The Confessions

A confessional. Via Wikimedia Commons.

A confessional. Via Wikimedia Commons.

On a spring evening at dusk, sitting next to the fire pit with a glass of wine, my mother told me what it was like to go to confession before the Second Vatican Council.

First of all, that is what it was. There was no “Reconciliation.” There was no “Reconciliation Room.” You went to confession. You went in the confessional.

You went once a month, every month. Mom’s impression was that this was church law. But it wasn’t, not really.

The minimum rate of going to confession was pegged to the minimum rate of receiving Eucharist. In other words, once a year around Easter. But in those days, things that seemed to be law had as much force as things that actually were law.

You went on Saturdays. Mom dreaded it. She hid in her bedroom, hoping her mother would forget. It was fruitless. Sometime in the afternoon, the shout came up the stairs from the kitchen.

“Krysia!” (For the uninitiated, “Krysia” is Polish for “Chrissy.”)  Continue reading

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On the occasion of Syria: Timeline of a peacenik

I am a senior in high school. I am eating mozzarella sticks in the cafeteria. A fellow student sits down across from me. He wants to talk about an anti-war poem he found in our English textbook. He is a pacifist.

I stonewall him. I do not like this fellow student because he is scruffy. He smokes. He takes art classes. He is an atheist. He sleeps with his girlfriend. I identify all this with weakness. Therefore pacifism is weakness, and so I am not a pacifist, Q.E.D.

I am a college freshman and it is September 11, 2001. The World Trade Center disappears, and the world metamorphoses, on a cloudless sapphire Tuesday morning. I walk across my silent, mostly deserted university campus to Latin class. I wince when a military jet roars over my head. It is the only thing interrupting the no-fly zone above the Chicago lakefront.

It is September 14, 2001, the feast of the Holy Cross. I attend Mass celebrated by a Jesuit. He says governments have a right to defend their people from threats like Al Qaeda. But individual Christians should aspire to be as defenseless as Jesus was, even to the point of crucifixion.

Complexity hacks its way into my thinking. Suddenly I can break patriotism and Christianity apart. I can analyze and compare them. I can pit God against Caesar and not assume they work together. Yet my new talent lies dormant for a while.

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Catholicism and Superstition

A few weeks ago, I finished reading The Scent of God, Beryl Singleton Bissel’s memoir of leaving convent life after falling in love with a priest. While people might pick up this book for the “scandal” implicit in its storyline, what stuck with me as a reader wasn’t the love story between Beryl and Father Vittorio, but the love story between Beryl and God. By the time I closed the book, I had been crying for the last thirty pages, and the thought in my mind was: that was the strongest spiritual reaction I’ve ever had from a book.

I was totally floored by the depth of Beryl’s trust in God, which survived even after she’d suffered tremendous pain, including the death of a child. I thought, I want to have that kind of faith. And immediately on that thought’s heels came a panic: But if my faith is that deep, will I also have to suffer pain that deep? Because in that case, perhaps I’d prefer a lukewarm faith for a life of minimal pain.

The thought surprised me because I’ve been fairly successful in the past two years at “getting over” superstitious beliefs that interfere with my real faith. What I mean is that I’ve stopped trying to bargain with  God. I began bargaining with God when I was in middle school, after suffering a year of intense bullying and feeling as though my life was totally out of my control in a hostile world. I latched onto the rituals of Catholicism as a way to feel as though I could gain some of my power back, and I made bargains with God: “If I pay attention during Mass, I won’t get sick at school.” These bargains followed me into adulthood: “If I say the rosary every day between now and when the test results come back, the lump found on my sister’s neck won’t be cancerous.”

Intellectually, I knew I didn’t “believe” that we are necessarily “punished” or “rewarded” here on earth, so there was no direct correlation between the rosaries I said or the piety I displayed at Mass and the outcome of my life. But believing that was true and living that belief were two very different things.

Now I realize that my reliance on ritual and bargain showed a fundamental distrust of God. I was constantly “proving” to God that I was worth kindness, mercy, and protection. I tried to “buy” God’s favor rather than trusting that God was good and would rain blessings down on me if I only opened my arms to receive them and my eyes to see them. I tried to control God rather than trusting that even the unanswered prayers were part of a loving plan for me.

These days, I’ve begun trusting in myself and God more. I say fewer rosaries, but I feel greater love, faith, and yes, security.