The Beginning of the End
Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult.
In third grade I stole a necklace. As I labored over fractions, nibbling a rubbery pencil eraser and spitting grainy flecks onto the floor, I spied it glinting from Kim’s desk across the aisle. We all sat at those Formica elementary school desks, the ones that yawned wide open over our laps so our pencil cases and workbooks and glue sticks were readily accessible. The necklace sat right at the edge, within reach. It was exquisite, exotic—a choker with a black velvet strap and a single brilliant faux sapphire, like something Barbie would wear with a sequined halter, the red convertible top down, Ken at the wheel.
I had to have it, pined for it, battling a desire so strong it made my stomach clench. So while Mrs. Grant bent over Kim’s shoulder, I quickly reached behind their backs, slid my fingers into the open desk, grabbed the velvet strand, and balled it into the front pocket of my corduroys, a snake slipping into a dark hole.
Regret rushed in almost instantly. The thrilling high of the conquest crashed into gut-wrenching fear. Aware of its weight all day in my pocket, I passed up my usual penny drops on the junglegym at recess for fear the necklace would plunk into the sand as I swung by my knees. Later I dashed to the girls’ room and perched on the toilet with the gem balanced on my thigh. I thought seriously about flushing my loot but worried it would plug up the system. Plus I realized that wouldn’t solve the real problem anyway, the whole rotting-in-hell dilemma. A simple flush would not hide my sin from the all-seeing eyes of God.
I never wore the necklace, of course. How could I? My mother would have noticed immediately and interrogated me; none of my relatives would have given me such a flashy piece of jewelry—we were more a mother-of-pearl crowd. I couldn’t even tell my best friend, Andrea. I knew she’d rat me out to her mother, who would then tell my mother, and I’d be history.
Occasionally, with the door of my bedroom tightly closed, I held the choker up to my neck before the mirror—I never dared latch the clasp—to admire its sparkle and dream of how it would look with my rainbow-striped velour top, wishing I could wear it to Heather’s rollerskating party. I realized it was pointless to own such a gem when I
couldn’t flaunt it, but it was too late to put it back.
Stealing, I knew, was a ticket straight to hell. “Thou shalt not steal” was, in fact, one of the more clearly defined commandments. I may not have fully grasped the nuances of “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” or “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” but there wasn’t much fuzziness around the seventh commandment. I could practically hear God thundering, “Thou shalt not steal…Michelle.”
Breaking a commandment was a mortal sin, especially when the act was premeditated, and I knew I had definitely schemed to get that necklace into my pocket. While venial sins, like fibbing or gossiping, might land you in Purgatory for a few decades if you failed to confess before you died, the unconfessed mortal sin would send you spiraling directly to the eternal fires of hell. I knew if I didn’t do something soon, I was destined to shrivel up in hell like a clam neck in the Frialator. Thankfully, I had an out: all I had to do was confess my sin to Father Loiselle. My mother dragged my sister and me to Saint Michael’s for confession once a month and every Friday during Lent.
And I loved it. Well, not the act of confession itself. That was like visiting gnarled Aunt Bell in Mount Saint Margaret’s nursing home and having Dr. Mallard’s gaggy fluoride treatment, all at the same time. But oh, that feeling: the lightness that spread like a warm wave through my body after I exited the confessional. Nothing, nothing came close to that heady burst of liberation as I danced down the church steps, my soul pure and unblemished once again. The hope! The promise! The possibility! This time, I swear, I’m going to be good. I am so done with sinning!
Each month I steeled myself, buoying my spirits with a pep talk. “Okay. This is it. Yup. Here we go. You can do it. Seriously, no problem. I mean, aren’t there worse sins than stealing? Like murder, you know, something bloody and gross, like the guy who stuffed his wife’s body through the wood chipper. That’s way worse than stealing some dumb fake necklace. Just get in there and do it.”
After drawing aside the red velvet drapes, I crept into the dim confessional and knelt before the grated window, hands clasped, white-knuckled and clammy. The window whooshed open, and from the shadowy figure hunched on the other side came a quiet voice: “You may begin, my child.”
Wait, wait, did he say “my child”? How the heck does he know I’m a kid? Shoot. Crap. Shootshootcrapcrapcrap, can he see me?! “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been one month since my last confession and these are my sins: I lied to my mom and dad; I disobeyed my parents; I kicked my sister on the couch while we were watching The Love Boat; I called Andrea a dork.”
Give or take a few minor infractions, I recited the same list every time, and I always left off the big one; I simply couldn’t bring myself to confess the theft. I would leave the confessional uncleansed, kneel in the pew to recite my penance, and curse myself for my cowardice. Had there been a flagellation whip at hand, I would have used it in an instant, anything to gain a feeling of atonement.
After some months of this, my soul started to feel like my mother’s Sunday T-bone, smoldering on the grill about ten minutes too long and shrunken to a blackened lump.
