for some reason, i got to thinking about the catholic sacrament of reconciliation (maybe that's a sign that i've done something bad and need to be asking forgiveness from someone) and my own experience with it. i started my education in catholic school where, as some of you may know, you go through certain ceremonies (a.k.a. sacraments) at an early age. a few months after going through the traumatic process of being born and forced into a loud, bright, strange world of oogling people, you are taken to a church where an old guy in a robe says lots of things you don't understand and then pours cold water on your head, causing you to scream and flail, which is only made more frustrating by the layers of white lacey communion gown shrouding your entire being. everyone smiles at you as you sit there trapped, scared, crying and you wonder what is wrong with all of these people watching the old guy try to drown you without even bothering to help. eventually everyone goes back to your parents' house for cake and you probably receive gifts, most of which have no practical application for you as they tend to be savings bonds and items for your future rather than a nice teething ring or baby einstein video. baptism - check.
usually somewhere in the realm of 1st - 3rd grade you are again presented with the sacraments. and here you thought being held against your will and doused with water was the worst of it. wrong. the next two events in your catholic upbringing are first reconciliation and first communion. now, i really have no complaints about the communion thing because i remember my own quite fondly. i got a rockin' white dress, very grown up dress shoes and lots of photo opps. all i had to do was show up looking fabulous, eat a piece of dried out bread, take a sip of wine and smile nicely for pictures. oh, and eat cake and open gifts at the after party. hello - not a bad way to spend a sunday!
but let's regress. before first communion, you complete your first confession, or reconciliation, as a way to purify your soul and learn how to ask for forgiveness from god. i'll be honest - the thought of going into a confessional and confiding everything i'd done wrong, regardless of whether i'd been caught doing it, freaked me out a little. not sure if the old guy in the robe would give me a penance, i was sort of convinced that i'd burn in hell, so i started to worry. the weeks leading up to my first confession were nerve-wracking and anxiety-filled. by the time the big day came i was thinking i might tell him my sins and, instead of telling me i could be forgiven - with the correct number of incantations of the "hail mary" and "our father", of course - he would shake his head behind the screen, press a button and a trap door would open under me and send me directly to satan himself.
we were herded in like sheep and directed to sit silently and pray while we waited for our turns. one-by-one we were called in and once you finished with your confession, you were sent straight to another area to kneel and conduct your penance. this left everyone waiting on pins and needles, straining to see what each classmate looked like when they came out. would there be tears? would some be sent straight to the prinicpal's office? would there be calls to parents to inform them of just how bad their children were? we were told that our sins were just between us and the priest, and of course jesus, god and everyone in heaven, but that no other living being would be told anything and no one would get in trouble. yeah, right. we knew better than to fold with that flimsy reassurance. still, we had the fear in us from weeks of preparation and the fire and brimstone of what god does to sinners who don't confess, so we were all there to come clean, like it or not.
my turn came and i walked to the confessional, my sweaty little hands fumbling with the door. i knelt and faced the screen, the lines and prayer i needed to say scrawled on a notecard, just in case i got stage fright and forgot. i began as i had been told to - "bless me father for i have sinned. this is my...(pause for effect and deep breath)...first confession." after that, poor father got an earful. i spouted off a laundry list of sins, some true, most not. you see, i was worried after comparing notes with my friends that maybe i didn't have enough sins so i started making things up. i didn't want god to be disappointed or think that i was hiding anything so it was no holds barred - forget the fact that lying to a priest, and in effect god, is probably a worse sin that hitting my sister or being sassy to my parents.
nevertheless, i wrapped it up and let out a gargantuan sigh, awaiting my fate. the priest went through his canned response and finished up with a prayer. i was holding my breath in anticipation and was finally given my sentence. for absolution and forgiveness i simply needed to say several sets of two prayers. i scrambled out of the confessional and joined a few of my classmates, already kneeling and softly chanting their given number of repetitions. we quickly compared our respecive punshments and decided to race to see who could get finished with each prayer, each time it was said, the fastest. it was certainly more interesting that way and we were going to be forgiven, no matter how quickly we finished up, right? i figured god would appreciate our speed since there were 20 of us filling his ear that day.
i don't know how many times i've actually been to confession since then. maybe a handful of times, if that. since i've been old enough to better understand reconciliation as a catholic sacrament, i've thought about that first confession with wry amusement. the hand wringing, the bad dreams, the list of alleged sins.... everything that went into preparing for a day when all i knew was that maybe i wasn't bad enough and saying x number of prayers would wipe my slate clean. i can only imagine what the priest felt, getting up that day, looking at his calendar and seeing that he had to hear the confessions of 20 little snots. i wonder if he made bets with the nuns about how many times he'd hear "i talked back to my parents" or "i hit my brother." i really hope that he took a big ol' chalice of that alter wine in with him and at least had a few cocktails while absolving the second grade class of our heinous sins.