Inside Information on the Existence of God — An Essay by Dinty W. Moore
ESSAY: CATECHISM FOR A BAFFLED CHILD, BY DINTY W. MOORE
LESSON ONE: THE PURPOSE OF MAN’S EXISTENCE
Q. Who made the world?
A. God made the world.
Q. Who is God?
A. To be honest, had I written The New St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism, I might have chosen to start the kids off with something a good bit easier than “Who is God?”
Maybe something more along the lines of “Who made the world? God made the world. And after He made the world, God also made the zebras and ponies.”
The Holy Trinity, on the other hand, was unquestionably going to be a tough sell, any way you look at it, and if Sister Mary Mark had been a better salesperson, she would have sensed the need to ease us into this whole God thing more gently.
But Sister Mary Mark followed the Catechism page-by-page, and thus found herself struggling on the opening day of first grade religion class to explain this divinely complex metaphysical conundrum to a room of six-year-olds. “God is the supreme being,” she recited, “infinitely perfect, who made all things and keeps them in existence.”
Never mind that our young vocabularies weren’t able to fully parse at least three of those words:supreme, infinite, existence? The larger problem was that most of us couldn’t breathe, so intimidated were we by the stern, black-robed woman pacing the aisles with her big wooden pointer, laying down the new rules of life:
Sit up straight. No gum. No talking. Uncross your legs. If you need to go to the bathroom, wait, and if you can’t wait, raise your hand and eventually I will acknowledge you. Sit up straight. Uncross your legs. No gum. No talking.
The fact that she claimed to have inside information on the existence of God did not serve to put us at ease.
Q. Why did God make you?
A. God made you to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.
Q. How shall we know the things which we are to believe?
A. We shall know the things which we are to believe from the Catholic Church, through which God speaks to us.
Q. At what age does a child begin to understand the concept of circular reasoning?
A. Probably at about six years old.
LESSON TWO: GOD AND HIS PERFECTIONS
Q. What is God?
A. God is a spirit infinitely perfect.
Q. Had God a beginning?
A. God had no beginning; He always was and He always will be.
Q. Where is God?
A. God is everywhere. God sees us and watches over us. God knows all things, even our most secret thoughts, words, and actions.
Q. How did that first grade religion class at St. Andrews Catholic Elementary in Erie, Pennsylvania, react to this news?
A. We were, to say the least, totally freaked.
Try to imagine yourself at that age, away from home all day, maybe for the first time, tucked into an uncomfortable Catholic school uniform, left in the care of a woman wrapped head to toe in thick black cloth, only her pinched face showing below the starched linen wimple, stuck for hours in a desk — which felt more like a punitive passive restraint device than a chair — and you suddenly learn that God has seen everything you’ve ever done, heard every lie you’ve ever told, and yes, has even listened in on your every stinking thought.
“I am six,” you would be thinking, “and already I am doomed.”
Within days, we would learn that this was indeed exactly the case.
LESSON THREE: THE UNITY AND TRINITY OF GOD
Q. Is there but one God?
A. Yes; there is but one God.
Q. Why can there be but one God?
A. There can be but one God, because God, being supreme and infinite, cannot have an equal.
Q. How many Persons are there in God?
A. In God there are three Divine Persons, distinct, and equal in all things — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Q. Can you repeat that? Slowly?
A. “Yes; there is but one God…because God…being supreme and infinite…cannot have an equal”…but, on the other hand…there are “three Divine Persons” inside of God.
One of them is a Ghost.
Q. You’re not serious?
A. Now there were kids in my first grade classroom not able to count to three yet, or at least it seemed so. Perhaps they were just terrified. We had already been blasted open by the revelation that God eavesdrops on our worst transgressions, and now there is a holy ghost, and Sister Mary Mark is getting sweat beads just below the sharp white band shielding her forehead.
We had come to school, we thought, to get some answers. Our parents, after all, treated us like children. And we were, but it had already begun to occur to a fair number of us that the world as it had been described just didn’t make sense. For instance, my neighbor’s Mom had a constant “headache” and often retreated for days at a time to her bedroom. The kid around the corner lived in a wheelchair and couldn’t seem to lift his head. Mark Gunnison’s dad hit him with a strap. Kelly McNulty’s father had died.
The theology we understood for the beginning years of our life was “God loves you,” which seemed reassuring up to the point we became capable of independent thought. Now, though, there were problematic questions. Sister Mary Mark, we imagined, was here to clear matters up. But all we got was this riddle:
“What is three things, but only one thing, and part of it is a ghost?”
Q. Are You Kidding Us?
A. Sister Mary Mark went for the metaphor. “Look,” she said, drawing a three-leaf clover onto the chalkboard, “three different leaves form just one shamrock.” We smiled and nodded, until Constance Ploof pointed out that each of the leaves was just a leaf, not a shamrock itself, so the illustration proved nothing. She didn’t use those exact words, but we got the idea.
So the nun then turned to the flame. Three candles, she mimicked, the wicks brought together side-by-side, forming one flame.
Q. Can we fully understand how the three Divine Persons are one and the same God?
A. We cannot fully understand how the three Divine Persons are one and the same God, because this is a mystery.
Q. What is a mystery?
A. A mystery is a truth which we cannot fully understand.
Q. And can you repeat that part about how we shall know the things which we are to believe?
A. “We shall know the things which we are to believe from the Catholic Church, through which God speaks to us.”
Q. Listen, we are just kids, but do you think we are stupid?
A. Take out your lined paper. We are going to work on our penmanship.
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Dinty W. Moore is author of Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals (Random House/Ten Speed 2015), as well as the memoir Between Panic & Desire, winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize. Moore lives in Athens, Ohio, and is deathly afraid of polar bears.