The Carnival of Confession
I’m early to everything. It’s a compulsion. I’ll arrive early to an event and sit in the parking lot 30 or 40 minutes, hoping for Britney Spears or Ira Glass on the radio. Usually, I get neither.
For the first time in 10 years, I’m going to confession–and I arrived early even though I was sacramentally tardy. The church is dedicated to Teresa of Avila. Her life and model was so prominent in Reformation Europe that even Anglicans and Lutherans honor her. A Carmelite reformer, mystic, contemplative prayer aficionado: she is fierce. But her fierceness can’t overcome the sinking sensation within me. I sit in this parking lot on a gray Lenten evening knowing the waste that awaits me. There is no point in this exercise.
Upon entering the church of Avila, my stage fright sets in immediately. In the Lenten season, Catholic parishes make a special plea for the baptized to utilize the sacrament of reconciliation, also called penance, also called confession. Most parishes sponsor a reconciliation service, in which a number of priests will gather in one parish to offer confession by assembly line. These services are an inventive way to demythologize confession. While the personal confession is still central to the sacrament’s validity, the reconciliation service offers communal readings, mini-reflections and music to soften anxiety-inducing confessional claustrophobia. As a result, reconciliation services always appear to be something of a carnival. Priests are spread out across the church in little rings, silently imploring you to step right up and be healed. I hate it already.
I’ve been to confession twice in my life. My first confession, like my baptism or first Communion, is long ago lost in the memory hole. I’ll posit I was cute as a button with my legs swinging from a chair as I explained why I’m sorry for taking a cousin’s toy, but that’s about it. My second confession I remember well. I had entered the Jesuit novitiate on a balmy August day. Still unsure why I was doing this priest thing, I figured I should go about getting it right and making a fresh start. I sat in the office of a priest whom I had met the first day. Face to face we sat, our eyes moving to look at anything but each other. I was purely functional, confessing sexual indelicacies and overly impassioned arguing and such nonsense. Nothing about it was believable, and yet the function seemed to be satisfactory. I played my role and the priest played his.
The sacrament of reconciliation is an encounter of what, exactly? “What are your sins?” This question is indelibly tied to another: what are your graces? I routinely feel devoid of both. Since I left priestly formation at the dawn of Obama’s America, the sacraments have never been the same. I don’t feel the same. Sin and grace are far less illuminating pillars to me today. Now there is just this and that. But I can’t shake the Church of Rome. Life is pointless choice after pointless choice, but the habit of the Eucharistic assembly is something I can’t stop choosing. The Eucharist is my most fruitful experience with God and the commune. The Eucharist used to serve as my religious grounding for meditating on God through animated elements. Torn bread and spilt wine given by Jesus, given by each other, given for each other. I don’t know what that means anymore, but I do recall it was once my own private Tillich. It was my conception of God rooted in a theology from above, but liberation came and swept these things of God away. The liberated Eucharist removes these meditative functions and re-articulates the sacrament as my mode of encounter with the themes of God. The liberated Eucharist starts with my values manifested, instead of doctrine for my attestation. I am allowed to focus on what I know to be at the Eucharistic assembly–me, the other militant souls, the literary musings of the ancients and the liturgical movements of the presents. This is it, and that is that.
The other sacraments, however: I’ve always been very meh. I see much less possibility of them serving as vehicles for liberation. They belong much more firmly to Christian vanity. They are manifestations not of the welcome table, but of the set-apart, gated community. Can confession be liberated? I care to know because Walter White made me care. There’s a whole lot of resentment in Walt. There are other things too: loss, sadness and pain. His resentment expressed is the code for understanding his confession as liberation. Remember Walt’s last meeting with Skyler? Just as she revolted as she assumed Walt should justify his actions by family devotion for the hundredth time, he doesn’t. “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it.” Resentment expressed is the freedom he found in confession, with or without God’s forgiveness. Now, murder is the case that Walter got. I’ll plead to misdemeanors, but I do share with him a deep need to have my resentment expressed.
The particulars of my resentment are connected to my self-perception as an oddity. As a young man, my life was an experience of cocooning. Secure in the cocoon, I felt deeply three expressions of self: emptiness in friendship, alienation in family relations and passion for the male form. While the teenage angst has faded, I remain firmly out of place. I’m a Dorothy Day progressive in the Tea Party South. I’m in my 30s and eternally single. I’m kinda-something Catholic and kinda-something other. I get it: life sucks more often than not. Life is confusing more often than not. Does the resulting resentment mean I die slowly to the possibilities proposed in love, compassion, connectivity, and God? I want to know if my approach of theologizing from below can liberate confession as well as Eucharist.
I take a seat near the middle of the church. The mushy middle, always where I belong. I observe my fellow seekers. The church is maybe a third full. On this night, it’s mostly older ladies and children who seem to be making their first confession. Their legs are swinging too. Normally the draw of community makes me comfortable in a church environment, but not this evening. With supreme focus, I have to decide: which priest? There are maybe five of them, all heavy in the brow. It feels a bit like I’m stalking a victim. I decide to go with the most grandfatherly one. Apparently many others have the same idea, appealing for mercy from the elderly, as Father Grandfather’s line is the longest. So I wait.
