Wednesday, December 04, 2002

He leadeth me beside the still waters

I promised my story of how I came back to the Confessional after a long absence. Here it is.

In November 2001, I had to go to New York City on business. Never having loved New York--indeed, having loathed it the two times I had been before taking this job--I was, as you might suppose, unhappy about going so soon after September 11. (A brief trip in October had been far worse in that regard.) I didn't especially know my way around then, and so it was quite by accident that I found myself outside St. Patrick's Cathedral in mid-town. Churches often invite me in, for some reason (and not just Catholic ones: St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Boston Common and I are old friends), and so I entered.

It would be pointless to pretend that the still-smoking pile a couple of miles away had no influence on my wandering inside, but that was not the only thing. My two-years-long apostasy had ended in Summer 2000, but I was still working out what the end really implied. An hour and a half until my next meeting only three blocks away meant there was time for real prayer and contemplation, and so the Spirit carried me in.

St. Patrick's is an enormous Gothic structure, just the sort of thing one associated automatically with the word "cathedral". With chapels and memorial altars up and down the sides of the Church, its European ancestry is obvious even to an architectural ignoramus such as me. My own tastes run more towards simple stone churches, but St. Pat's was for me on that day quite literally breathtaking. I have no notion that "Heaven" is anything like a church, but I fully understand why an architect who wanted to capture it in a building would design St. Patrick's.

After quietly examining the altars along the side, I sat in front of one that I particularly liked for a little silent prayer. My mind is sadly undisciplined, however, and I kept peaking out from under my closed lids, looking for distractions. Eventually they fell on a sign just to my left that told me confession would start in about 20 minutes and run for perhaps an hour.

I did not actually hear the still, small voice saying "take and read!" but something very like that did happen. I shut my eyes again but soon enough found them fixed on that sign. Again, I shut my eyes. A third time I realized I was reading the sign, this time while calculating the odds of making it into and out of the confessional, conducting a penance for a decade's worth of sin, and still fulfilling my duty to my employer, to make it to the next meeting. Anxiety seized me as the numbers revealed that it was not only possible but indeed probable that it would work out, but only if I got in the quickly-growing line right away.

Now my wandering eyes were alternating between my watch and the door. "You can't be late to this meeting!" "The people in front are taking too long." "You'll never get it all done, you need to go NOW!" "Get out! Get out! It's not too late!" "Leave, before you kill me!" Finally, my turn came. The door to the confessional opened, and no one else moved.

More reluctant feet have hardly ever walked such a short distance in all of human history. Again my breath was taken, not this time by awe and majesty, but instead by fear and trembling. Adrenaline turned the tiny click of the doorlatch into the clanging seal of the gas chamber door. And, why not? My fear was real, and it was also perceptive: the only reason to go into the booth was to kill myself, or at least that part of myself that was afraid, the part that had to die forever so that the rest can live.

The same thing that kept drawing my eyes to the sign on the wall outside mastered my shaking legs enough to help me kneel. No more delay, now. No escape. Now comes the time to find the courage to admit what a coward I am, and have too often been.

"Bless me, father, for I have sinned." Exhale carefully. "I really don't know how long it has been since my last Confession." Deep, forced breath. "Nine, ten years at least."

"Welcome back," he said.


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