Saturday, December 11, 2010

He knows when you've been bad or good

You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why. No, forget about Santa. Missing a few Christmas presents is the least of it. When I was a kid we had a better reason to be good.

Hell fire. Eternal torment. A long, never-ending roasting on the charcoal spit.


One mortal sin was all it took. No matter if one had been as good as gold since the day of one's birth. A single mortal sin -- having a really dirty thought, for example -- and you might spend all eternity in Hieronymus Bosch's ghastly hell. Meanwhile, the folks who didn't get caught with a mortal taint on their souls are up there in Paradise basking in bliss.

It sounds absurd now, but this was no laughing matter. I was always mumbling the Act of Contrition, just in case. That's all it took to cancel the possibility of eternal pain -- a mumbled formula, seventy words. Even in college, when danger loomed I made the Act of Contrition, covering all bets. I was pretty much always in a state of sin in those days. Or at least I thought I was.

Granted, they didn't mention Bosch's butcher blades and prickly beetles in my college theology course -- a sign we've made some progress since Bosch's time, I suppose. But Satan was presented as very real, and very interested in claiming my soul. Even without literal fires, hell would be the agony of having missed out on the Beatific Vision -- an eternity of thumping myself on my resurrected head and groaning "only if."

Funny thing, then. My own children and grandchildren were not exposed to any of the hellfire nonsense that was so much a part of my youth, and as far as I can tell their lives have been as moral as mine. Maybe more so. Bosch? Bosh! They were raised to believe there are reasons to be good besides "the loss of heaven and the pains of hell." They were raised to be good for goodness sake.