Bless me father for I have sinned. It has been…..almost two decades since my last confession. Where do I begin? I guess, for this to work, you would have to actually believe in a god.
I sat there in that stuffy confessional where the air hung like a thick miasma of dry heat and sin. The burgundy velvet cushion crushed under the weight of my knees, and as I knelt there, I stared at the silhouette through a gold colored fabric, sandwiched between two layers of wicker screen . The room was small, and the walls seemed to draw in on me, crushing my body in a vice of Catholic guilt. In that room of iniquity, that den of wicked transgressions, I raced my teenage mind for sins, and finding none, I blurted out lies.
What sticks out most in my mind, is how strange the experience was of confession, and the church where we asked forgiveness. This was not the normal church we attended mass, and that always struck me as odd. It was uncomfortable to be in this strange church, as if I were a visiting football team changing in the home-team’s locker room, only feet away from their school’s seal painted on the floor. That grand church with its vaulted ceilings, the saints and archangels staring down from the ceiling, their painted eyes passing judgement before I made it into that wooden box of guilty admission, was hot. Too hot. I can remember the steam radiators lined against the outer walls clicking and hissing as steam passed through their iron gills. It was like a well versed interrogation tactic. Get the sinners in the church and sweat them, make them uncomfortable, so they spill their sins like diarrhea of the mouth, just so they can make a quick escape into the chill of autumn, or the unbearable humidity and heat of a Long Island summer. But there was something else I noticed, something that made me cringe every time we made our pilgrimage to this house of the lord. The acoustics were great.
Seriously, who wants to confess their deepest, darkest sins, when everyone in the whole church can hear it. So there I am, a young kid, kneeling in a church pew, ten, twenty pews away from the confessional booth, and I can still hear everything the sinner is relating to the priest. Most of us whisper, some don’t, but for the most part every one’s guilt catches up to them, and they try and whisper, so as to avoid the rest of the judging Catholics’ eyes as they exit the booth. It is like a walk of shame when that door opens. Instead of absolution, you feel dirtier, as if you bathed in your sins a second time, wallowing in the muck of Satan’s deeds. Just moving on the kneeler in this church, with only a dozen repenters to dampen the echoes, makes a noise that garners the attention of anyone within its four walls. So you sit still, quiet, hoping that your uncomfortable shifting does not interrupt the strange rituals that occur behind closed doors. And then it is my turn.
Standing in line against the wall, the wall where radiators click and hum. The wall which feels like a blast furnace from hell, perspiring my body head to toe. Standing against that wall, I get closer to the booth, and peoples sins are now transmitted crystal clear, finding their receiver in my ears, and I cringe, knowing everybody will hear my sins. And then, before I know it, I find myself in the confessional.
“Bless me father for I have sinned. It has been–a long pause ensues–two months since my last confession.” Imagine a drawn out upward inflection after the pause. A question more than a statement. I have, and never will, been good with remembering time and events in relationship to a calendar of dates. My timeline floats somewhere in space, it is neither linear nor regressive, but instead jumbled, chopped, fragmented, and only assembled when need be. Already off to a good start, lying about the last time I had confession. So there I was, sitting there in that booth, the heat overwhelming and uncomfortable, but I haven’t even told you the weirdest part about all this, the wall which hid your face, was open on the left vertical half of the wall.
That’s right, open. I sat in that booth, while I could see the priest’s legs crossed, as he bobbed his feet up and down in the air. His face was behind the screen at least, but from his knees to feet, I could see those black wool pants that were always part of the uniform. Let me illustrate this for you. I could have reached my hand around the wall, and waved at myself, seeing the silhouette through that thin veil of a privacy screen. On some occasions, the priest decided to sit the other way, so you could see his face. Face to face confession! Come on. Really. So I sat there, melting into the corner of that booth, trying to squeeze as far into the opposite wall as possible, so the angle of his sight and my eyes might not meet, blocked by the wall that only obscured half the priest, only this time not his head. And then we spoke.
“Tell me your sins,” he would say. Tell me your sins? My sins? I would race through my mind, thinking, hemming and hawing. I had rehearsed this when I was in line against the horrid wall of radiator hell, but now I froze, like a teenager having recited how he would ask his crush out, only to get up to her and drown in a sea of self-conscious uncertainty, mumbling something incomprehensible and then running away in an awkward fashion. Whispering as low as I could, knowing everyone out there in line would hear my confession, I started. Of course he always told me to speak up, and I would just continue to whisper, like a passing birds call on the wind miles away.
My sins. I questioned so much as a teenager, as a child, I didn’t really believe in god, finding my the answers to my questions only created more questions. I was probably fifteen when I really committed to that, and for the next three years found myself just going through the motions. So here I was, thinking of sins that I didn’t believe I committed, and I was supposed to come up with something, anything. So, I did what any self-respecting teenager would do, lie. I created sins on the spot. I spewed forth a whole host of venial sins. Sins that were pathetic. “I lied to my parents about going out with my friends; I stole chips and cookies from the pantry when my parents had already said no; I said the lord’s name in vain,” you know, things like that. There I sat, lying to a priest about my sins, making them up as I went along. The coup de grâce of this act was always, “I lied.” Which I had just done. So yeah, confession was somewhat of a mockery for me, but what was I to do, I was a good kid.
I really was a good kid. I didn’t do much to incur the wrath of my parents. I was liked by my teachers. I didn’t really cause trouble in school. My rebellion was philosophical, my differences were and are with society, rules, religion, discrimination and a whole host of other inequalities; hence being a humanist and atheist. But Catholicism makes you feel guilty, as if sin from oozes your pores. If it is enjoyable, it is a sin. That is my take on religion. Now don’t get me wrong, I am glad I was raised with religion, it taught me valuable lessons that, and I have a strong understanding of right and wrong, morals and ethics, but that is where my appreciation of religion ends. I was strong enough not to drink the Kool-Aid, and as a result, live a very fulfilled life without someone else informing me how to function.
In the end, Catholic guilt still sticks with us all, even if we are recovering from our early years indoctrinated in the church. As my friend’s pointed out in my early college years , I draped–and still do–a napkin over any unfinished food on my plate. This act is not conscious, but subliminally done, and when I realized I did this, it became apparent that you can’t strip away all the years of sinful regret in such a short time. Because, some where in Africa, there is a starving child that would eat that food.