True Confessions

Nancy Hatten

© Copyright 2007 by Nancy Hatten 

Photo of a traditional confessional booth.

   I have found that growing up Catholic insures that you will have a treasure trove of stories to draw on. The event in this story loomed large in my mind for years, as I was never sure if Father Shannon would tell my parents about the incident. It wasn’t until he left the parish for another assignment that I was able to relax a bit.  Discovering why it really happened was one of those “aha” moments we all have in life.

  I feared entering the confessional that afternoon. The line was long and gave me too much time to reflect, sparking thoughts that my sins were greater than they were. I was too young to realize that most nine year old girls talked back to their mothers, and even on occasion slapped their younger siblings in the heat of an argument. The fact that I would have to add to my confession that I said a swear word almost paralyzed me. I couldn’t imagine what the penance would be for such a transgression, and I slipped my hand into my pocket to touch my rosary. There would surely be a lot of Our Fathers and Hail Marys in my future. I pinched the rosary’s cross until it hurt my fingers, in way of self punishment.

 The line of sin laden souls moved slowly toward absolution, and I began to wonder what burdens the other people were carrying. Each person seemed to be taking a long time once they got inside the confessional. Maybe they also had a lengthy list of sins, and mine wouldn’t stand out so glaringly. But I kept remembering that Father Shannon often talked about obeying our parents, and getting along with our siblings. One of the sins he detested most was taking the name of the Lord in vain, and the profanity I used did indeed contain God’s name. Surely Father Shannon would be very unhappy with me.

 The sacrament of confession has a duality about it. On the one hand, it is a somewhat humiliating experience to kneel in a wooden box and spill out your guts through a sliding window to a person who isn’t even looking at you. Saying out loud to another person all the things you’ve done wrong is never easy. But there is freedom to be found once you complete whatever penance the priest dispenses that will absolve you from your sins. You leave the church knowing that if you are hit by a car while walking home, before you are able to sin again, you will go straight to heaven. That comforted me in a strange way that nothing else ever has.

 It was finally my turn, and I entered the confessional quietly. I didn’t want to give the priest any clues as to who I was. My heart rate gradually increased as Father Shannon finished up with the confession of the person on the other side. Dry mouth set in, and I couldn’t keep my hands from moving, so I clasped them together and set them on the handrail of the kneeler.

I often wondered why there had to be two sinners in the confessional; one on either side of the priest. This always disturbed me, since I was concerned that the person on the other side could hear what I was saying, even though I’d never been able to detect anything above a murmur. The time spent waiting was probably supposed to be spent preparing, kind of a run through of the confession, which I was too nervous to ever be able to do. As an adult, I came to the conclusion that the two compartment confessional was more likely devised so that the priest didn’t waste his valuable time in transitions, insuring that the whole thing ran rather like an assembly line. He just slid open the window on one side and then the other, keeping his gaze fixed straight ahead, and there was always someone there ready to reveal all.

The window on my side slid open abruptly. “Bless me Father for I have sinned,” I blurted out, saying the words I always began with, but at a faster speed than usual. I forgot that I was going to try to disguise my voice and now it was too late. “It has been two weeks since my last confession,” I continued. I didn’t usually go so often, but the fact that I’d said a swear word was weighing on me heavily. “I have disobeyed my mother, hit my little sister and said a bad word.” There – the truth was out, and I held my breath.

 “Did the bad word use our Lord’s name?” Father Shannon asked.

“Yes, Father.”

“You must strive to never say swear words of any kind – but especially those that take the Lord’s name in vain. Your penance is to say ten Hail Marys and twenty Our Fathers.” He made the sign of the cross as he issued his absolution, which would make me temporarily sin free once I’d said my penance. “I absolve thee from thy sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen."

“Thank you, Father,” I managed to force out before Father Shannon briskly closed the sliding door. Ten Hail Marys and twenty Our Fathers was more than I usually got, but I knew the swear word put me into some kind of new category. The extra Our Fathers must be for using His name in vain – that made sense. Father Shannon didn’t seem to care about the talking back or the hitting. He never even mentioned that once the swear word entered the picture. I exited the confessional quietly and walked towards a pew, pulling my rosary out of my pocket.

 Suddenly the priest’s door to the confessional flew open, and I stood as deer must stand when headlights abruptly shine on them, as Father Shannon stared straight at me. He had to know that I was the person he had just absolved - I was still too close to the confessional for him to come to any other conclusion. My eyes widened and my mind raced to think of what possible reason he might have to want to see the person who had just exited. I could only come up with one. My sins must have been as weighty as I had feared, and he wanted to see for himself who could do such things. I slunk to the nearest pew with shoulders rounded and head hung, and knelt down as Father Shannon pulled the door closed.

 I hoped that no one else had noticed Father Shannon flinging open his door to the confessional, but I knew that was unlikely. It was very quiet in the church as people murmured their penance, and some of the penitents actually jumped when the door banged open. Father Shannon had not done it quietly or discreetly. The best I could wish for is that no one connected the door opening with me.

Before worrying about the implications of what had happened, I said my penance in the rote speed fashion that I had learned from a classmate and had recently perfected. The idea was to say each prayer in your mind so quickly that it would be unintelligible if spoken aloud. My fingers jumped from bead to bead on my rosary. I hoped that the time I spent in the pew would give the people waiting in line a chance to forget that I was the one who had exited the confessional when Father Shannon threw open the door. Once I had completed my penance, I got up casually as if I was just one of the newly absolved people out to rejoin the sinful world. I walked past the line of people and felt better when no one seemed to look at me with disdain or even with much interest.

 Once outside, I didn’t feel the lightness that usually came once my penance was completed. This time my absolution seemed to be conditional. I wondered if Father Shannon would punish me further in some way, maybe even by telling my parents about my terrible sins. I felt a bit violated, since the priest is never supposed to know who the person in the confessional is, and he surely saw me. There was no recourse for me, since the priest was the ultimate authority in all things, and answered only to God. If Father Shannon wanted to turn and look at someone when they were saying their confession, he could do that too if he wanted. Who was going to stop him? In the end I held the fact that I had used the Lord’s name in vain responsible for the possible mess I was in, and determined on the spot never to swear again.

It took time’s passage for me to feel that all was right again in my world. No further punishment from Father Shannon was issued. He obviously never told my parents about the swear word, or I’m sure I would have been punished severely for it. For a long time I lived what I would term an exemplary young life, seeking to stamp out sin whenever I saw its potential loom. I held back my tongue more times than I can count when my mother and I didn’t see eye to eye, and held back my fists when my little sisters were being particularly annoying. There was even triumph in the swearing department, as I was successful for many years in keeping most bad words corralled in my brain before they made it to my lips. Eventually the familiar lightness returned when I left confession. When I stepped off the curb after exiting the church I looked both ways when crossing the street, but wasn’t as concerned about being hit by a truck as I would have been before my absolution.

 It wasn’t until I was an adult, and was telling the story of my traumatic confession experience to a friend, that an epiphany struck. I remembered that I had gone to confession near the end of the posted time on the day that I was so distressed by Father Shannon’s reaction. The realization hit me that he pushed the door open so dramatically merely to see how many people were in line; not to see the person who had sinned so wantonly. I couldn’t suppress a chuckle when I made the connection. For years I had felt guilty and sinful, when the priest was just wondering when he’d be able to punch out for the day. Father Shannon had succeeded in suppressing my emergent sinful nature without any effort or intention on his part. I knew he would have been pleased, and I could only wonder how sin might have run rampant in my young life if his door to the confessional would have remained closed that day.

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