Tuesday, November 21, 2006

 

In Which I Have A Confession To Make...

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.

It's been, oh, 14 years since my last confession, and 11 years since the confession before that, so I guess neglect of a holy sacrament for a quarter-century pretty much knocks the bulb out of the Mortal Sin meter.

Which means we probably don't need to go into detail on the other stuff--premarital congress (granted, there wasn't nearly as much of that as I'd hoped for, but is there ever? Never mind. Rhetorical question.), coveting my brother's goods (yes, I DID steal his Johnny West figure. And I found all the accessories to his S.W.A.T. guys and sold them on eBay) and the 482,517 times (give or take a few thousand) I've taken Your name in vain. By the rigid parochial standards set down for me by your old pal Sister Agnes (who I can only pray is up there at Your right hand today, though I kinda doubt it), let's just say I've been a bad boy and leave it at that.

Being omniscient and all, You know why I'm here today. I'm proud to say it's not for the same reason that brought me to the confessional 14 years ago (which was when I began dating Her Lovely Self and started going back to Mass and thought putting on a show of being a better Catholic than I was would help get me in the sack with her. Which is totally sick, I know, I know. But hey, it worked).

No, my reason today is a completely different one, and I felt it most strongly just this past Sunday as I watched Thomas march nervously up to the priest waiting in a secluded corner of the sanctuary of our church, then sit down and quietly begin to make his first confession. First, I felt pride, an involuntary reaction any Dad feels when his kid has worked and studied and practiced to does something new and different and challenging.

But right on the heels of it, I felt an old, but all too familiar sense of hypocrisy.

Because as You know, Oh Lord of Hosts, I am no soldier of Christ. And we both know that if it weren't for Her Lovely Self--who when the time comes will be riding the express elevator to Heaven while the rest of us are taking the stairs--if I were a single Dad raising my kids, well, I'd be a gibbering lunatic, of course. But in addition to that, I'd never have the wherewithal to see to the spiritual nourishment of my children. Oh, I might manage getting them baptized, but that would be it.

On top of that, I enjoy a lot of laughs at the expense of my religion. I've been telling people I was a recovering Catholic since the before the term came into common parlance. When Lent comes around every year, I tell people that the thing I choose to give up is self-restraint. And, to get very much to the point, let us not forget that time in 1985 in Senior Theology, when I told Sister Agnes that I thought the Act of Reconciliation was a moral cheat. Which caused first a collective gasp, then a group laugh among my classmates.

Her rage barely contained, she demanded to know what I meant, and I replied, "Well, it's nothing more than a holy 'Get Out of Jail Free' card, isn't it? Redeem it, get absolved and you're free to go out and sin again." Whereupon she seized me by the ear (somewhere in their holy training, I'm convinced nuns take a self-defense course that's all about ear-holds and blows to the knuckles) and hauled me off to the principal, Father Kenneth.

As usual, I felt oppressed and downtrodden. I thought I was raising an important point about sin and how easy the path to redemption seemed to be. She thought I was being a smart-ass.

Granted, she had cause. I had been a thorn in her side--heck, more than one thorn, a whole crown of them--that spring, questioning her on every bit of doctrine, volunteering to be on the pro-choice side during Holy Debate week (you were supposed to be chosen for this onerous task), and announcing a foolproof plan for anyone to get into Heaven (which was this: it didn't matter how bad you were in this life. All you had to do was get one good person to love you. When that person went to Heaven, they couldn't very well enjoy their eternal reward knowing someone they loved was suffering in the perpetual cauldron of Hell, now could they? So for the sake of that good person, you were pretty much guaranteed a parole. Right?). So to ridicule one of the sacraments in her presence was the last straw in the manger, as it were.

Father Kenneth, alas, took the same dim view of my opinions as Sister Agnes. He made it very clear that the job of his school was not engage in scholarly debate--if I wanted that I could enter the seminary and God have mercy on me--but here, I was expected to shut up and listen while they "distilled the teachings of Christ" to me. And Lord, You know they did their best to distill the shit out of me.

