Heaven or Hell on Suicide Hill

Heaven or Hell on Suicide Hill

Willmette, Illinois 1950sth-4

The only non-Catholics I knew as a child were our babysitters. I always felt sorry for them knowing they were headed straight to hell when they died. In 1956 we rented a four bedroom tudor built into the cliff on Lake Michigan in Wilmette, Illinois, having moved from a month-long stay in a downtown Chicago hotel where we landed after our eviction from Clayton, Missouri. To the east, the view of the lake was obscured by an over-propagated evergreen garden leading a quarter mile down to a rusty wire gate that opened to the beach. My mother hired seventeen-year old twins to watch my sisters and me on the beach so she’d not have to dress for the day and be our lifeguard. And those twins came with boyfriends—who had boats. The teenagers taught me to waterski and by the end of the summer I had my feet sloshing around in the rubber boots of a slalom, skiing far out into the lake, so unmoored at the edge of the world that I often forgot to let go of the tow rope when we we came back to shore for the drop-off. None of them were Catholic and I silently mourned for their souls, asking God why He’d be sending them to hell when they obviously didn’t deserve it. After all, they had shown me where heaven is.

Sitting at the foot of my parents bed one day, I saw a television commercial for the opening of Old Orchard Shopping Center in the next town over.

“Where’s Skokie?” I asked my mother.

“That’s where all the Jews live,” she answered.

At 10 years old, I didn’t know there were Jews alive in the world. I wanted to ask my mother how Jews were living near us and not in Jerusalem where they lived at the time of Jesus. She detested answering my questions and would have accused me of stupidity, a criticism I already couldn’t stand, so I sat back and wondered if Skokie was, in fact, hell.

When winter arrived in Wilmette I could hardly contain myself. The only thing separating me from the sledding hill next door was a mammoth pile of snow huddled around evergreen growth and a chain link fence next to our house. All the girls and all the boys, all ages and all sizes came to slide down Suicide Hill. Firemen hosed it at least once a day turning soft snow into cold hard ice. Traditional sleds, too dangerous for the slippery terrain were cast off—piled up in a Flexible Flyer junkyard off to the side at the top of the mountain. Flat cardboard slabs were the most valuable commodity. I shredded straight down on the cardboard, sitting down at first, then up on my feet. Eventually we, the first snowboarders, traded our cardboard for our boots and slid downhill on our feet.

Girls and boys had equal status on Suicide Hill. There were no rules, no lifeguards, no snowguards no unofficial guards. We all raced down the slope expecting no prize, bumping each other off into snowpiles like soccer balls, soaring like heavenly rockets.  Winter stuck in our noses, but our fevered bodies rollicked in unfastened coats flapping in the wind. Medics and parents came to bandage limbs and scrapes. Ambulances carted broken bones off to Evanston Hospital. Exhaust smoke obscured our vision of cars double parked on Michigan Street where parents yelled Let’s Go!

And when the stars came out we went to No Man’s Land for hot chocolate where I eyed my non-competing competitors. We belonged together, heaven or hell.

Casper the Holy Ghost

Casper the Holy Ghost

The Holy Ghost appeared to me in the first grade on the day our Catholic school nun taught our class about the three persons of the Trinity.  My shimmying skin signified Casper the Friendly Ghost had floated into our classroom with his new, deeper nature as the Holy Ghost’s doppelgänger. A 1950’s cartoon character, the bubbly, happy, peaceable Casper tried desperately to befriend humans because his fellow ghosts were too sinister.But the poor guy terrified most people even though his spirit was warm-hearted and affable. Now he was one of the persons of God. And I needed Him.

My original first grade at Stone Ridge Academy of the Sacred Heart in Washington DC was interrupted by illness. I didn’t learn about the Holy Ghost until I got to my next first grade in a parochial school in Terre Haute Indiana. I was happy to repeat the first grade so I could be with my younger sister and best friend, Erin.

Third-gader Mara, my older sister, teased me relentlessly about flunking first grade in front of her friends – and what would have been my friends if she hadn’t poisoned them against me. I prayed that my one new friend, Casper the Holy Ghost,would scare Mara away from tormenting me.

