When I was two and a half, I went to school every day with my siblings and my teacher Mom. Because there was a baby boy at home and my Mom thought it too much to have our live-in babysitter take care of me as well as of the baby I happily trudged along to school. Since Mom taught kindergarten and first grade, I was kept in her classroom where I had the freedom to wander around or so I thought. The other children enjoyed seeing me trying to write with crayons and then turning to playing with clay or simply taking a nap when I got bored. In my eyes, the other children were all magical and funny and my Mom knew everything and loved every one of them and me. I took it for granted that we were all good; of course, my Mom was too and so was every adult. My innocent eyes saw innocence everywhere.
The first blow to my innocence came when I was around four years old and my sister who was a year older than I was sent somewhere for a week or so with one of my aunts and I was left behind. We were always dressed like twins and did everything together. The separation from her was wrenching. Even more painful was the feeling that she was more loved than I was and somehow I wasn’t good enough. My faith and trust in the unwavering love of my parents was shaken to its roots. The world was no longer the wonderful place I had imagined it to be. But I still carried much of that innocence for several more years. When a younger brother went to live with my paternal grandmother quite a distance from home, I saw my mother weep and that broke my heart – the world became darker. Something was not fair.
My family and all my neighbors indeed the whole town was Catholic. I did not know anyone of a different faith until I was in secondary school some distance from my town. Every Sunday evening, the church bell would ring summoning all for a blessing. I loved that little service. The altar boys saturated the sanctuary with incense and beautiful singing came from the rafters. Because the singing started when the priest opened the tabernacle in the center of the altar, I thought that we were listening to hordes of angels filling the church with heavenly music. One Sunday evening – I was getting older, around six or seven, – I turned and looked up at the back of the church when the priest opened the tabernacle. My heart sank; the music was coming from a group of people in the choir loft. What a letdown! I had been doubting the goodness of the world; now I began to wonder about angels and heaven. Things were not so divine anymore.
I was familiar with priests but not with nuns. I assumed that because they were God’s special people, nuns were spared normal bodily functions! I wasn’t sure they ate food but I was certain that they did not ever have to use a bathroom! And I thought that they would beam upon me as Christ definitely would. Then one Saturday I accompanied my mother on a shopping expedition to a bigger town some miles away. As we were going down one of the streets, there came several nuns walking briskly toward us. I looked expectantly at one of them with a smile. She glanced at me with a serious, almost frowning expression, ignored me, and passed on by. What a blow!! It was a disappointment to figure out that there was no Santa; but to begin to have doubts about God, that was a different matter entirely. My eight or nine-year old self was becoming more than a trifle disillusioned.
My eyes had lost a lot of their innocence and so did the world and heaven too! As the years went by and I entered my teenage years, the disillusions fairly piled up. I even became skeptical. Everything had to be tested before I would begin to assent. Even then, the assent was often halfhearted. And I often overdid the skepticism with teenage arrogance. I once tested my sister with the trick question: If God is almighty, can he build a house as big as himself that he can’t lift? It is fair to say that by this time, whatever innocence I still had evaporated.
As I look back, I see that there was a large portion of naivete in my innocence, and perhaps a certain naivete is helpful in one’s youth. Without it, one would not be willing to harbor larger than life dreams and take risks, and I have certainly taken some risks. According to those who have been tried by the exigencies of life and persevered, experience leads one to drop the blindfolds and carve out for oneself a more realistic innocence, an innocence that refuses to be corrupted and that becomes the bedrock for a life of achievement permeated with integrity. It can be a long and rocky road to there. “He is armed without who is innocent within….” Horace