Finally, after about the fifth failed confession, I came up with a brilliant idea: I would start wearing a scapular. A scapular is a “sacramental”—a religious object worn by Roman Catholics. It’s commonly given to young children when they make their First Communion, which was exactly when I had received mine. My scapular consisted of two small squares of cloth connected by a loop of thread and worn over the shoulders, so that one square rested on the chest and the other on the back between the shoulder blades. It was of the “brown scapular” variety (nicknamed for the color of the cloth)—officially called the Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel—and it was authentic, having been blessed by a priest before it was given to me.
Ordinarily I kept the scapular in a small wooden box on the bookshelf next to my bed. But when I decided to take it out, drape the threads over my head, and nestle the two squares under my clothing, I did so for one reason and one reason only. Inscribed on the scapular in gothic script was this line: “Whosoever dies wearing this scapular shall not suffer eternal fire.” This, I felt, was like Monopoly’s much-soughtafter Get Out of Jail Free card. This was my loophole, my free pass into heaven. All I had to do was keep the scapular on my body, and I would be saved.
The use of the scapular is steeped in tradition and mystery. It’s believed to have been originally given by the Virgin Mary to Saint Simon Stock, who, legend has it, lived in the hollow of an oak tree as a young boy before joining the Order of the Carmelites in 1212. When he appealed to Mary in a prayer for his oppressed order, it’s said she appeared before him with the scapular in her hand, saying, “Take, beloved son this scapular of thy order as a badge of my confraternity and for thee and all Carmelites a special sign of grace; whoever dies in this garment, will not suffer everlasting fire. It is the sign of salvation, a safeguard in dangers, a pledge of peace and of the covenant.”1 With the scapular tucked beneath my clothes I felt invincible, as if I were wrapped in an invisible, magical cloak, a shield of protection. So what if it was a bit of a hassle? Sometimes it wrapped itself two or three times around my neck and threatened to strangle me as I slept. And sometimes it slid into the folds of my turtleneck, rubbing a raw spot until I had to flee to the girls’ room to straighten it out. The rule was that you had to wear the scapular all the time, even under your soccer uniform and your nightgown. Unsure how bathing worked, I stashed it on the sink counter and splashed through my shower at breakneck speed, hoping I wouldn’t slip on the soap, crack open my head, and plummet straight to hell. For weeks I turned down open swim night at the town pool. After all, I couldn’t very well display the scapular over my bathing suit like a nun.
To me, wearing the scapular was worth all the trouble. Its presence released me from fear and allowed me to feel free and safe again. The constant chafing of the rough fabric against my skin was a reminder of my sin, a penance of sorts. In my mind, the subtle but everpresent discomfort was an atonement, a substitute for the fact that I
hadn’t actually confessed my sin to a priest. I told myself it was okay because I was doing something better; I was making an even greater sacrifice: I was wearing a scapular every day for the rest of my life! It also helped that the scapular was hideous; it was fitting that I forced myself to wear an unattractive accessory in place of the sparkling, alluring necklace. The scapular—rough, primitive, and ugly—was exactly what I deserved.
I never connected the scapular with any thoughts about God; it never occurred to me that I should first have faith in God before I expected the scapular to make good on its claims. I simply wore it as proof, like a legal deed granting me the “right” to enter heaven. I wasn’t exactly sure who was granting me this right—the priest who blessed the scapular and gave it to me on my First Communion? Jesus? God? But that didn’t matter. I simply figured if I followed the rules just right—wore those two squares of cloth appropriately and didn’t ever remove them from my body—then the inscribed words would come true.
At the time I hadn’t known about Mary’s message to Simon, but even if I had, I surely would have missed the nuances of her speech. I certainly would not have appreciated that she meant the scapular to be merely a symbol of Simon’s faith and a sign of grace. It wasn’t the pieces of cloth that bore any power, but the faith behind them. Mary stated her intent clearly when she emphasized to Simon that the scapular was a “badge of my confraternity,” a “sign of grace,” a “sign of salvation,” and a “pledge of peace and of the covenant.” Whether the priest made that distinction clear when he handed me the scapular, or whether I chose not to hear it, I don’t recall. All I know is that I considered those two squares of cloth my passport to eternal life.
Eventually, inevitably, I lost the scapular. I’m not sure if it got tangled in my sweater and was sucked out with the dirty water in the washing machine, or if the strings wore thin and it slipped out the bottom of my shirt and onto the street. All I remember is that I discovered one evening to my absolute horror that the scapular was gone. I
searched frantically for it, pawing through the hamper, retracing my steps through the apple orchard in back of our house, scanning the hallways of Mountain View Elementary the next morning, peering into the stalls of the girls’ room, and combing the soccer field. But it was gone.
Once again I was defenseless, stripped of my armor, gripped by terror, and bound for the unquenchable fires of hell.