AS SECOND GRADERS at St. Raphael’s Elementary School, we had to leave room on our chairs for guardian angels.
Sister Emerita patrolled the aisles, prodding our 8-year-old bottoms with her yardstick, scootching us over another half inch. Apparently guardian angels had big tushes. While Sister paced the rows of desks, I peered into the air next to me, trying to see my angel. Was it a he or a she? Could it fit on the thin slice of wood I was offering it? Would its wings spill over onto Gordon Gulzinski’s desk behind me?
I saw nothing. I reasoned this was because I was not yet worthy. Perhaps if I refrained from coveting Cecilia Bramwell’s excellent new knee-hi stockings, maybe then God would let me see an angel.
But such a wish raised the sticky issue of God Himself—another Celestial Being for whom I had no proof. I was surrounded by Catholics who never visibly wavered and had answers to everything. They could look it up in the Baltimore Catechism. Of course Adam and Eve really existed. See this picture of them on page 32?
But I never found God easy to swallow. When I made my First Communion, I tried to believe that I was devouring the flesh of Christ (apparently, something He actually wanted us to do). The pasty piece of starch instantly adhered itself to the roof of my mouth and refused to budge. All the way back to my pew, I struggled to digest Jesus without success. Down on the leatherette kneeler, I wrestled with theosophical dilemmas. Was it kosher to wash Christ down with a drink of water? If He just stayed stuck there forever, would I be offending Him when I consumed macaroni and cheese, or, heaven forbid, school lunch? Maybe Jesus should get a closer look at that ham-and-scalloped-potatoes thing Sister Agnes kept trying to feed us. Feeding that to kids was probably at least a venial sin.
After a few panicked minutes I decided it was more cookie than Christ. I pulled off one white glove, stuck my finger in my mouth, and gave God a good poke, right in the Host. If I didn’t believe in the Father, how could I believe in the Son?
I decided to admit my doubt. I knelt inside the tiny confessional and whispered through the screened window that I wasn’t sure that I believed in God. “How old are you?” asked the priest.
“Eight,” I told him.
“You’re young,” he said. “Your faith will come.”
So that was it! I wasn’t a pagan; it was only that my faith hadn’t arrived yet! It was on its way, carried on the air like pollen. My faith was coming!
I waited for two weeks. God did not deliver. I took things into my own hands. I had read The Lives of the Saints. I knew that, when He was in the mood, God could make statues weep and roses drop like rain. So I threw down the gauntlet.
That night before bed, I painstakingly printed out on a piece of school notebook paper my request. “Dear God, if You really exist, sign here: ____.” I figured He didn’t need a lot of space, since He didn’t have a middle or last name, or title, really.
I left my pencil near the paper (to expect a second miracle of materializing a writing implement seemed too pushy). I worried that my mother might see this missive and sign in, like a mystery guest on “What’s My Line?,” cementing me into a life of fervent religious conviction.
I awoke the next morning like Joan of Arc, ready to hear voices. I tried to see the letter from the bed. Perhaps God’s signature, rather like God himself, was best viewed at a distance. What would His handwriting look like? All bold strokes and angry slashes, or perfectly closed loops and well-dotted i’s? After all, God created Palmer, who then invented The Method.
I crept to the desk. Hadn’t I left the pencil in a slightly different position? Maybe God had visited my bedroom, after all! Dare I touch the page on which the Divine Hand had writ?
I looked. No signature!
I held the page up to the light. Nancy Drew had taught me that even secret messages written in invisible ink leave indentations. But God hadn’t even left me so much as a scribble. No stray mark, no slight pressure from a heavenly quill. Nothing.
“Well,” I said to the ceiling. “You had Your chance.”
This lack of action had been rather churlish on God’s part, I thought. After all, I was a fairly charming, nearly innocent kid. If I were God, mine was exactly the sort of request I’d fly around answering. Sure, He might have been busy averting the Cuban missile crisis or something. But what good was being omnipresent if He couldn’t leave his signature on a kid’s desk at the same time as He was whispering in Krushchev’s ear?
I crumbled the paper and threw it in the wastebasket. God and I were through. Why believe in Someone who, when I needed proof of Him most, deserted me?
But wait. What if God did exist? What if, in fact, God had come all the way down from heaven, sat on the edge of my bed (I hope I had left Him enough room), lifted my pencil (which would explain why its position had shifted ever so slightly), and then paused? What if God had looked over at me, a sleeping child with painfully straight bangs and adult doubts, and leaned over my bed to whisper to me (and to my guardian angel, hanging on for dear life to his allotted 3-1/2 inches of mattress): “There’s no such thing as proof, kiddo! You have to just believe, or it’s not worth anything!” and then floated His way back up through the ceiling.
Ah, that God! What a devilishly clever argument. Clearly, this was a Creature capable of concocting fiendishly complex logic puzzles. Not a character I could blindly trust.
I wonder what Thomas Aquinas was like when he was 8 years old.
This first appeared in Minnesota Monthly magazine, January 2000