My Lenten Challenge

Closing the door to what smelled like a musty, dank coat closet in my grandmother’s late 1960’s San Francisco Victorian home, I gingerly dropped down to my knees and folded my hands in prayer. Nervously, I waited for the stranger on the other side of the wall to slide the small wooden window away from the mesh screen.

“Bless me father for I have sinned,” I began, but fell into a long silent pause. How could I express to this stranger all my indiscretions against my fellow man and God. I didn’t know this creature from Adam and sinning was personal stuff!

With his ear pressed to the partition, he whispered, “Yes, my child? Please go on.”

“Ah, bless me father,” I mumbled again, in a barely audible voice, but couldn’t continue. Quickly getting off the kneeler I blurted, “I think I’ll have to get back to you.” Despite the fact I’m fifty-six-years old, and not some school age child who was about to be sent to the principal’s office for laughing and talking in church, fear completely engulfed my soul and I ran out the back door of St. Simon’s church.

Recently I was given a challenge – a Lenten challenge by my wonderful friend, Libby. Rather than perform the usual “giving up something for Lent” routine (which for me never lasted past the second day), it was a list of things to do. There were twenty items which needed to be completed by Easter. It all looked innocent enough – and easy. As I checked each task off, I began to wonder why this was such a big deal? I mean, really, how hard is it to tell your family you love them or stick candy bars under their pillow? And writing an anonymous note to a friend telling them you admired their beautiful qualities was a piece of cake. I could be as sappy as I wanted and they’d never know who sent it.

As my list got shorter and shorter, I left the most uncomfortable one for last – going to confession. I was born into a devout Catholic family and survived twelve years of religious education (St. Charles Grammar School, Mercy High School and the University of San Francisco). Participating in the sacraments should have been routine, but I’m ashamed to say I’ve drifted away from the structured rituals the church provides. Just recently I’ve tiptoed back into Mass, however, it’s been years since I went face to face with a man of the cloth to spew all the evils of my wicked ways. Sin is a private matter. I needed to conjure up some major courage if I were to tackle this.

Driving home, my eyes focused on the white lines before me, I found myself asking God, “Can’t I just talk to you? Isn’t it between just the two of us anyway? Why do I have to involve someone I don’t know?”

Even as a child, I could never understand the method behind this sacrament. “Perhaps this exercise would be more meaningful if I had a connection with this man hiding behind the wall,” I thought to myself. “If we had any kind of history together, he’d be sympathetic to my crazy life and surely understand why I screw up sometimes.” Exonerating my sins would be easy. Just a few Hail Mary’s and the slate would be wiped clean – until the next mistake.

When I was a little girl, I loved to rationalize my sins or better yet, blame them on someone else. Whenever one of my brothers wasn’t around, man’s best friend was an easy target. “No mom, I swear I didn’t eat the whole cake. It had to have been the dog,” I protested, as crumbs fell out of my mouth and down the front of my dress.

Now that I’m an adult, I find myself calling sin a bad habit or compartmentalizing it in my mind and then ignoring that compartment. I can easily excuse them or, better yet, procrastinate on dealing with the issue. But all these only prolong any estrangement I’d start to feel.

One of my mother’s favorite expressions was “Confession is good for the soul. What you don’t get off your chest will eat you alive.” It’s true that I can easily turn my thoughts to God and say my “mea culpas” whenever the guilt becomes too much, but my harsh actions were never directed towards Him. When I blow it, it affects someone here in the land of the living. There were the times when I made fun of or criticized a friend behind their back. And then there are those little white lies I tell my children just to save myself from a heated discussion where I knew I’d lose the battle. But the worse are broken promises. Breaking that sacred trust leaves the person to whom a promise was intended feeling as if they don’t matter in your life, and that trust becomes unimportant.

Escaping to a bench on my favorite beach in Capitola, where I often run when I can’t find the answer I’m looking for, I came to the conclusion it wasn’t a priest I should be telling all this stuff to – it was the people I inadvertently hurt. They may not have even known they were, but they were wounded all the same in the eyes of God.

I know I may be twisting the rules to this last duty on my friend’s list, but I just can’t do it the way it’s required. The traditional process of reconciliation means nothing to me. It never has. Besides, I get very claustrophobic in those close quarters of a confessional. No, I’ll check off the last item on my list, but do it my way. I plan to go straight to the source – starting with my children. I promise kids (and I do mean promise) I will never lie to you again and tell you the grocery store didn’t have the item you wanted because I forgot to look.

Confession is good for the soul. It is freeing and emotionally uplifting and we all could use some of that right now. Too much is weighing us down. We need to find at least one place in these hard economic times where we can feel good about ourselves. Why not let it be in your heart?

If there is something gnawing at you right now, spit it out and do it quick! Don’t let your conscience nibble away at all that is good deep within. You’ll sleep better, your friends will love you for it and God will smile.