Fear coiled up in my belly like a snake, constricting my guts every time I thought about what I was about to do. It was a mild day, not too hot. Muggy and overcast. My fear wasn’t about admitting my sins to God. I was already well aware that he knew each and every one intimately… and probably some that I didn’t even recognize. Nor was my fear about facing Fr. P with my sins. I trust him to be compassionate and non-judging. Instead, my fear was that I would somehow do it wrong. I began to panic that I had made some mistake. That I wouldn’t say enough. Or too much. That I would dwell on insignificant things or gloss over important ones. The day before I even considered calling the whole thing off because I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember what a sin was. Or what the point of confession was. Or why I had felt moved to ask for one.
I arrived at the church early, expecting to spend a few moments alone, but Fr. P came driving up behind me, so we got right down to business. We said very little to each other. I wonder if he was nervous too?
While he got dressed, I sat in the Lady Chapel and prayed. “Open my heart, Lord. Let me be honest. Let me offer these sins to you fearlessly.”
Fr. P came into the chapel wearing a black cassock, a long surplice, a stole and a black, square, hat. He knelt at the rail to say his own prayers and then got up and motioned for me to follow him into the nave, where the confessional box was.
It was hot in that back corner of the church. An amber lightbulb illuminated the inside of the box. There was a kneeler and a tiny shelf on which to balance the prayerbook. A crucifix hung on the wall next to the screen that connected to the adjoining box. We began the sacrament reading from the Book of Common Prayer. It was just like in the movies: “ Forgive me, for I have sinned”. The sacrament begins with a general confession and then there is an innocent looking line in the text that indicates for you to fill in the blank with your own details. As this was my first confession, I had a lot of ground to cover, spanning a lifetime of moments or actions where I willfully turned from God.
All was silent save for the whisper of my own voice speaking my sins in the order that God reminded me of them. I read from a little notebook, skipping things and going back to them as it seemed appropriate. Explaining things. Opening my heart in the heat of that box and laying it on the shelf to be teased apart by the Holy Spirit.
The snake loosed its grip and slithered away, leaving in it’s wake another emotion: Grief. Grief at the person I was. Grief at the cruel, heartless, selfish, sinful things I have done. Tears and sweat rolled down my face. Every now and then I would glance through the screen at Fr. P and he sat, staring straight ahead, listening with his whole heart. Listening for grace in the pile of shit I was laying at his feet. He was mostly silent, save for a few questions of clarification. Twice he mentioned that I might wish to discuss something during spiritual direction, but quietly emphasized that it would be up to me to bring it up.
My knees hurt. I was acutely aware that I might be doing damage to my injured one, kneeling on a hard step covered with coarse carpeting. I tried, at one point, to stand up to ‘shake it off’ but it was awkward and uncomfortable to be standing. I knelt back down and tried to shift position, but no matter where I moved, the pain followed. Then, I remembered Jesus, and invited the pain to become a sacrifice, a part of the penance. I carried it with me like a cross. I accepted it and in fact, became grateful for it.
Sweat rolled down my back.
Almost imperceptibly, another feeling began to emerge. It was so subtle I didn’t recognize it at first. Joy. Grace. Love. I felt deeply, unconditionally loved. By God. By my friend on the other side of the screen. By Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The sense of love suffused that dark, hot box and I could feel it profoundly. The world felt as light as my heart. As we neared the end, I found myself saying “That’s it. That is all.” We read through the rest of the prayer book and ended with Fr. P suggesting I read psalm 30 aloud as an act of thanksgiving and asking me to pray for him, a sinner.
Part of me wanted to hold this experience close to my heart, sharing it with no one, save God and Fr. P.
But then there is this stupid grin, heart-too-big-for-my-chest-and-feeling
-like-it-is-going-to-burst-forth-like-the-sun-behind-a-cloud, giddy kind of feeling that suggests this might be a good thing to share with others. Share the fact that I couldn’t stop smiling. That I woke this morning with joy in my heart. The joy of resurrection. Of redemption. Of reconciliation with Him whom I most adore.
And the joy of having shared this with my friend, my director, who has been on this journey with me from before it even began.
The joy of being a penitent.
Gracious, Beloved, God,
By you and with you and in you
is my salvation.