sweet spot for girls. They were made of sugar and spice. Her god had scrapped boys together out of snails and puppy dog tails.

As the star student of my class I escaped her persecution. 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 the day on which Sister Mary Josef had assembled the 6th, 7th, and 8th Grade Boys for a diocesan priest’s lecture 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 awaits the hands of onanists.”

The last word was unknown to the assembly. Heads turned to friends for guidance. Mother Superior caught the movements and cracked the nearest trespasser with her pointer. She showed no mercy to the 6th Grader and pinched his reddened ear with painteresque fingernails. The boy squealed in pain and the priest glowed with satisfaction.


We gasped at this word. The Boy Scout manual called ejaculation nocturnal emission. We had many names for it.

“It is the great sin.”

His eyes glowed red

“Satan is everywhere.”



“I have a question.”

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

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

He was expecting an admission of impure thoughts.

“Something about sin.”

I had plenty of them; Cher from WHERE THE ACTION IS, Julie Christie in DARLING, the French Yeh-Yeh singer Francoise Hardy, my classmate Kyla Rota, and a fantasy about a naked female guitarist were my succubii.

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 righteousness.

“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.

Footsteps announced the Mother Superior’s approach. She was the priest’s SS henchman. I had betrayed her faith in me, but I sought redemption with a subterfuge from 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. “Are you pure?”

“As far as I know.”

“We’ll see about that.” He grabbed my wrists and turned my palms upward.

They were bald.

“Pure palms.”

Everyone knew masturbation grew hair on your hands and the priest placed 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 belief in his 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.

“I’ll be watching you.” The black-robed nun was not so easily fooled by words and studied me, as if I was a triple agent between her Holy Trinity and the Prince of Darkness.

“Yes, sister.” I was neither 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, because I was only a boy scared of someone evil burning his fingers 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 and I hoped it was the girl playing guitar.

She looked nice.

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