“When you approach the confessional, know this… I am only hidden by the priest, but I myself act in your soul. Here the misery of the soul meets the God of mercy.” – St. Faustina, Polish Mystic
“Confession is an act of love.”– Albert Camus
I was a juicy female sapling, a maiden witch, an eleven-year-old wild daughter of the Goddess in love with life.
I wanted to shimmy up the maple tree in the backyard and feel the rough bark scrape against my inner thighs as I climbed toward my favorite crook hidden in the canopy of summer green. I wanted to play Old Maid up there with my best friend, Susie, and eat fuzzy peaches.
To eclipse time, I wanted to curl up on a bench under library stacks and savor the perfume of aged paper and glued bindings. I wanted to quest with the knights of Camelot, to decode mysteries with Nancy Drew, to suffer with Anne Frank, or to sculpt marble through the artisan hands of Irving Stone’s Michelangelo.
Instead, I rode my bike to church on a brilliant warm Saturday, to make a confession. I had sinned too much, and my soul was stained, or so I’d been taught. It was time to seek mercy in the sacrament of Penance where Catholics like me whispered their shameful secrets to a priest and begged God for forgiveness.
My little girl sins were venial, minor traffic violations. Unlike mortal transgressions, which could rack up points against my license to heaven and even cremate my soul in hell, venial sins, unforgiven, could consign me to purgatory.
Purgatory was limbo, a torture of ambiguity. God decided how much expiatory suffering he needed before the soul was pure enough to enter heaven. His sentence was classified, secret. Aware that death could come at any moment, I strove to keep my soul squeaky clean and out of harm’s way.
Maybe I’d sassed my parents or teachers – I had a conspicuous “attitude” that adults did not like. Maybe I’d lied – created minor fabrications to jazz up stories. Maybe I’d masturbated – a guilty pleasure I couldn’t resist. Confessed sins brought dreaded humiliation. The benefits of the confessional were lost on me. I went out of fear.
I parked my bike in the rack and strained open the wide glass door of the church vestibule. My rubber-soled sneakers sucked and released, sucked and released, sucked and released against the linoleum floor as I crept toward the front of the church where the confessionals were.
God how I loved St. Mel’s Church. It was empty on a Saturday, hushed. The quiet of the sanctuary mirrored a quiet within, the joy of solitude spiraled out from my center, and I shivered. A whiff of cedar incense leftover from services hung in the air. Sunlight refracted through clerestory stained-glass windows and dappled the pews with prisms. Wooden beams hugged the knave in a patina of honey oak warmth.
I knew every inch of that church, or so it seemed. All-wise church fathers had decided centuries before that I was not worthy to be an altar-boy, so I served in the way girls of the time did – I cleaned. During lunch or on recess from the parish school, I volunteered and dusted pews, wet-wiped kneelers and cleaned the toilets in the bathroom behind the cry room, the place where mothers with fussy babies went so not to disturb the worship of others.
To clean the sacristy, the sanctum of power where priests dressed for mass, was a task reserved for the most trustworthy children (or maybe the most compulsive cleaners). I could never be a priest, but I could fold with reverence the embroidered stoles they wore around their necks and finger their chasubles made of jewel-toned brocades and silks, violet, rose, sapphire, and gold. I imagined myself wearing them. I draped a stole or two around my small neck and budding breasts, another sin, I’m sure.
When I reached the front of the church, I genuflected and made the sign of the cross. I slid into the wooden pew, chewed my nails, and stewed in penitent juices.
Finally, I was up.
Heavy maroon curtains made a door to the confessional; I pulled them aside and plunked down on the wooden kneeler. My weight, insubstantial as it was, triggered the switch that turned on a small red light on the outside of the cubicle.
Catholics knew the glowing scarlet bulb meant do not approach, do not go in, do not disturb, this zone of secrets is occupied.
The priest, my confessor, was in an adjacent box. Another penitent was in a box that matched mine on the other side of his. She had begun her confession and I heard her say it had been three months since her last one.
This priest, the parish pastor, was grey-haired and stooped. He scowled and wore persistent irritation. I shuddered as he stalked about in his severe black cassock. I don’t think he liked children. He was a razor wire fence I had to get past to reach God’s forgiveness. I wished that his assistant had been on confession duty. Roly-poly, given to smiles and to black street clothes with a simple collar, he was kind and tender.
The other penitent, a grown-up, poured out anguish about something called an “affair.” To eavesdrop was a sin, another sin to confess. To listen might even be a mortal sin; it was that bad. I had to find a way to block her out.
With what teachers called my “inside voice,” I belted out, “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy. A real doer, do or die! A real, live nephew of my Uncle Sam, born on the fourth of July. Oh, I’m a Yankee Doodle sweetheart….”
Except for a sliver under the curtains serving as a door, my box was dark. Curly shoulder-length hair brushed my cheek; my head was tipped in supplication.
A white plastic rosary, a first communion gift, was woven around my hands, which were tented into a prayerful steeple. They rested on the ledge of a small rectangle window covered by a thick dark screen. This screen was the portal to the box where the priest sat on his throne. It was only a folding chair, I knew, but I thought of it as a throne.
I wanted to put my fingers in my ears, but I dared not move. On my left hand, I fiddled a ring crowned with a watermelon candy jewel to suck on. On the way to church, I’d bought it at Kowalski’s meat, bakery and candy store. It was probably a sin that I’d worn it into the confessional, but I hadn’t known what else to do with it. I could have laid it on the pew outside, but someone might have sat on it. Another sin.
My foot itched. I had to pee. I suffocated in the stillness.
When the wooden door on the window that separated me from the priest banged open, the sound reverberated in the empty church.
“Shut up, for God’s sake,” the priest said. “What’s wrong with you, singing in a confessional?”
Father’s voice was old and raspy. The rancid smell of alcohol on his breath pushed me back. I had smelled it on the breath of adults. It smelled like hurt and pain. “Do priests drink, too?” I wondered. “I thought they were too holy for that.”
A priest had yelled at me; I had committed another sin, a big one; it might even be mortal. I knew I should just begin, “I confess to Almighty God and to you my father that I have sinned.” But I could not find my voice. I was paralyzed.
An exigent thought said, “run.”
I stood up and the pew creaked beneath me as the light above the door extinguished. I brushed aside the velvet curtain. I ran past sympathetic St. Joseph and the children at his feet.
I ran past the big Jesus slumped on the massive wooden cross above the alter. Blood droplets oozed from the crown of thorns pounded into his head, and his sad eyes followed me. I did not pause to genuflect in front of him like I was supposed to. Another sin.
I ran past my beloved and beautiful Blessed Mother on her side altar and caught a whiff of the fresh roses at her feet. The votive candles around her flickered as I whooshed past.
I ran to a God free of contradictions. I ran to a God who inhabited a body with breasts and hips. I ran to a God of mercy and healing. I ran to a God of beauty. I ran to a God of love and wisdom. I ran to a God of mystery. I ran to a God without form.
My heart pounded as I fled the church on a quest. I didn’t break my run until I was 49 years old and found a God who made sense. Absolution would have to wait.
© 2021, Linda Sandel Pettit, Ed.D.
photo courtesy of IStockPhoto
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