The Day Zimmer Lost Religion

by Paul Zimmer

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Themes and Meanings

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“The Day Zimmer Lost Religion” looks back, half humorously, at a time when the persona decided to test God by missing Mass. His teachers have surely told him that he is obligated to attend Mass, and the fact that he is missing it intentionally may even raise this to the level of a mortal sin, one that is committed with one’s full knowledge and volition. The child’s teachers may also have warned him against testing God since the desire to control God by forcing Him to take a particular action is also usually considered sinful. Significantly, the child tests God with the expectation that God will immediately punish his wrongdoing, probably in the same very personal way that his teachers might give him corporal punishment. He imagines God first as a boxer and then as a playground bully, the result of his vision of God as the omnipresent threat looming over the playground. In fact, his understanding of God seems confined to a picture of Him as judge. Even his memories of his days as an altar boy seem negative. His role in the service was to “mumble” the Latin responses, and he describes the bell he rang (the bell that marks the holiest point in the Mass, the point when Christ is actually present in the bread and wine) as “obscure.”

The poem has an additional level, however, that establishes the irony at its heart. When the threatening God fails to deliver Zimmer’s punishment, the child assumes that God feels that he has met his match: “of course He never came, knowing that/ I was grown up and ready for Him now.” That final line leads the reader to the poem’s point. Instead of the child’s assumption that being “ready” for God means that one is ready to win a conflict with him, the reader is invited to see this readiness in another sense: When the child is truly grown up, he will be ready for another understanding of a god who is more interested in love than punishment. An ironic point of view in poetry, as in fiction, often arises from the disparity between what the speaker understands and the deeper understanding that is offered to the reader. That disparity is intrinsic in adults’ views of what they understood in childhood. In “The Day Zimmer Lost Religion,” it invites the reader to gently laugh with the adult Zimmer, who looks back at his juvenile testing of God and his childish fantasy about the punishments God might inflict on him while hinting at a grown-up understanding of what being ready for God might mean.

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