No Tattoos in Heaven

After my best friend drowned in Sebago Lake in 1960, I became a non-believer. Chaney was a good boy and no God would have let him die. My atheism was a secret. I was an altar boy at Sunday Mass. My mother prayed that I might take the cloth as a priest or at the least a brother. The nuns mother at Our Lady Of The Foothills also had high hopes for my avocation, however the Baltimore Catechism failed teach me religion to resurrect my faith in the Holy Trinity and I bore my godlessness in silence.

My secret was sussed out by 6th grade teacher.

“I know faith when I see it. I know lack of faith too.” Sister Mary Goretti was more tolerant of my puerile apostasy than her whip-bearing compatriots. “But you really shouldn’t be an altar boy.”

“My mother wants me to be one.”

“And she wants more.”

“I know.”

“So if you can’t quit, just lower your head during Mass and say whatever you want, but I don’t want to see you taking the Holy Communion. That would be sacrilege.”

‘Yes, sister.”

I might not have believed in God, but I did believe in Sister Mary Goretti.

She Mary Goretti was as ancient as dust. The old nun had taught school in Egypt. Her tales of children running over stalks of harvested crops without touching the jagged tips was a magic miracle. Her students loved her and she loved educating us.

No question was undeserving of an answer and one day my friend Chuckie asked, “Do atheists go to heaven?”

“I don’t know, but I think they would be surprised to wake from death in the after-life.” Sister Mary Goretti looked in my direction and I shrugged, since going to heaven meant worshiping the man in a dress and hell was a burning oven. I was more interested in purgatory. Nothing bad ever happened in Limbo.

“My mother said if you get a tattoo, then you don’t do to heaven.”

“Leviticus 19:28 says, “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print or tattoo any marks upon you.” She knew her Old Testament. “That’s against the 5th Commandment.”

“I thought that meant ‘Thou shalt not kill.” I got As in religion, despite my godlessness.

“St. Paul admonishes us: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” She was no slouch with the New Testament either. “But my father was a sailor and had tattoos. He was a good man and I can’t see him going to hell for an anchor tattoo, but who am I to question the dictates of the Church?”

None of us dared answer this question and we returned to our Baltimore Catechism lesson.

At year’s end my report card was straight As for the year and Sister Mary Goretti rewarded me with a mother of pearl rosary.

“I know you don’t believe, but that doesn’t make you a bad boy. God loves us all.”

“Thank you, sister.”

She was playing a game, but I was lucky to have her as my teacher and while I don’t believe in either heaven or hell, I have refrained ever getting a tattoo.

Out of respect for an old nun.

And only a little bit the fear of hell.

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