The capper to this incident was when Father Kenneth insisted that I make a confession to him, there in his office, on the spot. It was early May 1985. I was 16 going on 17, and full of beans. I was incensed at the idea of being compelled to receive a sacrament--a forced confession, if you will. What especially galled me was that I had some legitimate moral qualms about Reconciliation (for all my cheek, it really did seem to me that a lot people viewed confession as a license to sin, knowing they had an easy out in the confessional).

But Father had already closed the door to his office and was hooking his stole around his neck and as he prepared to receive my confession, I did some rudimentary calculations to figure the exact coordinates of the spot I was in. And it boiled down to this: I was graduating in a month and Father Kenneth held the keys to my diploma. I could raise a stink, or I could submit and be on my way. After all, if I wasn't sure I believed in Reconciliation, what did it matter whether I confessed or not? So I bowed my head, rattled off my Act of Contrition (the old form, as taught to me by my grandmother), and confessed to being disrespectful of the church and my elders and anything else I thought would placate Father Kenneth. He ladled on the penance (this wasn't a sin that a few Our Fathers would cover, alas. He sentenced me to a week of helping Sister Agnes in her class after school--detention, in other words). And as he held his hand over my head and absolved me of my sins, all I could think about was Galileo, who I had read about in World History my freshman year, and how he had been persecuted by the Church for his ideas and beliefs (most of which were far more based on fact than mine ever were). I was no Galileo, to be sure, but I understood a fraction of what he must have felt when he was called before the Pope to recant his "heretical" statements about the nature of the universe.

Which was probably the wrong thing to think about just then, because when Father Kenneth wrapped up the confession by saying, "Give thank to the Lord, for He is good," instead of answering "His mercy endures forever," which was the prescribed response, I muttered, "It does move."

I got a month of detention with Sister Agnes. Father Kenneth had studied Galileo too.

Well, between that and another nasty moment (when I discovered my parents were being hassled over $500 in tuition that Father Kenneth claimed they owed the school, at a time when my dad was in detox and the family had no money and could have used a little Christian charity, but never mind about that now), I pretty much walked away from the Catholic church and was glad to be rid of it.

So it was coincidence, or fate, or some other instrument of Your will, Lord, that I should end up with Her Lovely Self who, despite being a devout, Mass-attending, confession-going Catholic, still could get worked up about the male domination of the papacy and the sheer lunacy of (supposedly) celibate, unmarried men and women holding judgment on couples and how and when they raised their families (her surprisingly relaxed views on the sin of premarital relations were a welcome revelation too, say thankya God). She helped me to see that my problems with Catholicism were never with the beliefs on which the church was founded, so much as with the administration of Your church here on earth which, let's face it, has been managed by quite a few men and women who were far worse sinners than I could ever aspire to be.

That doesn't change the fact that every Sunday, when I recite the creed with the rest of the multitude, I wince a little at the part where I have to say that I believe in the church (sometimes, I don't say it at all). I wince because I've been brought up to believe that Catholicism is an all-or-nothing deal, not part of the vast ecumenical salad bar of Christianity. I wince because I go to church less to receive the blessings of the Holy Spirit, and more to be with my family, to please my wife, and to have an hour of relatively contemplative quiet-time (albeit quiet-time interrupted by an off-key choir, a priest who thinks he's Garrison Keillor with a collar, and two children who must be prevented from occasionally picking their noses and eating the boogers).

Usually, I just wince and the feeling goes away. But this Sunday, watching Thomas tackle Sacrament #2 in the Holy Countdown (with #3--First Holy Communion--on deck for this spring), I winced for a lot longer. After all, it's a quandary. I'm a Catholic dad who still has a lot of questions about the church in general, and confession in particular. Yet here I am, helping my son down the same path, without saying a word to him about my own misgivings. Forget my overwhelming sense of hypocrisy for the moment. Does this make me a bad person? More to the point, does it make me a bad dad?

These are not questions I usually entertain, since one of Your gifts to me, Oh Lord, is my ability to justify any action. But I confess it's something that has troubled me in these few days following Thomas's first confession.

