I was terrified the first few times I went to confession several years ago. I mean, I had grown up in a church that really didn’t like the practice of making confession at all. In fact they thought it was a bad thing and defied one’s personal relationship with Jesus. We kept a lot of things private back then. So most of what I thought confession would end up being was based on bad scenes from movies that made priests look either like bitter curmudgeons with a bone to pick or like sick, judgmental voyeurs. Nevertheless, I felt like this is something I needed to do and wanted to do. I was surprised, shockingly surprised, by what I ended up saying.
“I’m losing my friend,” I said… and then I froze.
I had a little laundry list of things I didn’t feel great about and a few other things about which I felt nothing at all but felt like I should throw in just in case. Truthfully some of these things mattered and were important to talk about. I was prepared. I had rehearsed this mentally. So why was my mouth suddenly saying something about my friendship? I stopped and composed myself and returned to my list and decided to start at the top.
…I think I am losing my friend and I feel like there is nothing I can do about it.”
It was like a hidden ventriloquist had been granted magical powers over my mouth. I felt like the astronaut in Alien whose demon horrifyingly leapt through his chest. When I sat down with someone who cared, the biggest most fearful part of my heart leapt forward. “Here is the real problem,” I was saying, “this is the part that hurts.”
The was a good enough priest to recognize the difference between people getting things off their chest, and an outright barking heart. So he stopped me from going down the list.
He asked about that friendship, but then he kept asking about a lot of my friendships, my fears and this impending sense of doom.
For a long while he listened and did nothing but keep asking questions. It was either when I started losing steam, or perhaps I just began spinning my wheels he said gently, “Ok, I understand. Here is something I would like you to do.”
Oh no! This is that part I had heard about called penance. Eek. Was he going to “Hail Mary” me to death for the rest of the afternoon? Would he send me off to live in the jungle with a small tribe like the Robert DeNiro in The Mission?
“Did you ever have a friendship work out?,” He asked. (Hmmmm I thought we were past the Q and A portion of this thing. ) “ Or have you ever had one die and come back to life? Ever?” He asked, “Then go back into the prayer service and just sit and remember every moment you can that you were surprised. Just sit with the surprises.”
That’s it? Remember good times. Was this my Penance? No wrapping of my knuckles or stern look even? No.
What he had seen in me, and where I needed restoration, was the profound sense of fear that had so polluted my imagination. I was drawing conclusions about things over which I had not control. What I needed a little dose of in my imaginations was (and this is why it is true penance) the ability to entertain the possibility that I had been wrong.
I was wrong about the inevitability of doom. I was wrong that I entirely understood the friendship and could be certain about where it is headed. I assumed a death sentence and I was wrong.
It is remarkably easy for me to allow my imagination to be shaped primarily by the stuff that hurts. If one were to set out to be a pessimist, it wouldn’t take long to build up a good case for a grim life. It is true that there are dark things in life but it is not the whole truth.
When I was finally able to say out loud that I had become hopeless in one way, then someone else was able to help me not be so myopic, so narrowly focussed in another way.
He helped God change my imagination.
Sometimes, there is a joy in finding out you are wrong. My sickness does not have to be death. My conclusions don’t have to be conclusions. I have been wrong, and more importantly, the fact that I am wrong does not have the final say on who I am or where we’ll all end up in this mess. I can sit with the surprises and discover I am not condemned to stare down the narrow barrel of my own troubled heart.
There is great hope wherever there are acts of grace. “I know why you see what you see, but God sees more. As a matter of fact, so can I.” said the priest. That was my penance: go and sit with the fact that God and I can see more than you do right now. Sit with the surprises.
It is then we find that the whole truth is that, with the right help, we can still say the impossible just takes a little while.