On Good Friday I went to confession.
I’m not saying that was the right choice. It probably wasn’t. People with religious trauma should probably take some time to get their heads on straight before returning to the sacraments when the sacraments cause panic. But I just didn’t like the idea of going any longer without confession, and it was Good Friday. And the next thing I knew I was stimming in line at the church on the other side of town, while a deacon read a sincere but unremarkable sermon on the first of the Seven Last Words of Christ: Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.
I didn’t know what I’d done either. Not because I hadn’t done plenty of terrible things, but because when I tried to examine my conscience, it made the anxiety worse, and I didn’t want to run out of the church.
There was a small family ahead of me; the children went into the confessional and came out just a moment later, giving me hope that the priest was going easy today. I saw them smiling and nodding at each other, holding up one finger and mouthing “one.”
Next it was my turn. “Bless me father for I have sinned it’s been, ah…” What to say?
A whole liturgical year, Good Friday to Good Friday, longer than a calendar year, of having a panic attack every time I made any effort toward going to confession. A whole liturgical year of gagging with anxiety in churches, watching Mass from the foyer or out on the porch most weeks because it was usually too much, feeling unsafe most of the times I tried to pray. That week-long trip to Columbus where churches seemed safe and Mass felt fun and easy, then back to Steubenville where all the worst memories are. One solid month of being too scared to receive Communion.
Before the priest could say anything about how long it had been, I blurted out a severely abbreviated version of my religious trauma by way of explanation so he wouldn’t yell at me. I also mentioned I was about to have a panic attack. This turned out to be just the right thing to say; he let me talk. I blurted out a jumble of wrongdoings in no particular order, plus a few things I’m having OCD about without knowing whether they’re wrong.
The priest was very kind about the whole thing. He gave me only one Our Father and one Hail Mary as a penance.
When I got out of the confessional, I wanted to smile at the little girls and mouth “one” to them, celebrating that I’d been shown the same mercy. But they’d already left.
I went to the car to say my one Our Father and one Hail Mary, and in the car I panicked.
I’m not saying I should have put myself through that. I’m not saying that other people who grew up in spiritually abusive communities and suffer from religious trauma have to do what I did. I think it would have been perfectly fine with Jesus if I’d waited until I had more distance from the events of last April that made things particularly horrific. But in any case, I went to confession.
The only person I know how to write about is me– me, here, my experience, my day to day life, my clumsiness and weakness, my inability to get it right. I write about me so I won’t feel alone, and because others have told me it makes them feel less alone. I believe that if we realize we’re not alone, we’ll be stronger for it. Maybe we can even change the world for the better.
The only experience I know is mine: of being a person whose childhood and life were destroyed by the Charismatic Renewal, who suffers from religious trauma, and who still believes in God. I believe in God because I’ve had experiences I can’t explain either way– and I don’t mean experiences at the hands of liars and fakes; I accept now that those were false. I mean experiences of grace when I’ve been praying alone, or in nature, or when I’ve been helping others, or when others have helped me. I experience that God as a Trinity, so I remain Christian. I experience the presence of God in the Eucharist sometimes, so I remain Catholic. I’m not saying God isn’t other places or doesn’t answer to other names. I just know that He is here, so I am staying here for now.
The only God worth following is a God so loving He wouldn’t mind if I made mistakes while fumbling to follow after Him; He’d only be thrilled that I tried. So I try.
So I went to confession on Good Friday, and it felt good, but it also didn’t. And then I drove home in the glorious spring brightness, thanking God for blue sky and warm weather and new flowers, and then I ate a piece of fish because it was a penitential day. And I panicked on and off all day, and worried that I’d go to hell if God turned out to be the malicious, angry tyrant I feared for so long. But if He is, I think going to hell would be a badge of honor, because that God is pettier than I am.
That’s where I am right now.
That’s what I did this weekend.
Not very exciting, but it’s what I have to tell you.
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