ATWELL: Priest Gave Me A Different Take On Life



Angst At Age 15

By JIM ATWELL • Special to

Last time we talked, I described the start of a major teenage crisis: when I knocked a nun flat on on her face, and then sat on her.

To summarize: During halftime of our high school’s basketball team, I was selling candy and gum in the hallway just outside the gym to raise money for new uniforms. I was sitting on the edge of rickety table, and a young nun (my homeroom teacher!) was standing by me to keep order as I sold my goods.

Jim Atwell, a Quaker minister and retired college administrator, lives in Cooperstown.

As someone always says after a mishap, “It all happened so quickly!” Blare of a horn signaled that second quarter had ended. Gym doors burst outward, and a roiling teenage crowd poured into the hallway, most of them turning right and toward our table.

That table was in poor shape, shaky, and I shouldn’t have been sitting on its edge. But I was a young smart aleck, showing off. Sister Mary Aphasia (I’m cloaking her real name) stepped backward as the crowd surged toward us, and (dare I say it?) through all the black serge, a buttock pressed into my bony knee.

Something like electric shock struck me. My bony knee kicked backward and took out the table leg. I was dumped forward, knocking Sister Aphasia face-down in the horrified crowd. And I, limbs flailing, came to rest, cushioned on what I’d first contacted only seconds before.

At first the shocked crowd fell back, as if what lay on the floor was a bomb about to explode. Then two classmates grabbed my arms and yanked me up. I blundered into the crowd, praying to be suddenly cockroach size so I could skitter away through the scuffling white bucks and sneakers.

Meanwhile, two red-faced senior girls uprighted Sister Aphasia, who, who hadn’t been hurt and, by all reports, was laughing heartily. Oh, bless that dear nun, long in retirement and now in her nineties! I wonder if she has any recollection of that day?

I do, and of the days that followed, ones racked with guilt for me. “You knocked down and sat on a nun! Sacrilege!” I couldn’t stop shouting that in my mind.

I knew what I had to do. Confession. That would free me of the horror. But I couldn’t risk presenting my sacrilege in the confessional. The priests in our parish all belonged to a tough, German-founded order; and some of them were given to bawling out loudly those confessing to them.

I could easily imagine one reacting to what I spilled out:

“What? You did what?” At that, the line outside that confessional would scatter into the pews like startled hens. I could, however, betake myself to another member of that order, a man who was, to my mind, a true saint.

Father Joe Turner was too old  and arthritic to handle hours in a stuffy confessional. Instead, he hobbled down the corridor from his room and directly into the empty choir loft high over the back of the church.

There he eased himself onto a pew, took out his rosary, and sat in the shadows, waiting to receive anyone who should come. He had a small purple stole around his neck, a sign that he was open for business.

And business came, though all male. For at that time a priest could not hear a woman’s confession unless a screen was between him and the penitent. But the males came, and one of them, me – 15, shaking, as I blurted out an account of the sacrilege I had committed.

As I blurted, Father Joe leaned forward, head in hands, shaking as much as I was. Then I realized the old man was suppressing laughter. And I felt hurt, disappointed, even insulted.

Sitting upright again, Father Joe wiped away tears; and then, as he found his voice, he waved his open hand slowly back and forth before him. When he could speak, he said something I have remembered for 65 years.

“Son, I’d gladly hear your confession, but you have no sins to tell me. But I have something to tell you that explains what happened. God has wondrous ways of opening up our lives to us. And at times like this, I’m sure that He also has a fine sense of humor as he nudges us along in our lives.” He paused a moment, looking calmly at me. And in that moment, I sensed a great blessing was being offered me.

“Now, here is how to read this strange, zany thing that befell you.” He chuckled at the aptness of befell.

“The jolt you suffered, and that continues in you, awoke something that will rejoice and vex you all your days, even if you live to my age.” Another chuckle and a slow shake of his head.

“I mean your human sexuality. I don’t know why it should have been sparked by a madcap happening — unless it’s because God is a bit of a jokester.” He smiled warmly. “I like to think so.”

He slapped his own knees, meaning a discussion done.

“Now, young man, you need some time to think. But make sure that it is fear-free thought! Thinking of God shouldn’t scare you, but invite love and trust. Do you understand?”

Yes, I do. And better every year.

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