I never had any trouble with the Trinity. Catholics bless themselves by making the sign of the cross, tapping the head, heart and each shoulder, while reciting “In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.” The concept of the Trinity was and is still simple – three persons in one, just like a cross. For the life of me I don’t know why theologians are always trying to explain it. Perhaps they didn’t have Casper to guide them in the first grade.
I dressed as Casper at Halloween –  many kids still do. My mother wasn’t the least bit interested in dabbling in children’s holidays, much less making costumes. But my Casper costume was a cinch. As long as I didn’t cut holes for my eyes, she let me drape a white sheet over my head and Erin, in her hobo costume, led me around trick-or-treating. Mara, in her I Love Lucy outfit, ridiculed us surrounded by her pack of friends.

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I started collecting Casper the Friendly Ghost comic books in 1952 when I was six. By the time I was ten I had them stacked up alongside Superman comics in my closet. One day I came home from playing baseball and Mara had thrown away my comic book collection. She said it was time for me to grow up. The slick odor of those mistreated keepsakes haunted me for a time but the quivering feeling of Casper’s friendship and protection eventually evaporated.

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About that time Catholics started using Holy Spirit instead of Holy Ghost. The only image I had of the Holy Spirit was an inanimate white dove hanging open-winged over statues of Jesus. He certainly didn’t look like he needed friends. I slinked away from the Holy Ghost until years later when He fell into my own spirit and turned my old fear of Mara into forgiveness. She’s still scary. But not to me.

The Big Lie: Catholic Hell

The Big Lie: Catholic Hell

In every one of the thirteen grade schools I attended in the 1950’s, Catholic nuns taught me about Heaven and Hell, including the nugget that Heaven was only for Catholics, but there was no guarantee I’d go there. From the age of six I knew if I, as a Catholic, died with a “mortal” sin on my soul, I’d go to Hell, or perhaps Purgatory, the halfway house to Heaven.

This teaching dwelled in the official Catholic textbook for American children used from 1885 to the late 1960s, the Baltimore Catechism. Theth-2 Catholic Church denied that physical Heaven, Hell and Purgatory are part of Church doctrine, long before the Pope declared in 1999 that heaven and hell were “primarily eternal states of consciousness more than geographical places of later reward and punishment”. But that turnaround came after these medieval lies were grafted onto sapling children like me.

The only non-Catholics I knew as a child were our babysitters. I always felt sorry for them because they were headed straight to Hell when they died. In 1957 when I saw a TV ad for Old Orchard Shopping Center, I asked my mother, “where’s Skokie?” “That’s where all the Jews live,” she answered. At 11 years old, I didn’t know there were Jews alive in the world. I thought they were all burning in Hell.

I’ve come to believe that my own personal heaven and hell do exist. I visit hell whenever I relive the last time I got sober forty years ago, or when I regret insensitive words I spoke five minutes ago. And heaven appears when my 10-year-old grandson texts me photos of his lizard.

At the suggestion of my fellow seeker Terry, I crammed into the O’Hare Hilton with 1,000 other souls one weekend in 2012 for a retreat, “Transforming the World through Meditation” with Franciscan Richard Rohr and Benedictine Laurence Freeman, two men I’d never heard of. I had started meditating a few months prior in a Buddhist group and asked Terry if she knew any Christian meditation groups.

In addressing heaven and hell, Rohr said the ego prefers winners and losers. He offhandedly mused that if Jesus descended into hell, as it says in Church doctrine, than there is no more hell because, ”Hell cannot exist in the light of God.” I lost my breath, sprung out of my seat and staggered to the door for air.  A volunteer brought me a chair and water. “Raised Catholic?” I nodded yes. “Yeah, this happens a lot.”

If my subterranean soul had known all my life that I wouldn’t go to Hell for attempting suicide or stealing pens from the office, if I had known all non-Catholics were not doomed to go to Hell; I would have been a better friend to Jesus. I didn’t know my nature was adolescent, fertilized with dead ideas about Hell, sprouting false judgements on myself and everyone I knew.

Uncovering the lie is heaven indeed.