My first memory in relation to religion is dropping a cross.

I was an altar boy at the time, all of probably ten or so. If that. I was in grade school, and I might have been in fourth grade.

Here are some pictures from way back then:

When all this becomes a book, I might just have to make these the cover.

Which just goes to show that even back then, I had awesome hair (I’ll give you a moment to finish laughing. No worries; you’re laughing with me at this point).

The top picture is, I’m pretty sure, of the very first morning I ever served mass.

That wasn’t the day I dropped the cross. Wasn’t far off, but it wasn’t that first day. But here’s the story: as an altar boy, and sometimes the only boy serving any particular mass, I led the priest up the aisle. Normally, the person up front carries the a cross, but the problem was that I was really small. Tiny, really. Which meant, instead of the cross, I usually carried a candle, simply because the candles’ holders were shorter, and I could replace them more easily.

But the day my church got a new crucifix was a big deal, and my priest wanted to use it. And I was the only altar boy serving, which meant I had to carry it . . .

It was fine while I walked up the aisle. I was fine, in fact, until it was time to replace the cross on its holder, the base of which came roughly to my chest, while the cross itself had a two or three foot handle.

You can see the sort of trouble this spells.

I tried. I swear I tried. I tried to hold the bottom to balance the top, but ultimately that heavy cruciform proved too unstable. The entire church discovered, first-hand, the utterly discordant sound of wood and metal against marble; it may well be a miracle on the levels of loaves and fishes that brand new, brass-and-wood crucifix didn’t break. One of the congregation members in the front pew stepped forward to help me, and together we got that cross back on its base.

When I walked back down that aisle, I carried the candle. It would be at least a year before I even attempted to approach that cross again.

A few years ago, I would have said a more skilled writer than myself would draw the metaphor here, but I didn’t go to school at USC to underestimate myself; there is some parallel between my journey in faith and that cross, and on several levels. I dropped the cross, but it never broke; I lapsed away from Catholicism and Christianity for many years, but ultimately I came back, in some roundabout way, to Christendom. For many years I never could carry that cross, favoring instead the candles more appropriate to my stature; there is something to be said for shining unto tomorrow rather than carrying a misunderstood symbol–in the end, I’d rather light the way than pray to an idol.

I am, personally, happier carrying the candle. I don’t pretend to believe I light any way for others; I merely intend to shine more light on mine. Which is why, of course, I take you back to my first memory. I don’t remember my first holy communion. I don’t remember the first time I stepped into a church.

But yeah, I remember when I dropped that cross. I’m sure just about everyone else who was in that church probably does, too.