I started my life as a Catholic. Aside from the fact that I don’t agree with most of the doctrines they teach, there were two events that proved I didn’t belong to that faith: my first and my last Confession.
The concept of telling someone that you’d done something wrong and asking for their forgiveness was a novelty when it was introduced to me in CCD class. I was blessed with a very loving and fairly permissive family and was somewhat of a teachers pet in school. I remember that my Sunday school teacher struggled a bit with the pre-Confession talk about sin. She didn’t seem comfortable referring to us as bad or tainted by sin, but obviously needed to make the idea of being made clean understandable and desirable. So, she explained the kind of things we might want to have blotted from our soul’s record:
Maybe you were mean to your sibling. No good for me, as I was being raised as an only child.
Maybe you cheated at school. Not a chance. The biggest problems my teacher’s had with me was getting me to play at recess instead of finding a quiet corner of the playground where I could stick my nose in a book.
Maybe you stole something. Well…
It’s been over 20 years since that First Confession, and this is the first time I’ve admitted this, but… There was one time in a convenience store when I noticed a package of “Bonkers” candy that had been ripped open. That brand has long been defunct, but it was basically a Starburst with two different flavors on a single piece. I had seen the commercials and was suckered like many a child who watched the Trix Rabbit into thinking that a sugar-laded substance could bring me to a higher place. I knew my mother would never buy me the candy, and I rationalized that the store couldn’t sell it ripped anyway. So, I took one of the pieces that was about to fall on the floor and ate it.
I was instantly guilty about it and even tried to confess to my mother in a round about way. “I feel bonked out,” I said to her on the car ride home, echoing the tag line of the commercial that had led me astray by giving into temptation.
I had hoped she would instantly understand that I had a piece of that brand of candy and demand to know how I had gotten it. Instead she said, “What are you talking about?”
That was probably two years before my CCD class was preparing to clean our souls, and I still would occasionally lie awake at night, guilt ridden over my pilferage.
So, you’d think that I’d jump at the chance to be forgiven, right?
Nope. When I found myself face to face with the “good” priest – even at age eight we knew which of the Father’s in our church was the forgiving one and which was more the fire and brimstone fan – I chickened out. I wasn’t afraid of god punishing me. I just couldn’t handle the possibility that an adult would be disappointed in me. No amount of prayers would ever take that away. Perhaps I didn’t care or didn’t believe that God already knew my sin; it was much more important to me that no human did.
So, eventually I had to find a way to forgive myself. If I could go back in time and speak as an adult to that anxious little girl with such low self-esteem, I would tell her that the action was bad, but she was not. I’d try to find a way to let her know that it was okay to not be perfect, but the way to get closer would be to make up for what she had done. I would encouraged her to do chores to earn money to pay the convenience store for the candy. Or, if they wouldn’t take it, buy some food for the local food kitchen. I would tell her that it’s okay to mess up ever now and then, and it’s even okay to be afraid to admit it when you do, but what makes you a good person is admitting when you mess up and putting in a good effort to be better.
Would the priest I gave my Confession to have said as much to me? Probably. But, he might have thrown in more about the fact that God loves me and forgives me even when I did bad. That probably would have been the main point of his message, and the making up for my crime would have been secondary. I’d likely have missed the part about penance beyond prayers because I’d be trying to get my head around who God was and how his forgiveness worked. I’d have been too confused by that part to hear the message that would have made a difference to me.
Which brings me to my last Confession. It was a few years later, and it may have been the only other time I pulled back the curtain to that little room with the expectation that I would unburden my soul. What I went to confess then was that I wasn’t sure I believed in God anymore. I can’t remember exactly what the response was, but the priest did his best to be reassuring that God would find me, and if I prayed it might be easier.
The Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s didn’t work. A few months after that, my mother and I went to local Unitarian-Universalist church for the first time. As I’ve shared in other blogs, that first visit didn’t go particularly smoothly, but it was the first time I didn’t feel like I was missing something that everyone else could see, hear, or feel. No one there claimed to know with certainty the presences of an-all powerful God, so I felt less angst about not being able to find Him myself.
There were no Confessionals, either. Over time I would come to understand that forgiveness was for everyone, and if prayers didn’t work for you, that didn’t mean anything was wrong with you.
It’s much easier for me to believe in human compassion and forgiveness as something that comes from within yourself and others. It didn’t need to come from heaven through a special middle man. Forgiveness from god still doesn’t work as I’m not sure god exists and if there’s such thing as an all-knowing higher power, where does his/her/it responsibility for my actions end, and why do I need to ask for forgiveness – doesn’t love mean never having to say your sorry? And if he/she/it isn’t all loving and forgiving, then I don’t really want to worship him/her/it anyway.
However, I realize that there is something I miss about the ritual of Confession. It isn’t the idea that the sins can be washed away. It’s the reinforcement that we should act like we’re absolved, even if we don’t truly believe it. C.S. Lewis once wrote that acting as if he loved his fellow man helped him actually love his fellow man. Perhaps acting like I am forgiven would make it easier to forgive myself – for that stolen Bonker and for any other little sin that weighs on my soul.
I don’t know if I’ve sinned against Unitarian-Universalism, but I’m obviously struggling with feeling like I am good enough to belong in church. My soul still craves a path to take to reach forgiveness. I need a task to feel I have earned it. I’m just not sure what that task would be or who to ask for it.