The day I was granted the Sacrament of Confirmation and was admitted with full rights and privileges to the Church Eternal got off to a slow start, because the bishop was late. There had been a rain delay at the Mets game, but His Excellency couldn’t just leave the stadium, because the Mets were playing the Pirates, and this was the Pirates team with Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell and Dock Ellis (who would pitch a no-hitter a month later while stoned out of his mind), and anyway the Mets were coming off their shocking championship the year before, so who would leave on account of a little downpour?
We waited in the school auditorium as our parents and grandparents and disgruntled brothers and sisters rustled in the searing heat of the church. It was a roaring hot day and someone in the choir fainted. My dad said later he could hear a hole exactly the size of an alto in the choir’s subsequent performance, but we think he was teasing us. Finally the bishop arrived, having left the game in a huff when the Mets made their fourth error of the day, and the ceremony started.
Our older brothers and sisters, who had already been Confirmed and were pretty smug about it and claimed there were secret rituals and code words they could never reveal to us on pain of death, had filled us with stories of the bishop slapping kids in the face as part of the ancient Sacrament, and while none of us could figure out why exactly a slap figured in a ceremony that seemed to be about welcoming new members to the army, we were suitably forewarned, and there was a lot of loose talk about slapping the bishop back, and ducking his hand, and bobbing and weaving like Muhammad Ali, or catching his hand as it came hurtling toward your face and leaning in companionably and whispering not this time, big fella, and remarks like that, mostly from the boys, although two of the girls, I remember, were coldly intent on slapping anyone who slapped them, and one girl said she would accept the first blow and turn her other cheek for a second slap, but we thought she was just trying to impress Sister Marie.
The Mets lost the game finally, seven to four, and just as we started up the aisle, two by two, boys to the west and girls to the east, a flurry of fathers and older brothers arrived in the back of the church and the heat rose noticeably. The choir started into “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” and someone, we think our dad, said the words breakaway Anglican cult loud enough for the whole back of the church to ripple.
I looked at my older brother as I went past our family’s pew and he made a gesture like a bishop slapping a kid so hard the kid’s spectacles flew off and my heart quailed. It was a good thing the boy in front of me had new shoes that squeaked so loud when he took a step that everyone on our side of the church laughed as we marched forward, which made me happy even though I was sure my spectacles were going to be smashed to smithereens when the bishop knocked them off and we didn’t have the money for another pair and I would end up destitute and living in the blackberry thickets by the railroad station with the other hobos, drinking lighter fluid and eating mice for a living and having only the New York Post for a blanket, a terrible newspaper.
His Excellency was no pixie and he was from the Bronx and he looked like he was eight feet tall and a thousand pounds of muscle when I got within range and got a good look at him. I had seen missionaries before, so I was used to priests not wearing the straightforward black uniform, but I have to say it was unnerving to see a guy who looked like a wrestler wearing bright purple silks and a hat like a huge golden thumbnail. He wore spectacles, which cheered me up for a moment, because no guy with glasses would ever slap another guy with glasses, guys with glasses being like teammates in the dim murk, but then I remembered my brother telling me that His Excellency wore glasses so he could land his slaps with precision, rather than be scattering them all over the place like French artillery officers.
We approached the bishop two by two, as I said, but as we detoured around the altar the lines then merged, so that we approached Slap City boy girl boy girl, and all of this for some reason was in height order, for reasons known only to Sister Marie, who was also a stickler for spacing, so as we climbed the altar and marched ever closer to the bishop we were all discombobulated, trying to keep our spacing right, trying not to think about living on mice and lighter fluid, trying not to laugh at Herman’s squeaking shoes, trying to merge properly between glaring girls, and all this on the hottest day anyone could ever remember, despite the brief thunderstorm, which was probably the reason the Mets’ pitcher lost his rhythm and ended up walking five Pirates.
The girl in front of me was named Corita and she was one of the tallest girls in class and she had a head of the thickest curliest hair you ever saw, so I couldn’t really see what was happening with her and the bishop. I tried to peer around her, but she stuck her elbows out angrily and all I could see of His Excellency was the far east and west edges of his purple robes.
