“WHAT?! You lied? To a priest?
Meg has really shocked me.
We’re chatting on the phone and I’ve shared that I’ve been reading John Cornwell’s “The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession”.
This led Meg and me to childhood reminiscences, and on to a discussion of Good Catholics versus Bad Catholics:
Good Catholics went to confession weekly, like we did. Bad Catholics showed up only once a year. Shame on those sinners, saving up all that dirt on their soiled souls!
“Ew!–Don’t brush up against us! Your dirty sins might brush off!”
We were on solid theological ground here:
Blessed is the person who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners… (Psalm 1:1)
I told Meg that while I waited each Saturday for my turn with the priest in the little confessional box, I used to do math to figure out my sin count: I’d estimate how many times each day I did something wrong to each of my siblings, and then multiply by seven days.
“Lemmee see…I lie about once a day to Meg, twice to Paul (he was so young—it was just too easy). I don’t usually lie to Macy, ’cause I don’t really talk to her much any more…Then there’s the hitting…”
The fact that I needed to go by number of times per day per sin gives a good indication of what a nasty little girl I was.
I seriously don’t recall that anything I did to the adults I lived with counted as wrong. Oh—wait! I DO remember something that I used to feel tremendous guilt about:
I would sneak food. Even emaciated as I appeared, and hungry as I always felt, my mom had weird rules about food and would make me feel guilty about eating. She would prefer I eat an entire box of Ring-Dings (non-food) than eat my preferred entire loaf of bread and quart of milk.
“I drank that quart of milk after school, God.”
My sin-counting was an arithmetic of anxiety—one which I took very seriously—because each week it re-emphasized what a bad person I was. And, if I missed only one sin, I would not be shriven [forgiven] of any.
Better to over-confess than under!
But now, here’s Meggy, confessing to me that SHE made up her entire confession!
“Meg! That means you actually would have told the priest a lie about lying!”
Wicked unrepentant chortles come from the other end of the phone.
“Well, I hope you remembered to add THAT to the list of sins you confessed, or you’re going straight to hell!”
We both laugh like demons.
Meg and I will have a lot of company down there. A lot of Catholic company. She and I are no longer Catholic, so of course we no longer worry about weekly or yearly confession, but, I just learned, neither do 97% of Catholics. In the U.S., you’ll only find confession going on in a bare handful of the biggest, best-attended cathedrals and churches.
Golly. All those important scenes in the movies inside the confessional box? Don’t happen. Not since the 1970’s.
Cornwell’s book had a bunch of interesting confession tidbits (as well as lots of other non-confession-related churchy facts not mentioned here). Warning: If you were born with normal non-nerd human genes, you may just want to stop right here, unless you’re hooked on catatonics.
Confession Is the Jews’ Fault
No—seriously. Ya’ know Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement? Even before that, for centuries, the tradition was that when you screwed up big time, you had to publicly show you were sorry by moaning and wailing, tearing at your clothes and yourself, and covering yourself with ashes.
Guess where the Catholics got the idea of Ash Wednesday from? Yup. THAT’s the Jews’ fault, too.
When the Christian church started out, there was no confession. Christ already died for everybody’s sins, except Adam and Eve’s original sin, and baptism took care of that. But over time, when Christians messed up big-time, by killing someone or doing something equally evil, like masturbating, the church needed a way to welcome them back. It had to be a big public something, or everybody would think masturbation, say, was no big deal.
(Of course I wouldn’t know, but I’ve heard that, in some cases, it CAN be a big deal. With inflatable embraces, or the proper electronic interfaces.)
So the Christians borrowed from their not-distant Jewish heritage and added a Christian twist: The ashy sinner had to walk up to the altar at the pre-Easter Lenten church service with a shaved head, and confess in front of everyone s/he knew.
Confession Is the Fault of the Irish
They’re the ones who decided it was better to whisper sins kneeling at the foot of a priest in private than to shout them out loud in front of your friends.
You’re thinking “That’s mighty thoughtful.”
Well, that’s where you’re wrong, boy-o. Or girl-o. Those private meetings enabled the charm o’ the Irish to apply itself in private. To privates.
The early church actually tried to address this. You’ll never guess how. Through designing a device which would keep priest and penitent apart while still allowing private, personal confession: The confessional box!
Pretty much backfired, didn’t it? Lots of diddling has gone on inside those boxes down through the years.
This post was gonna be longer–the book is good, and really deserves a read, and a more thoughtful post–but instead, it sorta peters out. And if you’re Catholic, or if you’ve ever been Catholic, or if you even have a friend who’s Catholic, you know whose fault THAT is. The same person whose fault EVERYTHING is:
“Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”
“My fault, my fault, my most grievous fault.”
Yes, the Bible was talking about the death of Jesus, but somehow Catholicism makes the guilt transferrable to every poor choice you or I ever made or may make.
Pardon me, while I go self-flagellate.