The Confessor Who Laughs

I have never thought to ask what confessors look for in confessees. But if I were sitting on the other side of the screen, I would want to hear from people who could crank out three-minute potboilers, action-packed and linear. First the backstory, then the action, then a short reflection to provide some perspective. With material presented so neatly, I'd be able to add up the instances of objective evil, divide them by the instances of diminished imputability and think up a just penance without having to ask too many follow-up questions.

And I think I'd also want someone who could make me laugh.

"Man," writes G.K. Chesterton, "is a very comic creature." He goes on to explain that he enjoys watching people run after hats that the wind has blown from their heads. It's not their misfortune at losing their hats that so tickles the big guy; on the contrary, Chesterton doesn't rate it a misfortune at all. Finding people most likeable when at their least dignified, he thinks they should enjoy being seen in that light for the pleasure others take in seeing them. Chesterton continues: "the most comic things of all are exactly the things that are most worth doing." I propose that the opposite is also true—the things that are least worth doing are a howl in their own right. This is because they often look worthwhile at the time. The Greek word for sin, hamartia, translates literally to "missing the target." People often miss targets because they see badly. (Ask the eye doctor at Ft. Hamilton, New York, who told me I was too nearsighted for the Marine Corps.) In Chestertonian terms, sinning is like running after something that looks like a hat, but which turns out to be a road apple—after you've stuck it on your head. Now that's good comedy.

Bill Cosby proved he got the humor in faulty moral vision when he told the joke about a friend who recommended he try cocaine because "it intensifies your personality." Cosby replied: "Yes, but what if you're an _______?" I can't type out the word, but trust me, it refers to someone who should seek to dilute his personality at any cost. If I were a priest, and heard a layperson tell that sort of joke on himself, I'd know I was dealing with a serious individual.

So, when I examine my conscience, I try to work in a punch line, something to let my confessor know that I see the ridiculousness of shooting for this but hitting that. I had a good run in my old parish. The priests knew me, and the confessional was open, which allowed me to mug, Jon Stewart-style, to underscore the gag.

Since leaving, I've worked a circuit of several nearby parishes, where, I'm sorry to say, I usually bomb. The lines at these new places tend to be longer than I'm used to; in consideration of the ten people behind me, I tend to speed up my delivery. Younger priests seem a little too self-conscious to step outside what they consider a properly sacerdotal attitude. A certain number speak English as a second, third or fourth language; my speech might confuse them as much as theirs does me. Or maybe deadpan humor doesn't exist in their native cultures. That's the only kind possible when a person is seeking absolution from a stranger acting in persona Christi.

Only once on the road have I made a priest laugh so hard that I feared he'd cough up something he'd need later. I'll call him Father Terrence. He was in his sixties, and—I learned from third parties—had been born in England to Irish parents. His accent might have been a little less plebian than Shane McGowan's, but I found it no more intelligible. He spoke as though he was chewing on a Nerf ball. The first time I confessed to him, he paused for a moment and asked in his strangely obstructed voice whether I had a rosary.

"Several," I replied brightly. Hoping to curry favor, I added. "One's from Medjugorje, the other's made of olive wood from Jerusalem."

"Good!" He said. "I want you to say the rosary."

I have never gotten the hang of praying the rosary. I can meditate on a mystery for thirty seconds, tops. After that, my mind starts wandering, and the whole enterprise turns into a Marian version of "Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall." After finishing my penance, I resolved never to confess to Fr. Terrence unless I were on my deathbed.

Time softened that resolution. It occurred to me that Fr. Terrence might simply have a bee in his bonnet about the particular sin I'd confessed to. After gathering a very different batch, I decided, in a spirit of good sportsmanship, to give the man a second chance.

Again, that gummy voice told me, "I want you to say the rosary."

The man was a hanging judge. Never in my life had I been asked to say anything longer than a decade. Receiving such a severe sentence under two drastically different sets of circumstances drove me to frantic self-appraisal. Something about me must have rubbed the man the wrong way. Fr. Terrence was from the wrong generation—not to mention the wrong country—to take offense at the tobacco on my breath. Did I shut the door too hard? Did my shoes squeak too loudly?