The light outside dwindles. The crowd inside does as well. I muster my gut and get in line. In proper Soviet fashion, I shuffle my feet and kept my head downcast as the line gets shorter and I get closer to–I don’t know what exactly. I have only one person in front of me when the other line dries up. The priest from the cry room, normally reserved for families with boisterous little ones during services but tonight used as a make-shift confessional, comes out and waves me over. Utter disdain is all I can feel. My carefully laid plan to confess to Father Grandfather has been dashed by Father Frumpy. I know Father Frumpy by reputation. He was a man who had struggled openly with depression and, according to Church Lady Rumor News Corp, had been removed as pastor of another parish after a half-hearted suicide attempt. He looked like an old young man. His body resembles an overstuffed sausage, and his eyes seemed perpetually swollen.
We sit down in the cry room with my back pressed against the Plexiglass window that looks into the church. As the church judges my back, I judge what I am to do with this man. After the formal prayers, we get down to business. “I don’t have a confession as much as an airing of grievances,” I said. He humors me. In the fashion of Aquinas, I begin with the largest and worked to the smallest. Racism, sexism, LGBT animus. Concentration of capital, lack of solidarity, poverty as a public policy choice. Crocs, mom jeans, the color magenta. It was a mix of indignation and whining. Father Frumpy’s good humor fades, I suppose with some warrant.
He asks, “When’s the first time you spoke to God?” I recoil at the question. When have I spoken to God? What sort of question is that? Who answers such a question? Yet I answer the question, in a moment of guttural anxiety detached from previous mental gymnastics. “When I came out to God.” The confession startles me. I shudder a little in the chair, my feet firmly secured on the floor.
While the common meaning of the phrase “coming out” is intended, there’s another coming out that is more important to me. I am a believer, in spite of all my disbelief. I recalled spending quiet nights staring into the darkness of my pockmarked bedroom ceiling as the silence was punctuated by the occasional dog bark. My mind considered many trivial things, but sometimes, when the feelings of temporal isolation were too overwhelming to stand, my mind would vault up to consider things other than this world. I found some peace, but it was fleeting. I sought after the love of God, but God never seemed to seek after me. One night, as the ritual of deferred sleep unfolded; I looked into the dark and for the first time truly saw it. The dark looked back at me and reveal its truth: you are alone. There was no escape from its billowy presence. Like Gabriel to Muhammad, it demanded a recitation. I closed my eyes and threw blankets over my head, this being the only absolute way to neutralize the threat of monsters. Recite! I looked again, and I knew the truth which this dim angel imparted was real. I was alone, but then I wasn’t as another monster lurked in my periphery. Despite my acknowledgment of the Ghost of Christmas Nothingness, the monster called God-Thoughts would stalk me more. Claw and fang marks from God-Thoughts scarred my body, first just a little and then just a little bit more. And with each scratch and chomp, I wanted more.
Father Frumpy doesn’t move, but his swollen face recedes just a bit. I come in contact with his dark eyes. My only wish now is to run. This is a supremely bad idea. Roquentin was right all along. The encroachment of world suffocates my self-definition. No intimacy with the other, or The Other, is possible. Father Frumpy speaks: “I think it was more important for you to speak that than for God to hear it.” I melt somewhat. My brokenness is there and, in the way of unspoken intimacy, so is his. Can I live as a believer with so much doubt? He quotes Thich Nhat Hanh: “In order to heal others, we first need to heal ourselves. And to heal ourselves, we need to know how to deal with ourselves.” We stumble and fumble through the rest. The more uncomfortable I appear the more tired he becomes. I see the lights of the church dim through the Plexiglass and I assume the reconciliation service is coming to an end. He waves off his comrades, telling them he’ll lock up the church.
We move on to a discussion of penance. I’m disinterested but hear him out. He tells me I should seek companionship with other young adults and hands me a copy of the diocesan newspaper, opened to a list of young adult groups. I smile and nod, thinking of nearly 30 other things I would choose to do first, of which at least 10 are unpleasant. Forced community life is always invokes memory of the Jesuit ritual of the evening newscast. Ten men sit down promptly for Brian Williams to regurgitate the events of the day. During that pause called a commercial break, the beloved with the remote quickly mutes the TV, presumably to allow for conversation. Ten men sit in silence for three, two-minute breaks.
As we walk back into the church, my stride is more assured, even if my mind is less so. Personal liberation is a revolution based upon acknowledgement. Today I re-acknowledged my alien status as a disbeliever with a believer’s passport. Tomorrow may see God requite my love. The day after that is indiscernible. But liberation did come to this house of God. I made free admission of the severity of my doubt and the inescapable search for my God. In the Catholic tradition, much is made of approaches to evangelical meaning in ministry. When faced with a baptized person in struggle, the minister seeks after the disposition of the heart. What is the capacity of the person to break open and allow for new growth? The answer to this question informs the rigidity or flexibility the minster uses to coax the person toward the gospel. This can only be analyzed fully, however, by the baptized person giving the conscience freedom to admit. In theologizing from below, we begin with the conscience. To liberate confession, we must provide space for the conscience to admit. The admission of my doubts about and my unrequited love for the rebel Galilean allowed me the self-possession to assess my own lack of rebellion, my own lack of honesty, my own lack of remorse. God forgive me.
As he walks me out of the church, before he closed the door behind me, Father Frumpy said, “God loves you.” The night is severe and damp. I hesitate, forgetting where I parked. And I hesitate again, not knowing where I’m going.
Kyle Gautreau is an ex-Jesuit, political fixer and writer. He resides in south Louisiana.