So I find it interesting--and I must say, not especially subtle of you, Lord--that this morning, when I stopped by the pharmacy to pick up a prescription before heading to work, of all the people I could bump into, I just happened to bump into our parish priest. In four years of going to his church, I have never bumped into him in public, and have never exchanged more than a paragraph's worth of words with him. But there he was, and he recognized me on sight, by name.

We chatted about the recent confession mob scene (there were about 40 kids doing first confession that day, plus their families all came out to watch. Since these are Catholic families we're talking about, that meant there were more than 1,000 people present). Despite the crowd, the priest remembered Thomas and said a few kind words about how manly and purposeful my son was, among a group of kids that included two children who burst into tears and almost couldn't go through with it, and one unfortunate girl who wet her pants.

And before I could stop myself, I said that this sort of anxiety was why I had such reservations about certain aspects of the church. Actually, I said a bit more than that--I was on the verge of a genuine vent--but the priest took it with a smile, just paying out the slack until it dawned on me that maybe he was giving me only enough rope to hang myself.

Finally, I quieted down and waited for him to lower the boom, maybe send me to detention with the modern-day equivalent of Sister Agnes. Instead, he simply asked, "But you still come to Mass, don't you?"

I nodded.

"You still helped your son prepare for Reconciliation and make his first confession, right?"

I nodded.

"And you do these things despite your doubts and concerns," he added. "Well, all that proves to me is that you've got more faith than most." Then he patted me on the shoulder. "See you Sunday," he said, then left.

Which was probably a good moment for him, but he's just left me with more questions than answers. Beyond that, he's set me to thinking more about my faith and my religion in the past hour or so than I have in the past decade. And I'm not done thinking about it yet.

So, if pious reflection is Your idea of penance for my sin of hypocrisy, Lord, it's a pretty damn good one. Better than anything Father Kenneth and Sister Agnes gave me, I'll tell You that.

Just please, God, please, don't let my priest make a sermon topic out of me.


Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Comments:
Hmm. At least you're thinking about it, MM.

I'm concerned about hypocrisy too but from a different perspective. My bro lives in the South and has mentioned the possibility of joining a church (some easy-going Christian sect, not Catholic) for the benefit of my niece and social connections for her. Mind you, he's never belonged to a church, was an atheist all through his youth (though he may be more agnostic/open now). His wife doesn't have a church-going background either (or at least never in the years since they were married). I understand where he's coming from, but I hate the idea because it seems hypocritical to indoctrinate her with beliefs he doesn't hold.
 
I think everyone has doubts and concerns, and I think your priest is right in saying that at least we care enough to wonder about it and keep coming back. By the way - I just admit "catholic" when I recite the creed. Because I don't think we ought to just let the Catholics claim the church is all. :)
 
P.S. - we BOTH confessed today! haha!
 
I suspect it is easier to learn about a faith as a child and then have a choice as an adult as to whether to continue to follow/practice it.

I wasn't raised attending church and it's all very foreign to me. If I wanted to explore religion now it would feel very awkward, even intimidating.

I think it is a good idea to expose children to your faith; it doesn't hurt them, does it?
 
MM, I was baptized Catholic...twice. Despite this, or maybe because of it, I have worked mightily to distance myself from all things Churchly. I had many of the same catechism questions I bet you did, and eventually came to my own set of answers which most emphatically differ from the correct responses.
But that's me. And as I've learned to say, "my way is not a better way, it is only another way."
Your way is working for you. Thomas's way will work for him. So long as he has the ability to seek answers for himself (and with you for a dad, it shouldn't be a problem), he'll be just fine. No worries.
 
I'm not a particularly religious person. My parents were, especially my father, and my Mom still goes to church. One of my sisters is also, and she and her husband have both tried talking to me about my lack of faith (or not going to church, anyways.) My other sister is like me, never attends.

In my opinion, going to church when you don't really believe in it is a form of hypocrisy. All this being said, I'm not a rabid unbeliever...I just don't care much for organized religion. However, I have nothing against people who do enjoy going to church. I guess I just think it's important to get something out of going. It sounds like you are.

Good luck with your spiritual journey.
 
