I gave up on confession for several reasons, all of them common: I stopped believing in the legitimacy of priests. I no longer assented to their codes of conduct, theology, or views of sin. The whole apparatus of the sacrament seemed designed to give the clergy overwhelming power over the penitent, and so was an offense to my pride.
I also feared the process, the curious challenge of speaking about failures of character to a strange man in the dark, who would surely judge me even as he forgave.
What brought me back to the confessional is equally ordinary. I was going out of my mind with sadness. I had no confidante, therapist, or mood-enhancing pills on hand. After much suffering, I gave into the idea long in the back of mind: I searched the internet for local Roman Catholic churches, I found a suitable one – that is, a church that was far from my home, in a neighborhood I rarely visited – and looked up the hours for confession. I elected to go on a weekday, mid-afternoon. I would tell no one about my plan, before or after.
I very nearly didn’t go through with it. I delayed as long as I could, and arrived at the chapel a good hour late. It was a located on the grounds of a Franciscan monastery secluded from the city streets by gardens. There were almost no people in the ornate chapel, and the priest, or friar, on duty was leaving his post. But when he saw me approach, he invited me into the appointed box. There was no escaping it: I went inside.
This was not the sort of confessional I’d been accustomed to as a child. There were no screen or wooden wall separating priest from sinner, only two wooden armchairs and a kneeler. The friar before me was a round bearded man, about my age, soft and cuddly-looking in his cassock. I skipped the usual Act of Contrition, forgotten long ago, and got right to the heart of the matter.
My wife and I had just had our first child. We were smitten and adoring parents, completely in love with our son. The marriage was another matter. I did my best to describe my trouble, the loneliness, depression, and yearnings. I’d spoken to no one else of these concerns, which had clouded my days with guilt. Though I couldn’t point to singular sinful acts, I tried to confess, in my own halting fashion, to an intolerable state of mind, a sense of worthlessness and moral failure, even as I fulfilled my role as a father with joy.
Speaking of this condition, I recognized how ordinary it must have sounded. He’d surely heard more or less the same from others. He had the look of an old hand, this friar, and I felt embarrassed to be so worked up. With a trembling voice, I was confessing mundane family-man troubles, and doing a rather rough job of it; somehow my self-indictment sounded incomplete, not nearly precise or exacting enough.
I skipped the usual Act of Contrition, forgotten long ago, and got right to the heart of the matter.
When I fell silent, the friar fell into a litany of axioms: marriages suffer ups and downs, young parents must be patient. He spoke in general terms, as I had. He advised me to pray through the crisis and know that I was loved by God. Then, after a dramatic pause, he told me I was forgiven, absolutely forgiven, the slate had been wiped clean. He said these words with force; you could see he believed in the power of what he was doing.
As he expected, I was moved. As canned as the words were, the voice of authority had pardoned the sinner. I felt shaken, relieved, but also there was this: am I being played? And then the friar handed down my penance: Seven Hail Mary’s and prayers for Joseph, patron saint of fathers. His statue was in the chapel behind us. I could stop by on my way out.
I gave it a whirl. I knelt before the plaster Joseph. I tried to pray, my heart still pounding. Then I looked over my shoulder to check on the friar. There he was, leaning against the outside of the confessional, leafing through the sports section of The Washington Post.
I suppose that’s when I started to feel like a sucker. He was more interested in the baseball standings than my troubled life, and why shouldn’t he have been?
Still, it did seem as if I’d passed through a crisis of sorts, and I was grateful for the friar’s forgiving words. I gave up on praying to Joseph and walked out, as conflicted as ever, but also a bit more hopeful and glad.
Later I’d cope with depression more practically. I found a good Jewish therapist who got me on happy pills pronto. Our chats helped me take other sensible steps, and my mood improved, I became more self-forgiving.
Though according to the Church, you can’t pardon your own sins; only God can, through the sacrament of reconciliation. To be honest, I’m not convinced of this, but there’s something to be said for the ritual, even if you are ambivalent. Skepticism may be intrinsic to the experience, but so is the desire to be touched by mercy.
One of my favorite moments in all of cinema occurs in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, when the knight Antonius Block, newly returned from the crusades to a plague-stricken Europe, finds himself in a cathedral. He wanders into a stone confessional and, thinking a priest is on the other side of the metal grate, begins to confide. He reveals that he’s sick with doubt about the existence of God:
“Why does He hide in a cloak of half promises and unseen miracles?” he asks. “What will happen to us who want to believe but cannot?”
The figure on the other side of the grate is no priest. It’s Death, the black-cloaked figure who stalks all the characters in the film, and with whom Block is playing a game of chess on which he has wagered his own life. Midway through the match, Block is hopeful. Still thinking the shadowy confessor is a priest, he boasts of the trap he’s setting to catch his adversary’s king. Only then does Death show his face; in an icy voice, he promises to remember the knight’s life-saving secret, implying that Block will surely lose, and so perish.
Block appears shaken. Then, after Death grandly departs, comes an extraordinary moment: the knight regains composure; he holds up his hand, regarding it with curious affection, as the light from a window streams upon him. “I, Antonius Block, am playing chess with Death,” he utters – a simple statement of fact, but uttered in such a way as to express his pride in the impossible human fight. Suspecting his doom, dreading it, the knight shows heart. Each time I watch the scene, it stirs me, this demonstration of courage and grit in the confessional, where it is not God but Death he encounters.
That is not how it’s supposed to be, of course. The sacrament promises not terror and solitude, but the unconditional love of one’s Creator. To enter the confessional is to enter into an intimate conversation with oneself and God. But even in the company of a priest it’s easy to feel isolated while enumerating your failings. And what if you’ve come to confess to agonizing doubt about God’s existence, a feeling that life is meaningless and death final?
That day in the confessional, my problems were not as cosmic as Block’s, to be sure, though I left keenly aware of my own ambivalence. I secretly resisted the friar’s authority, being too prideful to submit uncritically. C.S. Lewis, I recall, is very good on pride. He devotes several pages to it in Mere Christianity, calling it the easiest, most dangerous of sins, for it perpetuates the lie that you are greater than God. The Devil, he reminds the reader, was born of pride, and we all exhibit traces of his cardinal vice. The most arrogant man is he who cannot see his own arrogance.
Having grown up in the modest Midwest, raised by parents who abhorred boasting, I’ve always been wary of my own streak of arrogance and vanity. I felt its strength that day in the chapel. Even as I was making the motions of a humble penitent, kneeling before Joseph and saying my prayers like a good boy, I inwardly mocked my own obedience, scoffed at the friar with his sports pages, and questioned the whole apparatus of the sacrament. By Lewis’ standards, I sinned even in the act of confessing. It would seem almost impossible to make a clean breast of it, every utterance being somehow stained by indelible flaws.
One can take this analysis of scruples too far. Sometimes it’s better to take a walk in the sun. That’s what I did after leaving the chapel that afternoon. It wasn’t an easy trip, but worth taking in the end. My therapist sessions never forced upon me anything like the existential reckoning that goes on in the confessional. For all its strangeness, the sacrament insists on bald considerations of death, frailty, love, mercy. I write from a dearth of experience, having confessed only twice as an adult. But maybe with practice I could show more heart, as Block did, giving voice to his doubts with courage.
Photo: Confession scene from Ingmar Bergman’s seminal film, The Seventh Seal