Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Week of Peace: Day 3

As a young child attending Catholic school, one of the memories that stands out most was my initiation into the sacraments of the church. Most fearsome of all was the "First Confession".

I was living in Minneapolis then and had the good fortune to live just three blocks from my school and church. Our class was herded from the school to the church next door for religious services on a regular basis. But even before and beyond that, the church was a familiar home to me.

My family attended church every Sunday and holy day, certainly not unusual for Catholics of that era. But my family did more. Every week we attended "Sunday night devotions". Every morning, my father was up for 6:30 am Mass before work and sometimes I went with him. (My mother, not being a morning person, started attending daily once the church offered a Mass at 5:30 pm.)

Those were special times. There was something about the stillness of the church building itself that brought a sense of peace. We were also encouraged, in those days before churches were locked, to "make a visit", to slip into the cool empty church and talk to God. I actually sort of liked this but I was a bit afraid too. If the priest came in unexpectedly, I would feel shy and embarrassed, though I know now, of course, he was not paying attention to me.

In those days, children seldom had conversations with priests. A priest might visit our classroom and we were taught how to greet him ("Good morning, Father", "Good afternoon, Father") but a child in those days would not consider a spontaneous conversation with such an imposing adult, even if he was a kindly sort.

Second grade was the year in which good Catholic children were prepared for first communion. And a major part of the preparation was first confession - that very first time when we were to ponder all of the sins committed in our young lives and tell them to the priest so that we could be absolved. We were considered old enough to know right from wrong and now we were given the chance to experience forgiveness for the wrong things we had done.

(For those unfamiliar with Catholic practices...confession, in those days, took place in "confessionals", very small dark rooms with a wall and screen separating the priest from the penitent. The penitent would whisper - so that those outside couldn't hear - their most private of private sins to the priest with the assurance of anonymity and a confidentiality that could never be broken. The priest would assign a "penance", typically some prayers to say, and then would say the prayer of absolution. It was understood, of course, that forgiveness came from God, not the priest, but the priest was acting as a representative of Christ.)

Anyway, when I was in second grade, our pastor was Fr. Daly, a devout but rather stern older priest who struck fear and awe in the hearts of little children. I can still remember how nervous I was that first time. We had been given the words to learn by heart - the prayers, the format, everything but the sins themselves. Those we had to fill in and list on our own, estimating how many times we had done each.

This was a particularly daunting task for a 7 year old - how many times might I have disobeyed my parents in my life? (After the first confession it was a bit easier because one only had to remember since the last confession, the earlier sins having been wiped away.) Somehow I came up with my list and stood in line, waiting my turn...

Finally, my turn came and I did it without incident. Afterwards, as I said the assigned prayers, a wave of relief washed over me. Of course there was the relief that the ordeal was over. But, even at my young age, there was a relief that I had been forgiven. I did know that I had done some wrong things in my life and it was such a beautiful, clean sensation to have the sins taken away, to be given a fresh clean slate to work with.

There were many things I didn't understand then, being so young, but I knew how peaceful it felt to be given the gift of freedom from guilt and shame. Quite naturally, I would mess up again, sometimes within hours of my last confession, but there still was a peace in knowing that I would not have to carry that burden around forever.

Guilt can come from a variety of sources. Most properly, it emerges when we have done something our conscience tells us is wrong. This is a healthy guilt since it can teach us to control and improve our actions. However, unhealthy guilts can develop out of such things childhood abuse, feelings of over-responsibility for others and harsh, perfectionistic inner standards - to name just a few.

Shame grows as guilt festers in us - when we try to control the "flow" of life -  to avoid and keep secret within ourselves the feelings of "bad" or "wrong" that we have, whether those feelings are based on true misdeeds or not.

As I force more and more guilt into my hidden closet of shame, it begins to feel more and more like what is in there is just too much to ever be forgiven. It begins to change from "I did something bad" (or "something bad was done to me") to, simply, "I am bad". "Bad" thus becomes my identity, making the notion of a "clean slate" something not possible for people like me.

In the flowing river of Life, a dam has been built. That which was meant to be washed away doesn't get washed away. It clings to us like a permanent stain or dirt that make us want to keep hiding, in hopes that no one sees it but always fearing that they do.

When I look back on my 7 year old self, so afraid of my first confession, I can smile. While it seemed an awful ordeal at the time, the little dark room, the stern was, in reality, a great gift. I was fortunate not to be burdened with any terrible guilts at that age which, sadly, is not true for all 7 year olds. But the process pushed me into the flow of Life, when I would much rather have kept things hidden. I was pushed to say out loud that which caused me shame - so that I could see that it could indeed be washed away. And I learned that I could feel the deep, deep peace of that washing, over and over again in my life.

I did not (and have not) learned that lesson completely, even after all of these years. In fact, I often have to rediscover it when I find myself wanting to avoid or keep hidden my faults and weakness. But then the loving hand of God beckons.

At first, I may not recognize it as a loving hand. After all, I don't want anyone knocking on the door of my closet of shame. But if only I can bring myself to open that door...if only I can...waiting on the other side is a boundless Love longing to wash it all away and embrace me with an eternal peace...

(Please join me in this Week of Peace. I welcome your comments and contributions - e-mail them to me at If you would like your words or images shared here, please let me know if you would like me to use your name or a pseudonym.)