A Confession About Confessions

It’s a shame I wasn’t in a church with an open confessional last Saturday. I would very much like to have seen the look on the priest’s face when I told him, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been…oh, about 15 minutes since my last confession.”

It’s not that I’d committed any fresh outrages since being dismissed with the Lord’s pardon and peace. I just realized, as I stepped out of the church, into the courtyard with the statue of the Holy Family looking very nuclear and very functional, that I’d omitted something. False modesty aside, it was pretty serious, this thing I’d done. It was also pretty recent — just over three weeks old, by my calcuations. Getting it off my conscience, even at the expense of adding to the confessor’s workload (and making myself look like a scrupulous seven-year-old) just seemed like the right thing to do.

Sherlock Holmes conceived of the brain as “a little empty attic.” To fill it with important things or junk was every person’s decision to make. Ih this, Conan Doyle’s character was anticipating theories of working memory, the system by which new information is stored until it can be assimilated into long-term memory. Most researchers agree that working memory’s capacity is indeed limited — a good excuse for note pads and databases. It requires concsious volition. When I first began studying Russian, our professor told us, “Povtorenie — mat’ ucheniya,” or “repetition is the mother of learning.” Then he made us repeat it until we cursed our own mothers for bringing us into the world.

Mentally compiling a list of my sins for next confession, I make use of this system. The encoding process is pretty simple: I tell myself, “That was a sin, what you just did. A sin, get it? A sin! A mortal sin!” With few exceptions — that high crime I caught on one hop last week being one — it works just fine. Examining my conscience while waiting for the confessional light to change from red to green feels like flipping through a well-highlighted textbook in the minutes before an exam.

But now I find myself wondering: What kinds of sins I earmark? Do some offend me particularly? Do I let others slide? Sure enough, after some soul-searching, I’ve come to glimpse the faintest outlines of a pattern.

Sins I Always Confess

Anything to do with sex. This is a no-brainer. It’s in her teachings on what some archly call “pelvic issues” that the Catholic Church stands out most sharply against the backdrop of the world. Being a convert, the scope of my vision thoroughly conditioned by worldly values, I couldn’t ignore that contrast if I tried. Speaking of contrasts, for a person of my age, in my state of life, sexual sins represent a departure from routine too dramatic to forget. If any of my confessors thinks he heard a note of triumph in my voice when I finked on myself for breaking a rule covered under Question 154 (Articles 2-6) of Summa Theologica, he needn’t get his hearing checked.

Sins of the imagination. In contrast to — and in compensation for — my humdrum daily existence, I lead a fantasy life that would have given Walter Mitty a heart attack. Most of my daydreams are morally neutral, or even benevolent. In my own head, I ride bulls, publish in The New Yorker, meet famous people at cocktail parties and find they are shorter than I. Sometimes, when I have trouble falling asleep, I imagine the Mormons forming their own republic and conquering Arizona, which they rename South Deseret. The tone is by no means anti-Mormon: their side wins because of their troops’ superb discripline and high morale. Every once in a while, I’ll have Napoleon Dynamite distinguish himself in action and return to Preston a hero.

But whenever daydreaming serves as a sop for frustration or boredom, it’s inevitable that some of the scenes will turn out not to be so nice. I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong — my bad thoughts usually aren’t the sexy kind. I’m much more likely to imagine blowing some obnoxious jerk’s head off from a clock tower than I am being blown. Since my imagination is very vivid, this makes confession into an imperative. Once a fellow has heard the tinkling of brass shell casings on a concrete floor and seen the pink mist, he starts to feel kind of dirty inside.

Being mean to people. The bumper sticker’s right. Mean people do suck. That includes me.

Anything that makes a good story. Say what you like against newfangled verbs derived from newfangled nouns; “narrativize,” which Oxforddictionaries.com defines as “present or interpret…in the form of a narrative,” describes the way I prefer to indict myself. First comes the backstory — the reasons for the argument with so-and-so that led me to call her by a four-letter word. Then, in a neat, vivid mise en scène, comes the action. Chugging along behind, like a caboose, is a quick analysis. I won’t swear this approach makes the confessor’s job any easier, but I can’t remember the last time one has troubled me with any follow-up questions.

This impulse to narrativize has driven me to confess some things that, apparently, weren’t so bad after all. In the past, I spent Wednesday evenings serving dinner at a homeless shelter called Andre House. Most of the other volunteers, I’m sorry to say, I found insufferable. In one especially sticky summer gloaming, when we were crammed ass to navel in the kitchen and dining area, I decided I could stand it no longer, hung up my apron, and slunk out the exit. On my way down the outside steps, I turned and saw the homeless, waiting to be admitted for their meal. Despite the misters and the shade of the nylon canopy, none of them looked very comfy or happy.

When I confessed this failure of charity the following Saturday, my pastor shrugged and told me I’d done a better job than the rich man in Luke’s Gospel, who ignored Lazarus. At least I’d recognized Christ in the face of the poor, even if I didn’t do much about it. The token penance he gave me — offering up my next Mass or something like that — felt like a gold star.

