Where your religion belongs

“Is there a place in your life for God?”

The question was put to me by J.A., principal of the local private Catholic high school where I was being interviewed for the position of Chair of the Foreign Language Department. Actually, if I got the job, I would be a one-man show: department head and teacher of all levels of both French and Spanish. I had learned both languages in high school, spent some time in Spain, taken literature courses in both in college, but otherwise just maintained my proficiency through reading and watching movies. I had already been teaching French I and all levels of Latin at my alma mater high school for the previous two years. Luckily, private schools in Georgia in those days didn’t require you to have a teaching certificate. I had knowledge of the subject and some experience teaching, but little else.

J.A. was an obese man with bushy eyebrows and over-prominent canine teeth that made him look vaguely vampiric. I would later learn that he had once belonged to a Catholic order that required its adherents always to exercise “custody of the eyes,” meaning that you spent much of your time staring at the floor unless required to look elsewhere, lest you allow your eyes to wander to sinful things like tits…or pornography…or women at all for that matter. Possibly to sublimate frustrated physical desire, however, sumptuous feasts were still on the menu and, to look at him, J.A. had enjoyed a few…and not just with his eyes. J.A. told us about his time in this order during a teacher work day. What could have been the point of that anecdote, I ask myself in hindsight? To increase his standing as a moral exemplar? To warn us troublemaker faculty members against too much curiosity, against trying to see where we shouldn’t? It is true that I once joined a cadre of teachers who went straight to the pastor of the Catholic church to which the school was attached to complain of the vulgar antics of a particular member of the coaching staff who routinely engaged in sexual innuendo with students of both genders. When J.A. found out that we had gone above him with our concerns (despite—or rather because of—his repeated inaction), he was furious. I found out that he had found out when he stormed into my classroom one afternoon, slamming the door behind him and immediately yelling, “How would you feel if I went around telling you how to do your job?!” J.A.’s physical appearance and grumpy demeanor made him seem slightly sinister. The crazed order he had once belonged to, with its fanatical despotism over the faculty of sight, made him appear downright potentially psychopathic. I should have been forewarned.

As it was, I thought about his question for a minute before responding. J.A. had assured me it wasn’t necessary that I be a Catholic in order to teach at the school. Only a specific percentage of the faculty had to profess faith in Catholicism. Of course anyone who taught religion classes had to be a card—or is it cross?—carrying member. Since my, by then, single Master’s degree hailed from a Reform Jewish seminary, J.A. took me for Jewish. He even referred at one point to “your people,” meaning the Jews, saying that perhaps I could teach a few classes to share how “my people” celebrated holy days. Had I actually been Jewish, his phraseology would have left me incensed.

I wasn’t Jewish, or a believer in any god or gods for that matter. But after my high school experience with Joseph Campbell and Western mysticism, an undergraduate Religious Studies major, and an M.A. in Biblical studies, I had in fact spent a great deal of time thinking and learning about the subject of God. I just didn’t practice any religion, not yet. I figured I could safely answer his query in the affirmative, though.

“Yes,” I said simply, “there is.”

Bend over, I wanted to say, and I’ll show you where. 

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