Rick's Space

Heaven And Hell

A look at punishment and time served for elementary school sins

We spent a lot of time at St. Francis of Assisi elementary school going over the nuances of Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell.

We discussed Limbo as well, but that was more like an elective course, whereas our bread and butter was the Big Three, and with good reason: virtually every human who ever died resides in one of those places.

When we were little kids, our main focus was on Purgatory. A typical nine-year old, after all, is hardly capable of a sin heinous enough to warrant a one-way trip to Hell. I mean, I didn’t know how to “covet a neighbor’s wife” so even if I did want to do it with Mrs. Buonciello next door, I wouldn’t know where to start.

We would ask, for example, how long in Purgatory for stealing a Milky Way candy bar? Sister Anne once told us 1000 years. Ouch! That’s a lot of time. “My Uncle Vito broke his parole officer’s neck and he only got five years probation,” Louis Gianelli pointed out.

“A thousand years!” I exclaimed. “I can hardly wait for Christmas and it’s only two months away.”

The message was clear, Sister Anne told us: don’t steal, and you won’t have to worry about going to Purgatory. “So, we’ll go to heaven!” We all cheered and clapped.

Well, no, Sister Anne cautioned, wagging her finger. There was that little matter of cursing and using God’s name in vain. I did a lot of that. To hone my tough guy persona at age nine, I would wear my belt buckle on my hip, comb my hair into a pompadour, carry a comb in my back pocket visible for all to see, and spit freely wherever I went, including the rectory and (God forgive me) church.

I also cursed, and as I was destined to be a writer, I had a rich, full, vibrant vocabulary of disgusting verbiage suitable for all occasions. “That’s five years for each curse,” Sister Anne said after hearing one of my schoolyard tirades. The math was so tough I lost count, but it would have been a lot of years for sure.

By the time we were teenagers, we had graduated from petty crime to the big stuff. Put another way, we would have gladly signed on for Purgatory right then and there. It’s kind of like in court when the judge offers you a plea bargain and you accept 20 years because it’s preferable to the electric chair.

Most of my sins (besides Grand Theft Auto) could be traced to those two cursed words: Impure Thoughts. As surely as pot leads to heroin, Impure Thoughts lead to Impure Deeds and that, ladies and gentlemen, will land you in Hell every time.

To facilitate this grim fate, the devil comes to Earth to help us along. I’m pretty sure of that, because the devil must have been hiding inside Mary Beth Sweeney, who was in the PS 92 schoolyard every time I happened to be passing through at dusk on my way home.

She would whisper temptations. I gave in and coveted her once, if the word means what I think it does.

From that moment on, I was a Walking Dead. Should an accident befall me, my body would be whisked directly to Hell. There wouldn’t even be a wake at The Francisco Medaglio Funeral Parlor. The only way out was to get to Confession, and get there quick.

There were at least 12 confessions booths at St. Francis Asissi Church but they were all darkened every day I went. The only time there was any activity was between two and four on Saturday afternoon when the light was on like it was an occupied tollbooth on the New York State Thruway. No one ever saw a priest walk in or leave. Frankie Federico said they come up through the floor and can send us down the same way if our sins are bad enough.

I recited the usual, “lied to my brother three times, took God’s name in vain once, coveted Patti Page once,” and then I blurted out the whole truth.

I could barely make out the whisper but I swear he said, “The Sweeney girl, eh?” He then issued my punishment: say three Hail Marys. “But I’ll need you to walk over to Nostrand Avenue and pick up the dry cleaning,” he added.

“That’s it?” I nodded and ran all the way. The clerk smiled slightly when I ran into the store, and then whispered, “The Sweeney girl, eh?”

As for Limbo, that’s where you go if you have a spotless soul but don’t qualify for heaven. The nuns would use a newborn baby as an example: if a baby came into the world and then passed on before it was baptized, it would go to Limbo. That didn’t seem very fair. Limbo, we were assured, was just like heaven except you didn’t get to be with God. That’s like going to see The Stones with no Mick Jagger.

“What if the infant had impure thoughts?” I asked Sister Anne. She took God’s name in vain and hit me with a ruler. “You’re gonna do time for that,” I informed her.

Rick Murphy is a six-time winner of the New York Press Association Best Column award as well as the winner of first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and the Suburban Newspaper Association of America and a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.