When I was still in Chicago, I stumbled upon one of the best priests I've ever known. He won my heart during confession when I'd argued, "Father, I've got beef with your church. With its treatment of women, homosexuals, and more."

His response? "The church is run by man, who is fallible. But the intentions BEHIND the man are the ones you should aspire to." So I try not to get too frustrated by how the church imposes the beliefs and instead focus on the beliefs themselves. Love. Honor. And make this place better than when you found it. All of which are pretty simple.
 
One of the proudest moments for me was when my older daughter, wept, before receiving her first communion, not because she was scared, but because she was moved "by Jesus". Another was when she looked me in the eye, and told me she could not support a "doctrine" who had so much contempt for women, and for certain segments of society. She also see's great hypocricy in the church. She still loves God and Jesus, and probably the Holy Spirit too.. but see the Catholic Church, as needing much reform. She makes me very proud. To disagree, yet still belive in your heart, and in your actions OUTSIDE of any church...makes a parent truly proud.. Nice post..MM..
 
Boy can I relate to this post! I was spared Catholic School though.

It's not so much the religion I question, but the Roman Catholic Church and it's interpretations. I agree with other commentors, the hypocricy lies within the church and all powerful Vatican. It's extremely difficult to have faith in a church that not only draws, but hides and protects pedofiles. To me, that is an ultimate sin against innocent children and God.

It's because of my doubts, that my son has lack of religous direction. I allowed him to stop attending CCD classes, yet provided no alternative spiritual guidance.

My spirituality has taken another direction, which I am not yet teaching or sharing with my son.

I think you're at least on the escalator up, I'll be taking the stairs!
 
i am not catholic, but i have a lot of catholic friends. your struggles appear to be universal. thomas is still a bit young to talk to about the concerns you have with the church, but i have faith that you will find a way, when the time is appropriate, to have a discussion with him about what is right and wrong in your church.

congrats to him on taking this first step!
 
Hiya MM,

I think that unless you are actually sorry for your sins, and intend to not do them again, it's pointless going to confession because it's invalid.

So it's not a "get out of jail free" card, it's a "get out of jail providing you're prepared to try to change your ways" card.

After all, you're not sorry if you're going to go and do it again first chance you get.

Owl.
 
Seems to me you are on the right path in your journey for truth because you do so in love.
 
MM -

Have you considered making an appointment with your parish priest and talking to him about your concerns (as opposed to just hitting him with it while you're both in a store)? Or ask him to guide you to someone who would love to debate the issues with you?

My father became a Christian simply because my mother did. He and the pastor spent hours talking about religion. At one point, my dad honestly considered the fact that Jesus was an alien. He got over that theory. Heh. The point is that now he is aman very devout in his beliefs....BUT he got there by talking to others, to pastors who really wanted to help versus just collect a paycheck. I think if you could talk it out, you'd discover exactly what your beliefs are.
 
I think it is a good idea to expose children to your faith; it doesn't hurt them, does it?

Depends... seen Jesus Camp?
 
I'm pretty sure the priest can absolve you all he wants, but it's not valid unless you really mean it when you ask for God's forgiveness. And God knows when you're trying to cheat.

I'm a radical feminist sociologist pro-choice lesbian Catholic. My colleagues and friends don't really get why I'm Catholic, especially since I converted as an adult. I have a lot of problems with the *Church's* doctrine, but my relationship to the Trinity is sperate from that. I feel I've worked things out with Them. They're not rejecting me, the doctrines created by fallible humnas are. But I still find God through those doctrines and rituals, and I will not reject God just because the community rejects me.
 
MM:

Good post for me to come back to following my Thanksgiving sabbatical. Despite my flippant postings, I actually spent a good deal of time these past ten days considering my own standing with God.

I think, before involving any clergy, you might consider just sitting down with Thomas and asking him if he has any particular questions or concerns about his faith. Let him verbalize what may be bothering him, if anything. You might also ask him what he particularly LIKES about his faith. Proceed from there. You both may learn profound things from each other.

If you do, let me in on it. I can use all the help anyone else is willing to lay on me.
 
