Memories of an altar boy

Pick a big coal and light it early, the bishop had said,
I want it to be hot and glowing when I need it.
Later, as we walked to the vestibule to receive the casket
I could see there was a white pall draped across it
in memory of the swaddling clothes that had brought
them to the church long before. When he was ready
he heaped the myrrh on the glowing ember and lifted
the metal thurible high to swing it against the chain,
the clanking loud like the tolling of a bell,
once, twice, thrice…then repeated, again and again,
as he circled around the coffin.
When he was done I carried the thing back to the altar,
acrid, pungent smoke belching from it, rising in a column,
bouncing on the ceiling and curling lazily along it;
I feared I would faint from the fumes…

The bishop—I can’t recall his name—was a hockey buff,
the Habs, I think. But he was also fond of the team
from my all-male, Catholic school in the annual crusade
to keep The Cup from the Protestants, a tally in which
to be honest, the good guys were lacking.
During one game, I remember, a fight broke out
on the ice, a real donnybrook of an affair.
I looked back and there he was,
up in the stands, booming out encouragement,
laughing and swinging his arms,
That’s it! Get ’em boys!

Maybe I should have stopped watching hockey then.
I didn’t, but still, I keep wondering…
I know that skates are still sharp, that sticks are still hard,
that bruises are still purple, and that somewhere
red blood still splatters the ice. But in the church—
is the smoke still curling across the ceiling?
I don’t know, but I do know this:
I can’t abide the smell of incense.

Funerals are good sources of poetic creativity. They are such stark, clear-cut, emphatic events with an intense matrix of emotions. This poem was started as I attended the funeral of a co-worker’s father, when being in a church brought back memories of when I used to be a Catholic and an altar boy.

This is a rare type of poem from me, a longer narrative one, although for some reason I seem to be working on several like that right now. I hope you like this one and those to come, whenever I post them.

Just a few notes: The Habs is the nickname for the Montreal Canadiens NHL hockey team, based in the Province of Quebec, Canada. A thurible  is a hand-held metal censer (incense burner) suspended from one or more chains, in which incense is burned during some services. A burning charcoal briquette is placed in the thurible before the ceremony begins and incense is added when required. Because it takes some time for the incense to really start effectively burning, some priests (as in this poem) heap it on to get immediate combustion. Myrrh is a highly prized and expensive, natural tree oil resin used since ancient times as both a wine spice and in religious ceremonies. It was, for example, one of the three precious gifts given to the Christ Child by the Magi. Its scent is instantly identifiable, strong and unique. Not unpleasant, when mild.

Thank you for reading Memories of an altar boy. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.


© 2013 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2013 by John Etheridge,


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5 responses to “Memories of an altar boy

  1. wonderfully evocative. When I read the title, I feared the content….
    Good stuff, my friend. Go Leafs.

  2. Phil, you know, that’s not a connection I made when I wrote this. I am no longer a catholic because I chose to move to a religion that I believed (and still do, for that matter) was the spiritual successor of Christianity. At the time I had no ax to grind with the church, and in fact am grateful for the basic education in spiritual concepts that I got there and for many of the people I met, clergy and not…but still, there is no doubt that the catholic church (among others) has much to answer even yet for the years of wanton abuse poured on hapless victims with whom the perpetrators had a fiduciary responsibility to protect and nurture. In the end, God is the All-Merciful and the All-Just…in this world or the next, the victims will be compensated and the guilty will be punished in a manner I shudder to even consider. But no, I was not a victim in that way. Thank God.

    Leafs = 1st place. Cool, huh?! But, you know, I still hate the freaking fighting.

  3. I like the longer narrative on you, it suits you. And still I found the pattern – I love that line John. Kim.

    • Kim,

      Thank you. I am glad you liked it. I always worry when I write something long…it takes a lot of chutzpah to think that you can hold a reader’s attention that long. And it is true…I have several longer ones in the works, “Perhaps famous then” (with apologies to Agatha Christie) and “Everyone should know where they come from”. That last one is especially neat, it is a poem from another person’s perspective. I was on another site and found a darling story and asked the writer for permission to make it into a poem. It is with her now for review.

      • Wow! What a compliment to her that you wanted to create a poem inspired by her work! And I agree, I always cringe when I post a longer story thinking maybe it will be passed over. But it is what it is huh? Well I’m not shy of a long story so I will look forward to both of them!