You never saw anything so purple in your life, and the cloth was some shimmering fabric that reflected light in remarkable ways, so that staring directly at even the edges of the rippling brilliance of his robes was mesmerizing, which is probably the whole point, robewise, when you think about it. Never forget, as my dad likes to say, that the Church Eternal has been around a very long time, and it has thought about every tiny detail of the theatrical milieu, and milled it for maximum effect, which you have to admire, as long as you remember it is colorful melodrama, which is to say mannered performance, reflective of substance but not actually, of course, substance itself. This is how my dad talks, which is also mesmerizing.
Finally Corita stepped aside, glaring at me, and I climbed the final step and stood in front of the bishop. He was sitting in the pastor’s immense wooden chair, with his crosier in his left hand and his right hand, the slapper, coiled and ready on the arm of the throne. For an instant I got absorbed in his crosier—the crosier is his shepherd’s crook, essentially the badge of his office, and to me it looked eerily like a pike or a battle-ax, despite the friendly curls and coils at the top—but then His Excellency leaned in on me and smiled and asked my name.
His voice was surprisingly gentle, but this too I expected as my brother had told me bishops liked to lull kids before the slap. For another instant I thought about giving him one of my younger brothers’ names, but then I realized that it was all one and the same to him, another name wouldn’t save me, and if I lied to a bishop at the altar I would burst into flames and Sister Marie would be upset about spacing.
So I told him my name. He smiled and then, more loudly now, asked me what name I was choosing to bear as a member with full rights and privileges in the Church Eternal. Again I hesitated, and I have to say all these years later that I am still ashamed to say that the first thought that went through my mind was Bozo!, but then I said Patrick!, as my brothers and I had agreed I would say, and the bishop, his voice now booming, said Then Patrick, I name thee in the Holy Spirit, and I sign thee with the sign of the cross, and confirm thee with the chrism of our salvation in Jesus Christ! He said this so incredibly loudly that I was sure people a mile away could hear it; he was so loud, in fact, and I was so close to his mouth, that I was shell-shocked for an instant, which is why I lost track of his right hand .
I was never much for peripheral vision anyway, what with the thick spectacles—I have been hit with every sort of ball there is, and was once struck a glancing blow by a swallow, which is not a phrase you hear every day—so I didn’t see his hand looming until the last possible second. Did I flinch?
Sure, I flinched—I mean, I have brothers, and you learn to go with the direction that the blow will carry you, to dilute its force—and as I bent sharply away from his hand, my glasses slipped, and I went for them with both hands; again an unconscious reflex, just like flinching, because there is nothing so important to a guy with glasses as his glasses. Without them you are doomed, it’s mice and lighter fluid for sure, and as my dad says, thank God you are not living in the time of Our Lord Jesus Christ before there were such things as glasses, unless you were living in a village through which He passed on His footloose voyages, in which case you would be in the New Testament in the place of the woman who touched his cloak, the story changing slightly to be something like you touching His cloak and whispering up from the dust a polite request for Him to miraculously invent not one but two pairs of glasses, one as a backup for when you lose the first pair, which we both know will happen.
My brothers told me later there was a titter from the audience at all this, me flinching away and my glasses slipping and all that, but I didn’t hear it, for which I am grateful, because I would certainly have burst into tears. Maybe that was a miracle from Our Lord Jesus Christ, to cover my ears for a moment. Or maybe what happened next was a miracle also. I stood up straight, adjusting my glasses, and the bishop’s right hand touched me ever so gently, ever so tenderly, on my left cheek, and he said peace be with you, Patrick, peace be with you, and he meant it, he meant it with all his heart.
I could tell that, somehow. I am not kidding and I am not being literary and I mean it as much as I have ever meant anything. I never met that man before that moment and I never met him afterwards, but I tell you true that his eyes were so kind and gentle and merciful and amused that my heart leapt a little, even though I was twelve years old and rattled and a little frightened and just beginning to be cynical.
He left his huge warm hand on my cheek for another second or two and then he said it again, this time very quietly, just so he and I could hear it, peace be with you, son, peace be with you, and I turned away to the west and walked off the altar, and all the rest of my life, until the day I die, I will remember the absolute genuine heartfelt kindness in that man’s eyes. We are always going around looking for miracles and here they are, right here, waiting patiently for us.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine.