SATURDAY READING: Saint Thomas Aquinas — Nuns, Prophecies, Communists, the Bomb, the Dread of Angels, Reason, Faith, and the Summa Theologica

Written by Richard Bausch

We proceed thus to the first article: It seems that the existence of God is self-evident. . . .

Since Time is a human invention, and since the psyche knows nothing of it, really, I am always at least partly living in the presence, among all the other presences, of two separate days, both sunny and cool, both taking place in late March, at the tag end of winter, when the ground is still mostly gray or winter brown, but when some early blossoms are out, and the air has that fresh, earthy new-grass fragrance of spring.

The first of these days is in 1959.  A Saturday morning.  I’m sitting in a CCD class — Confraternity of Christian Doctrine — for Catholic children who attend public schools.  There’s a wall of windows to my left, looking out on the world, the wide fallow field and budding trees of the land bordering the church grounds; the sky is as blue as the idea of blue, and it is impossible to think that the whole of it is threatened.

1959.  People are building fallout shelters, and everybody is talking about the Communists, and the Bomb.  New tests are being conducted on both sides of the world.  We have seen the huge terrible blooms of “smoke” in the newsreels.  Scientists are finding something called strontium 90 in the milk we drink.  It filters down in the rain, settles in the grass the cows eat, and gets into their bones, into their milk.  Thus, the very essence of health and life — so the frowning newsmen on our little General Electric black-and-white television have informed us — now carries this deadly poison in varying amounts.  Recently, Father Russell, our pastor, delivered a sermon about the end of the world — we must, as individual souls on our very private separate journeys to God, worry more about the end of our individual worlds, which is certain, than the end of the whole world, which is out of our hands.

It’s out there somewhere in the blue, blue sky, and people have been talking about trying to shoot it down.

On television there are ads with musical jingles about ducking when you see the white flash.  “Duck. . . and cover,” the voices sing.  And in my eighth-grade class someone has given me a yellow card with instructions on what to do in case of a nuclear attack: (1) Remove all sharp objects from your pocket; (2) Remove glasses and any jewelry; (3) Seat yourself in a hardback chair; (4) Put your head between your legs; and (5) Kiss your ass good-bye.

Regularly at my public school the teachers conduct drills, which have us all lined up in the halls, crouched with our hands over our heads.  It’s so much a part of everything that we think nothing of it.  I pretend the white flash comes, though I’m unable to imagine what the following shock might really feel like.  At an all-school assembly, our assistant principal, a World War II veteran, like all the adult men, talked about how in 1944 and 1945 it took thousands of bombs to cause the destruction of Berlin.  “Nowadays,” he said, pausing for dramatic effect, “it would take one bomb.  Just one bomb.”  He spoke into a surprisingly long silence for a junior-high-school gymnasium full of teenagers.  The Bomb, the one Bomb, has taken on a mythical power, as if it were something alive, with a kind of random will.

Everything is tinged with uncertainty and fear.

My father leads us in the Rosary every night, and I have begun thinking, as most Catholic boys do at one time or another, of the priesthood.  My own whispered prayers, during the cold predawn weekday mornings I walk to the six o’clock Mass and Communion, are addressed to the fading stars, as if I’m already traveling among them.  I seem to lose the sense of my own body.  I’m all spirit in these moments, and keeping the commandments is easy.

But such passages are brief.

Mostly, all each damned day — to paraphrase John Berryman — I have to fight the battles of the flesh, and as everyone knows, those battles are always fought, for good or ill, in one’s mind.  Some buried paragraph of a newspaper article I came upon in the school library said that people who bite their nails or move their legs rhythmically when seated, or perform other unconscious nervous movements when supposedly idle — all of which I do to the point of irritating those around me — are giving off the signs of “a marked mental conflict.”  I can’t believe that others are not subject to the same constant fight.  It feels sometimes as if I am nothing less than the battleground between God and the devil, and the devil seems to be winning.  Mostly, I feel as if nothing of the faith my family practices is quite possible or true.  For all the prayers and rituals, the sacraments and devotions, I am having trouble believing in any of it.

At Christmas, when my mother read to us the account of the angels appearing to the shepherds, how the shepherds were “sore afraid,” I couldn’t understand the passage at all.  Why afraid?  To have such visible and undeniable proof of the divine presence, to have the necessity of faith removed by the blinding fact of the angels suspended in the air over our heads?  I would have rejoiced at such a vision, would have leapt to my feet shouting, “Look! Look everybody! It’s true!  It’s all true!  You don’t have to worry about it anymore!”

On this particular Saturday morning in 1959, I am gazing out at the perfect sky, and trying not to think about the satellite hurling through it.  Over the past few days, I have been reading some of the more dramatic accounts of the lives of the saints, and there’s been talk from the nuns we spend the CCD classes with, about the stigmata — with graphic details, of course.  I am trying to imagine the stigmata when abruptly I hear my name called, and realize that my instructor, Sister Theresa, has asked me a question.  Because I am half in a daze, I say, “What?”

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