I'm not a Catholic, but I've known plenty of Lutheran pastors who in their sermons and personal communications use the same technique. I have no doubt that your parish priest used your chance encounter to encourage you to think deeply about your faith. I'd say he succeeded, wouldn't you? Keep thinking MM, and throwing in a prayer here and there wouldn't hurt.

All the best,
Bibliophile
 
I'm another recovering Catholic. My recovery has taken a different turn, though, as I'm an atheist. However, my family were all born again and baptized into a local Baptist church well after I'd moved away from home. While I don't share their faith, I have a great deal of respect and love for most of the practices of their church, as they have a warm and sincere sense of community. They care for each other and support each other, and they truly work to make their church open to anyone who needs it. However, if that person is gay, they'll be expected to acknowledge that their entire intimate life is a sin. There are other similar dealbreakers, too. To me, that's where the faith seems a bit blind. When I ask my family about these issues, they stop talking about love and kindness and start quoting scripture.
I agree with many of the previous commenters who suggest conversations with your parish priest. Quite likely, he'd welcome an honest dialogue with someone who's neither trying to impress him with how Godly they are nor trying to challenge him in a way that disrespects his faith. I think the fact that you're conflicted and still attend makes it clear that you see value in this, and you're doing right by your kids in sharing it.
 
I'm not exaggerating when I say that I felt like reading this post is a little glimpse into what it will be like for me when I have children. I'm a non-practicing Catholic, but I really feel that my children should have some spiritual guidance (other than my mis-guided notions) until they are old enough to figure out for themselves what they believe in.

For me, my issues with the Catholic church turned out to not be issues with Catholicism at all, though when I high-tailed it outta there after recieving my confirmation, I thought that I simply wasn't Catholic. As it turns out, it wasn't that, it's that I have issues with the entire construct of organized religion. It just rubs me the wrong way, no matter what religion I dabble in (and I have dabbled in many). It makes me really uncomfortable to profess my faith in front of everyone, for God or Jesus, because I'm not entirely sure what I believe, and I feel like I'm being ingenuine doing so.

And it's okay for me to not know. I think that it's my journey to go on, no one else's, it's that personal to me.

Yet, I still want to raise my children with some sort of religious structure. And I know that I'm going to be racked with the same feelings that you are feeling right now with Thomas.

My only suggestion is to just make sure that Thomas knows that it's his choice, and I would encourage him to really think about it, think about what he beleives and WHY when he's old enough. That made a big difference with me. My parents let me go down a different path rather than let me continue feel smothered under the robes of Catholicism.
 
MM,

With the birth of my first child just 2 months ago, I have been struggling with the question of how to approach the issue of faith and spirituality. I was born and raised Catholic, and attended Catholic school. My problem with the Church (and most religions in general) is that they are very rigid and deal in absolutes, attempting to explain that which is beyond human comprehension.

The comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell once said:

“Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.”

Having recently read his book The Power of Myth, I find his thoughts on religion and faith more in line with my own thoughts on spirituality. I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a different perspective on the issue.
 
I was raised catholic, and my only apprehension would have been in letting my son sit in the corner with a priest.

btw, the priest in Chicago who said that the church is run by a man and he is fallible needs to re-read his instruction book. One of the basic tenets of catholicism is that the Pope (the man running the church) is infallible in all matters relating to the governance of the church.
 
There is the church.

and there is the CHURCH.

one is a building. The other is people.

And then there is confession. When one confesses, who are we confessing to? Its not to the guy in front of us, but to the guy he represents.

like you, I have my doubts with the lords work. But like you I still tend to go to mass because it does give me an additional hour and half to think about things other than house chores.

Does GOD want me to repent? Sure.
But does the guy want it NOW? Not to sure.

You blog today made me laugh. It has been a while ... :) ... you making me laugh ... so thank you.

your forever fan.
ike
 
I know you're way busy and stuff but could we have a quick notice that you're still mostly ok?
 
Almost two weeks and no post... I'm with little gator here - hope everything is okay.
 
Totally off topic but i have to brag:

My cat is on cuteoverload.com today(Dec 4)
 
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