Tuesday, December 4, 2012


Last Saturday afternoon, in preparation for Advent, I trudged to Confession at a nearby church. Usually the priest is to the old confessionals by the side, but the church is undergoing renovation, the pews have been removed and replaced by plastic chairs, and it took me awhile to realize that Father, in full view of the early birds for 5:00 Mass, the workmen hauling extension cords to hook up the Christmas lights, and the practicing choir, was up front with a purple stole around his shoulders and a prie-dieu beside him.

I like this priest a lot, though I don't even know his name. He doesn't speak English very well, in light of which he always stumbles through the Gospel reading (I've only ever heard him say daily Mass), and never gives a homily. But he has a face that's full of a life deeply experienced: full of compassion, full of suffering, full of joy. Confession is very simple with him. You say your thing, he absolves you. Today was no different. He was scrolling through his cell phone when I approached but at once put it down, bestowed upon me a fatherly smile, listened to my confession, and as penance, gave me two Our Fathers. "Meditate on them," he added.

Beforehand, I'd happened to run into a friend who had also come for Confession. That's a rare occurrence--to run into a friend at church, period, never mind one who's come for Confession--and to see him lifted my heart. We chatted for a bit before, wished each other well, exchanged Advent blessings. We didn't tell each other what we had to confess. We didn't do our penance, then meet up for coffee. We knelt before Father, one by one, and went our separate ways.

This is the kind of thing that if you're looking for a Church that's a social club, a fellowship, or an "experience" can seem very thin. But membership in the Mystical Body of Christ does not depend on our feelings; it depends on our orientation of heart; on where we bring and put our bodies. To be a Catholic is to enter into a relationship with Christ that is at once intimate beyond imagining and entirely anonymous, hidden, and private. Flannery O'Connor once observed: "I went to St. Mary's as it was right around the corner and I could get there practically every morning. I went there three years and never knew a soul in that congregation or any of the priests, but it was not necessary. As soon as I went in the door I was at home."

"To expect too much," she wrote elsewhere, "is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness." For my own part, if I trudged alone to Confession and a distracted, lackluster priest (not that my priest was) looked up from his smart phone, barely listened, and gave me two Our Fathers every time I went for the rest of my days, that would be fine. That would be brilliant. That would be the gift of my life. Meditating afterwards, in fact, I saw for the first time ever that the phrase "in heaven" occurs twice in the Lord's Prayer: "On earth"--a tangible place that will someday disappear; "in heaven"--not a place, but a state of being...

We do not come to Mass to have a social, an aesthetic, or even a spiritual experience (though sometimes we do, and that's beautiful); we come to beg for mercy. We come to stand in back of the church, beat our breasts, and realize it is a complete and utter miracle that we are allowed even to be in the same room with the Alpha and the Omega, the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings; the Great Physician, the Great Priest, the Savior of the World, our One, our Only, Friend. That is why it doesn't matter whether we have any friends at church, whether we know the priest's name, whether he even speaks our language. 

It only matters that we come, in fear, in trembling, in as much purity of heart as we can muster. It matters especially now.

Because we have to prepare for the baby.

Geertgen tot Sint Jans
Early Netherlandish painting, c. 1490


  1. There is much to love in that painting, but my favorite feature is the cow. Has a bovine ever looked so intently and with such love at anything?

    Less encouragingly, a beloved relative (and Catholic) told me on Sunday that there's really no need for confession anymore - that we've essentially outgrown it. I was too stupefied to answer.

  2. Exactly, Heather -- we're not really there to "do community," as I have heard it phrased; community happens whether we want it to or not. The connection among members of the Mystical Body is no less real for being (as it often is) latent and implicit and subtle. We are all held in the fiery centre of Christ's Sacred Heart, and we are all sons and daughters of Our Lady -- and that's what it is. We are family, as Sister Sledge proclaimed over 30 years ago. And our brotherhood has nothing (or very little) to do with how much we talk about it! Coffee and doughnuts after Mass is a wonderful thing, but certainly not the point of the Catholic faith! I hope I don't sound misanthropic, but the Church in her charity must always make room for those characters who don't find socializing easy. We are united more by our prayer than by our bonhomie. And if we speak of the Liturgy, it isn't "our" prayer, really, but Christ's. (Fr Bernard Bro had a splendid meditation on that topic in October or November's Magnificat.)

    And yes, three (quietly boisterous, thunderously soft) cheers for the good priests who hear our sins and absolve us of them in confessio divina!

  3. When I was a young woman in my Protestant church, I had this fear in my gut that underneath everything I experienced in my church--the yummy potluck suppers and social atmosphere--maybe there was nothing. Later on I attended a Catholic funeral for an old lady who had been home bound and isolated for many years. There were only eight of us in the huge, old, stone church, including pall bearers from the funeral home. Every normal social structure had fallen away. But instead of there being nothing left for this woman, there was THIS MASS, and I knew somehow the coffin in the front of the church rested on the Rock of Peter. In this celebration of the Mass, the Church gave this woman everything She would have given someone who had thousands at their funeral. And it was worth more than anything else.

  4. "we've essentially outgrown it"

    I think that in essence we're pretty much the same as we ever were. :-)


  5. Yeah, its good that Heather, kinda refreshingly boring.seriously, I like it because sometimes I just cant be bothered to shake someone's hand and say peace...

  6. WOW!
    Your words speak to the heart and are transformed into prayer, wonder and praise. You kind of make the invisible visible.
    Thank you, Heather.

  7. Beautiful post, thank you for sharing. There are times when I experience a powerful moment at Mass or during Confession, but most of the time it's the quiet love of being there with our Lord.

  8. Outgrown confession...yes, in this sinful culture sins are accepted, laughed at, made understandable and, therefore, not mortal OR venial, for that matter. What does a 2012 person have to repent? EVIL = GOOD, or very acceptable and then dismissive.

  9. Outgrown confession...yes, in this sinful culture sins are accepted, laughed at, made understandable and, therefore, not mortal OR venial, for that matter. What does a 2012 person have to repent? EVIL = GOOD, or very acceptable and then dismissive.

  10. Going to confession is beautiful. Now if I could only learn to leave my sins in the box without dragging them back out with me!

  11. So awesome! I understand perfectly what you mean by just being there is enough. We all are welcomed in His Church, quiet, loud, young, and old. I just loved it! Yes, confession is great, what a merciful gesture by Our Lord, to hear Him say, "I absolved you of your sins." Heaven met earth. Amen! As the priest says these words extending his hands over your head, the Blood of Jesus is pouring over you healing you. Ahh...

  12. This post is just tremendous Heather. It hits the nail exactly. I've read it aloud to my best friend and we've printed it off to pass around. Thank you!

  13. Heather,
    Thank you for your words. Yesterday I was needing words of encouragement and truth and I landed on this blog.
    I recently divorced after an unhealthy 30-year marriage in which I continued for all those years to have hope for and belief in. The marriage was grounded on and lived in the Church - yet it failed - because of the imperfections of we 2. I needed a push to get to Mass yesterday ~ new home, new town, new Parish, new job - the works. But THIS RESPONSE, from someone who used to go to Mass daily and used to spend at least 2 hours a day in prayer. Where has she gone? I know God has saved me, kept me safe, provided for me, lavished me with love, yet to become vulnerable once again in that place of Home is something I fear.
    But I did it. I put one foot in front of the other and showed up. Thanks for the reminder.
    You were a gift to me.


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