What do I leave out? Well, everything else, I guess. If I were being really meticulous, I could probably confess to gluttony. I don’t eat that much — $75 can feed me for three weeks — but a lot of what I eat is crap. In fact, I buy crap precisely because it’s cheap. Besides, my best friend, Rick, is a born-again foodie who can’t shut the organic fudge up for five minutes about how 51% of his diet consists of raw vegetables, or how dried cranberries and cruelty-free oats make up the real breakfast of champions. If God is just, then listening to him is punishment enough.

Pride? I’d throw it in there, but even while feeling it, I recognize it as a very small fig leaf for a bulging package of self-loathing. Modesty demands I wear it. Envy? Good grief, if I couldn’t envy people, I’d have no way of relating to them at all. Really, God, no man is an island.

  • Marie Bernadette (@MbernadetteE)

    My goodness.
    This exemplifies why I never miss your posts. Truly excellent, humorous yet still makes an emphatic point. Seems every time I go to confession I wait long enough that I end up confessing all the horrible thoughts I directed at those that went before me, thus making me wait ages, leading to rages… yeah.
    Thanks for writing!

  • RebeccaK

    Fantastic piece. I’m with Marie Bernadette. . . thanks! I smile whenever I see a new post from you in my reader list.

  • Chris

    Thanks for an excellent piece. Your comments about vivid daydreams are so true–it can be a fine line. Maybe this will give some the impetus to experience the sacrament.

  • Jerseydan

    Always a pleasure Max, and thank you.

  • http://pannoneappetit.blogspot.com/ jp

    Brilliant, and spot on.

    I had to snicker at your description of your foodie friend… mostly because it’s like looking into a mirror. Always good to have a slice of humble pie. :)

    [Trust me, when I start making some real scratch, I'll become the best friend Trader Joe ever had.]

  • LeAnn

    you are awesome Max in your honesty and self loathing. But I might hate myself more. hmm would this be a keeping up with the Joneses contest? Just kidding. And I totally get the idea that most of the other volunteers were insufferable. If only I didn’t have to work with people to help people. Looking forward to your next post, as ever, LeAnn

  • Thomas

    My “Reconciliation” completely changed when I realized that I didn’t have to “make lists” to satisfy either my conscience or God’s demands. If there is a mortal sin I surely would remember it (like misssing Mass last week because I was on the road) and the venial ones would be encompassed in my contrition by just being there before the Lord asking for forgiveness. I seek his righteousness and blessings to overcome my own shortfalls and self condemnations. Thanks for your blog…I’ll be back.

  • http://www.renees-camera.com WobblyWonk

    I agree with @jp: brilliant and spot on! =:o]

  • Jan

    Your double-confession has nothing on young Frank McCourt’s in Angela’s Ashes. His grandmother begins…

    Look what he did. Thrun up his First Communion breakfast. Thrun up the body and blood of Jesus. I have God in me backyard. What am I going to do? I’ll take him to the Jesuits for they know the sins of the Pope himself.
    She dragged me through the streets of Limerick. She told the neighbors and passing strangers about God in her backyard. She pushed me into the confession box.
    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen. Bless me, Father for I have sinned. It’s a day since my last confession.
    A day? And what sins have committed in a day, my child?
    I overslept. I nearly missed my First Communion. My grandmother said I have standing up, North of Ireland, Presbyterian hair. I threw up my First Communion breakfast. Now Grandma says she has God in her backyard and what should she do.
    The priest is like the First Confession priest. He has the heavy breathing and the choking sounds.
    Ah…ah…tell your grandmother to wash God away with a little water and for your penance say one Hail Mary and one Our Father. Say a prayer for me and God bless you, my child.
    Grandma and Mam were waiting close to the confession box. Grandma said, Were you telling jokes to that priest in the confession box? If ’tis a thing I ever find out you were telling jokes to Jesuits I’ll tear the bloody kidneys outa you. Now what did he say about God in me backyard?
    He said wash Him away with a little water, Grandma.
    Holy water or ordinary water?
    He didn’t say, Grandma.
    Well, go back and ask him.
    But, Grandma…
    She pushed me back into the confessional.
    Bless me, Father for I have sinned, it’s a minute since my last confession.
    A minute! Are you the boy that was just here?
    I am, Father.
    What is it now?
    My grandma says, Holy water or ordinary water?
    Ordinary water, and tell your grandmother not to be bothering me again….

    at which point, grandmother calls the priest a bloody ignorant bogtrotter.

  • Corita

    Max,
    I always add at the end, “I am SURE there are things I am forgetting, and I am sorry for those too.” I am not certain if this is entirely licit, and if it were something big I might be tempted to go back in…but then again I hardly ever go to Confession unless something big is weighing on my mind.

    Also, hey! I studied Russian too!

    [Klass! My imeyim mnogo v obshchem!]

  • http://smkelly8.wordpress.com Susan

    Funny there’s an ad for Mormon.org on this page.

    Good post.


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