A few weeks ago, December 18th, I attended a reconciliation service at St. Elizabeth Anne Seton Church in Milford. It was a very nice service with Gregorian chant permeating the silence and waiting. As I stood in line for one of the confessors, I began my routine examination of conscience.
For some people it helps to go through the 10 commandments. The church provides a fascinating take on the commandments, examining the explicitness and implicitness of each law’s prohibitions. They even have different examinations depending on where you are at in life. I, however, am very seldom not aware of my failings. They say there is a permanence to sin; it leaves marks and stains on us from our commission, or omission. I like to think of the permanence being more from my holding on, than it holding on to me. In my mind I imagine dragging around this seeping bag of black, unfathomable liquid until I find a priest who takes it from me, and disposes it in an environmentally friendly manner.
As I work through my laundry list of sins, I can’t help thinking I’m missing something. I rack my brain for the answer. This has never happened to me. I always know the sins I have committed. Yet here I am, my anxiety growing, the line becoming shorter, my positioning nearing confessional singularity, and I have not done a well-enough examination of conscious. In my mind, there were many gears turning to make this moment a very uncomfortable moment. For starters, my stubbornness to not simply get out of the line, sit in a pew, and patiently sift through my thoughts. On the heels of my obstinacy was that I would assuredly find my answer, but my distraction stood in defiance.
I was running out of time. Like any strategist worth his salt, I started diverting mental resources for a contingency plan. In the event I couldn’t think of the sin, I needed a plan B. I started brainstorming ways in which I could successfully dialogue with a priest concerning sins forgotten in order to avoid the worst possible scenario: “Come back when you’ve done a better job of examining your conscience”. I won’t try to relate to you what this guy pitched as a justified reason to avoid that outcome.
I finally got a dialogue prepared, but running it through my head held an unforeseen outcome. I visualized myself approaching the priest, I sitting down in the chair, and running through the classic opening (“Bless me father for I have sinned…since that time I have fallen in these ways…”). Then came, “…now father for this part I am at a loss for words. For I know well there is a sin I earnestly desire to confess, but I cannot for the life of me remember it”. Though in my mind I did not give the priest words, I did give him a rather confused look. I lost, in my own mind! My own train of thought! I bumbled about trying to fill the void before this conjectured priest from a made up exchange could utter the words: “I cannot forgive you for sins you do not confess”.
We were an image frozen in time. The priest head slanted and eyes closed, had raised his hand and partially tilted it. His hand looked like it was in between pouring something out and signaling me to leave. It rendered in the silence of a picture, “there is nothing I can do for you”. I sat in front of him like one of those paintings, half kneeling, half out of my chair, begging him to let me try to remember.
The image fades into black. I could go no further. My mind was a creators room with a table surrounded by men with heads in their hands. There was nothing more that could be developed. One of the voices broke the silence: “What am I sorry for?”
“What do you mean? Here are the sins!”, another voice responded.
“I know those are what we are to present, but are these in fact things we are sorry for?”, the first inquired again.
“But of course!” another voice interrupted, “is that not why we are here?”
All the talking heads stopped, the mind room was dissolved, and at last I realized what was nagging me this whole time. I recalled in that instant of a night I felt particularly besieged by feelings dark and despairing. My soul was under attack and I was failing to defend it. In a last ditch effort, I clutched my scapular, “your help, I implore you.” Help indeed I received. I was awash with a mantle of divine protection. I knew this was my only chance of escape. Without a moment of hesitation I closed my eyes, battened down the hatches, and forced myself to sleep. Any other night I would have wrestled for sleep, but tonight it came instantly. When I awoke the next morning, I knew what had happened. I kissed the scapular, gave thanks to the woman who helped me, and went to mass with something worthy of thanks.
Now here I was, standing in a confessional line at St. Elizabeth Anne Seton’s because I was afraid. Afraid because I knew there was always help for those who asked it, but I did not ask it. There was always love for those who searched for it, but I did not seek it. There was always forgiveness for those who needed it, but I did not feel particularly sorry enough to ask. Time and time again I fell, and I would drag myself to confession because I was afraid and it was expected of me. Yet I cannot remember the last time I felt wholeheartedly sorry for my transgressions. I did not feel apathetic about my sins. The lack of feeling remorse was not rooted in some disbelief in the sacrament itself or in the validity of my forgiveness. I was afraid that after all these years of falling and getting back up, falling and getting back up, falling and getting back up, God would grow tired of me and say, “how much longer until enough is enough for you?”
It’s silly to comment how many times priests affirm me of my good confessions. How methodical my presentations, how thorough my examinations. I imagine God behind that screen saying, “well done my good and faithful servant. You did not keep hidden from me what I already knew…” In reality, I kept from countless priests the fear that I would be the exceptional 1%. That one sheep Jesus would not go out to claim. I sinned because I loved myself out of fear of being loved by others. I know well the things that make me happy. There is no guess work. When I scheme it is because I presume to know the machinations of the world and anticipate outcomes that I believe are set in stone. All this because worse than letting myself down was ever expecting an outcome different than disappointment from the world outside of me. Somehow God got lumped into the world outside of me.
I wasn’t forgetting a sin per se. I was tired of convincing myself to keep going to confession halfheartedly. What’s the point of going“, I’d slyly ask myself, “if you’re only going to fail again? Why do you keep getting up expecting something other than failure later?” These questions persisted before going to confession and soon thereafter. Though I hadn’t admitted it out loud, I had given up on myself. The thoughts had trickled through the cracks and penetrated my most inner sanctum. Though I stood with a mountain of victorious skirmishes at my back, I never took my eyes off the heap of failings right before me.
God always found it in his heart to let go. I, on the other hand, never did.
Finally, the person in front of me was leaving the confessional. It was now my turn, and that laundry list of sins now seemed inconsequential compared to this personal revelation. Though I proceeded to tell the priest everything I had prepared before hand, I finally had a confession I was heartily sorry for.