Confessing Our Imperfections
Don’t leap from beads to bunnies
What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.—Romans 7:15
My granddaughter is in second grade and celebrated the sacrament of penance for the first time. Watching her skip to the confessional, well-rehearsed and confident in her “Sunday best” dress, I was reminded of my first confession.
I was baptized in my early twenties in a parish staffed by Jesuits known for being insightful confessors. One day I chose a “box” at random, sauntered in, no doubt dressed in my ratty old jeans, knelt down, and said the introduction I’d memorized: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned; this is my first confession.” To which I added, “I’ve no idea what to do next.”
The priest’s first words to me were unforgettable: “You’re talking too loud.” Thus began a twenty-year relationship with this direct but discerning confessor, a fruitful relationship that lasted until he died.
I don’t know what my granddaughter actually confessed, but in her rehearsals with me she tended to mention the sins of her little brothers. It’s both amusing and humbling to realize that beneath my grown-up exterior, I’m just like her. It’s such a relief when someone else behaves badly. Maybe that’s why we grownups love scandal so much. We may be angry, but it is a satisfying, righteous sort of anger—an anger that makes us feel better about our own sins.
Lent is a time for being honest with ourselves. And it’s hard. I’d just as soon skip Lent: the giving up, the extra prayer, the self-examination, the confession. I’m afraid I’m like the people my pastor once described, the ones who prefer to jump right from Mardi Gras to Easter or, as he said, “leap from beads to bunnies.” That’s me—give me the beads and the bunnies (chocolate, please) and forget Lent.
So much for honesty.
When my youngest son was seven, he said something that hurt my feelings. I don’t remember what he said, but I do remember what happened afterward. When I teared up, he was both surprised that I took him so seriously and very contrite. As he apologized, he said that sometimes in his head there are two things he wants to say, one bad and one good, and the bad one “just races ahead and comes out first.” I always remember his self-awareness when I hear that extraordinary confession from Saint Paul: “I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” Even Saint Paul!
Sometimes we just can’t avoid the harsh reality of our own imperfections. A young friend of mine seriously offended someone he cared about and knew he needed to call and apologize, but just the idea of making that call stressed him out. As he wrote to me in an e-mail: “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I need the practice.” I love that: I need the practice.
We do need the practice, and the confessional is a safe place to do just that. We may want to avoid it and leap from beads to bunnies, but it’s not so bad—especially with good confessors who remind us to speak softly and confident seven-year-olds who show us just how good life can be.
Paige Byrne Shortal writes from her home in rural Missouri. Contact her at www.paigebyrneshortal.com.