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Andrea's column: Lesson learned

A friend and I had a discussion about heaven and hell last week. She was raised Protestant but has no religious affiliation now. She admitted to being too analytical and says she can't accept the teachings of her youth.

"What is hell, anyway?" she asked me. Her Sunday school teachers hadn't painted the same vivid picture of the place as the nuns in my Catholic school did in the 1950s. I told her Hades had been described as a place so fiery and hot the souls sent there would have to beg for water.

I was taught that when we leave this earth, our bodies remain behind but our souls go on. I had no idea what a soul looked like so when I pictured the fiery depths of eternal damnation, it was full of real people in a huge jail-type structure with thick black bars keeping them inside. Everyone wears a long white gown. Flames rage and the air is filled with smoke. The people had their hands outstretched through the bars.

Another friend who attended Catholic school says the reason I can so easily see this is because classrooms had pictures of it on the walls. The bars holding the sinners could be something I imagined but my friend says the outstretched hands were for real. The sinners are reaching for God.

In my mind, though, each person's hand held a cup and they were begging for water. I think this visual came from a nun who asked if we would offer water to a poor soul who was burning in hell.

All this happened in second grade when my classmates and I prepared for our First Communion and first confession. We learned a lot about sin: original sin we were born with because of Adam, Eve and the apple; venial sin which includes things like fighting with a sibling or sassing our parents; mortal sin which could warrant spending eternity in the netherworld.

During this sacrament preparation, my schoolmates and I received a scapular. If you're not familiar with the term, it's a religious item you slip on over your head. Picture two necklaces, each with a piece of jewelry at the bottom, their chains hooked together to make a big circle. One piece of jewelry (a small rectangle of fabric in the case of the scapular) rests mid-chest and the other at the middle of the back.

The scapular (Latin for "shoulder") I received had a picture of Jesus on one rectangle; the Blessed Virgin on the other. Instead of chains, it had two thin cords that rested on my shoulders. The idea was to wear it at all times under your clothing and the promise was that no matter what, if you had it on when you died, you would go straight to heaven.

Our teacher told us a story about a rich but evil old woman who committed many sins. She always wore a scapular but when she was on her deathbed, it began to burn her skin. The closer she came to the end, the more painful it became. When she could stand it no longer, she ripped it off and died immediately, going straight to hell.

I forgot to tell my analytical friend, the former Christian, about the scapular. She couldn't believe the stuff I had learned about hell in grade school so she probably couldn't get her head around the scapular, either. Her birthday is coming up, though. Maybe I should buy one for her. Just in case. And another for myself.