By Attila Zønn
We went to church one Sunday, and when they passed the basket around Nonna put money in it. I looked around and saw that all through the church baskets were being passed around and people put money in it. I asked Nonna, “What’s the money for?”
“For God,” she said.
So God needed money.
When we got home, I asked Nonna why God needed money. She said, “God does not need money—He is God, but we collect for Him for people who need money. They need the money, they take.”
Though she had crucifixes in every room, and pictures of the Virgin Mary on pretty much everything, even the matching sugar bowl and milk decanter, Nonna wasn’t much of a churchgoer. She went on the big occasions; Palm Sunday, Easter, Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve— sometimes, and that was it. But she wanted me to go. She said it would be good for me to know God. So every Sunday I’d get dressed up and go see God. Nonna would give me a quarter to put in the basket, and off I’d go to church.
For the first few times, I put the quarter in the basket. People around me smiled. One time, however, I reached into my pocket for the quarter and couldn’t find it. I went into a panic because I felt that if I didn’t give my offering, I’d be damned. Watching that basket pass by me while I frantically checked all my pockets for that quarter, I had the thought of this day being the last day of my life.
On the way home I was so nervous. I didn’t know how God was going to strike me for not having a quarter to put in the basket. There were lots of cars going up and down the street. I thought maybe God would make one of them jump the curb and squash me on the sidewalk, so I got off the sidewalk and walked on the lawns. When I passed one house, an old man sitting on his verandah stood up and said, “Now, why would you do that? Why would you trample all over my lawn when God gave you a perfectly good sidewalk?”
When I got to the lights, I was so afraid I could feel my heart thumping at my temples. I didn’t take the first light, I didn’t take the second. By the third light, I couldn’t move. I stood there for a long time until an old lady came and stood beside me. She smiled at me then the light turned green, and I thought, if I walk across with this old lady, right alongside her, then God wouldn’t have me run over because he’d kill her too. He wouldn’t do that—kill a good one to get to the bad one?—but it also occurred to me as we were halfway across, that this old lady might be on the outs with God too and he could do the both of us in one shot.
She must have been one of the good ones, so I walked with her.
This old lady kept humming to herself, and once in a while she’d look down at me and say, “Watch you don’t step on any cracks.” Finally, we stopped in front of a red brick house with ivy crawling up one side.
“Goodbye, little man,” the old lady said and went inside. I stood staring at her front door. A breeze suddenly picked up followed by a gust of wind that rolled a Coke can in the middle of the street, and it startled me. I could see the school, knew I’d be home soon, and knew God had forgotten about me.
I saved my quarters for God and gave them to Shawna at the Dairy Queen on the way home from church, and she gave me a large cone dipped in chocolate. Now I looked forward to going to church.
When my cousin’s daughter had her first communion, Nonna and I were invited. The church was packed and noisy—that drone of auditoriums or concert halls before the performance, everybody saying hello and catching up on each others’ lives I guess—when the door on the one side of the altar burst open and Father Edgardo came out in half regalia, gruffly approached the microphone and said, “Excuse me! I can hear you all the way back in the sacristy! Do you know where you are? You’re in the Boss’s house.” He pointed to the big Jesus hanging on the wall behind him.
“Show some respect!” And back he went from where he came.
Seeing Father Edgardo again reminded me of the time after mass when I snuck around the back part of the church trying to find out where they kept the baskets with all the money and came across his office. He had his back to the door and was on the phone saying, “I don’t give a rat’s ass what he thinks. If he doesn’t like my attitude, he can come down here and take over.”
After the procession, when all the girls and boys, dressed as little brides and little grooms were seated, Father Edgardo approached them with clasped hands and a broad smile.
“We all like hamburgers don’t we?” he said.
The kids smiled and nodded.
“We like to go to McDonald’s, don’t we?”
The kids nodded happily.
Suddenly, the priest’s smile morphed into a scowl.
“Well, Jesus!”— he pointed back at the cross —“is not a hamburger. Do you know what he did for us? He gave up his life for us. And we don’t go to church the way we go to McDonald’s— when we feel like a hamburger. The Boss,” and again he pointed to the cross, “wants your total attention. Commitment. Do you know what that is? That’s your duty. Do you know what that is? That’s something you have to do. When you enter into the covenant, he expects all of you. Not once in a while. Not just on Sundays and Easter and Christmas, but always. You belong to him. You owe him.”
Some of the kids looked like they were going to cry.
“When you eat his body and drink his blood you’re not eating a hamburger and drinking a milkshake, you’re eating the person who died for you.”
The scowl vanished, and he smiled again.
“We like to go to the movies, don’t we? The smell of popcorn, chewing candy, drinking pop, and movies can make us laugh, and make us happy. But movies aren’t real. They’re make-believe. They are fiction. Do you know what that is? It’s a little bit of real life and a lot of made up mumbo-jumbo. Do you know what that is? It’s nonsense. The Lord, our Jesus Christ” and again he pointed to the Jesus on the wall, “is real. There—he—is! Look at him. Look at his pain, look at his agony. His suffering can make us happier than any silly movie, but we have to give ourselves completely. There’s no thinking involved, no questions to ask and not once—in—a—while.”
His eyes widened, and he stuck his index finger into the air and shook it like he was having a eureka moment. “This is a great lesson you’re learning here today as you’re all dressed up for God. Make it a habit to remind your parents of what I’ve just taught you.” He performed a slow scan over the congregation, then went to the altar, opened his tassel bookmarked Bible and read from it, and at that moment my mind began to wander, and yawns came over me.
©2016 Attila Zønn