Sunday, September 23, 2012

I confess

I nodded at the man coming out the side door of the sacristy. Four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, with the vigil mass starting in about an hour, I figured he was doing whatever it is that people do in the sacristy an hour before Mass. (Count hosts? Put out the chalice?)

I was there for Confession.

This is not one of those “I’ve been away from the sacrament for years and I can’t believe what I’ve missed” stories because I’ve always gone to Confession on a regularly irregular basis. Currently I even have a confessor whom I see on an irregularly regular basis. However, for the past I have no idea how many years, 20 or more I’ll guess, I’ve made an appointment and sat down with the priest for a spiritual chat/confession. My penances have always been practical, get your life in order orders. Confession has been a very private thing.

But today, for a number of reasons, I felt the need to go to Confession at the church.
I don’t know what I was expecting. Cobwebs growing over the confessional door? One or two other people? The profound depths of a silent church?

The first surprise was that the sanctuary was flooded with Gregorian chant. Since there wasn’t a choir in evidence, and I don’t think I was hearing the angels sing, I’m assuming it was a recording. Nonetheless, I’ve always been quite fond of Gregorian chant, the strains immediately put me in a “churchy” state of mind. 

There was a small, minor problem. I wasn’t entirely certain where the confessional was. Despite all the years I’ve come to this particular church, I’ve never been to private confession here. It didn’t take me long to figure it out. All I had to do was trace the long line, 25 at one count, of penitents snaking their way down the center aisle of the church from nearly the main altar to the far left corner of the sanctuary.  That was the second surprise. So many people on a Saturday when the University of Oregon had a home game!

The sight of that extensive line immediately jettisoned me into a time warp. Instantly, I was a girl again, standing with my mother in a very similar line on a very similar Saturday afternoon at St. Francis Xavier church in Missoula, Montana. For a few seconds, past and present swirled in my head and childish sins like disobeying my mother merged in my brain with more adult ones like aecidia and pride. Along with the disorientation, came the visceral expectation of spiritual cleanliness that I had when I went to confession as a child, a feeling that I haven’t experienced for many years.
I took my place in line, behind an elderly gentleman with a grizzled beard and snowy white tennis shoes and in front of a young mother with a nursing baby. Within minutes, the trailing line consisted of a young family, a middle-aged woman, a husband and wife, and two teenagers. At that point, I decided that I ought to pay more attention to the reason I was here than to my fellow sinners, so I stopped looking behind me and tried to look inward. 

We all stood, carefully spaced along the pews, so as not to invade any personal space. As each person emerged from behind the draperies of the confessional, the next person moved up a pew. Now and then, I could hear Father’s voice as he pronounced the words of absolution, but beyond that, the sounds of Latin chant prevented any untoward overhearing of transgressions. Not being a particularly good queue-waiter, I got tired and leaned against my pew so as to better focus on the stained glass window just above me.

My monkey mind, as the Buddhists call it, was captivated by the red, yellow and blue chips of glass and I caught myself thinking that I had never actually studied the colors of the windows and wondering how they compared with the colors of the great cathedrals like Chartres. It was only with great effort, that I directed my attention inwardly, to the state of my soul. I went over the reasons for my being there, my transgressions, my sins.

For about two minutes.

Then the monkey took over again and I began to wonder if there was always this long of a line for confession, if it had always been that way, if there was a sudden resurgence of interest in the sacrament and if so, why. I surreptitiously checked out the line again, noting that the people covered every age group, and, judging from the styles of clothing, it wasn’t just the uber-conservative, chapel veil crowd either. 

All of a sudden, the elderly man in front of me bolted out of line. I wasn’t sure if I should hold his place or call for medical assistance, but then I realized that another priest had entered a second confessional. That was the third surprise. So many people wanting to confess on an ordinary Saturday in September that two priests were needed.

The curtain on the first confessional fluttered and it was my turn. But the mother behind me had finished nursing her baby, who was probably about two months old, and he began to fuss. I reached out and took him into my arms and waved her ahead of me. He looked up as if to say, “This was not part of the plan,” but as I joggled him up and down the line, he rested his head on my shoulder in resignation. Just as he decided he had had quite enough of liturgical dance, thank you very much, his mother emerged and took him back.

I slipped into the stillness of the confessional, the years dropping away like so many leaves from the tree of my life. I was a girl again, kneeling again, confessing again. The old formula, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned” sprang to my lips and I began my confession. When I had finished, he asked me if I had other sins to confess. I said, “With 20 to 30 people waiting in line, Father, I think maybe I’ll just stick to these for the time being.” I heard a soft chuckle on the other side of the grill and he asked me to say an act of contrition.

Again, the words sprang out of memory.” Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee….” Then he offered a few words of advice and gave me my penance. Three Our Fathers. I almost said, “What? No three Hail Marys, too?” but I knew there were many others waiting for their chance to be shriven so I ignored the temptation to be flippant. 

As I headed to the side door, I looked at the line again. It did not seem to have shortened at all in the nearly 30 minutes I had been waiting. It still started near the foot of the altar and marched, pew by pew, to the confessional door. At this rate, confessions would still be going on when Mass started, just as they had when I was a child. I stepped outside and, as the late afternoon sun cast long shadows, I sensed that fall was waiting to be birthed from the near-term pregnancy of summer. 

The time warp sensation was gone. I was almost disappointed until I turned the key to the ignition and realized I was bathed in that freshly washed sensation I had felt as a girl, skipping alongside my mother on those Saturday afternoons of memory.

I knew it wouldn’t last long, probably until someone cut me off in traffic, but for one brief, light-filled moment, the words of the hymn lived within me:

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth's lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho' far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro' all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul--
How can I keep from singing?

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