Bill Jack, my old friend from grade school, has reminded me. It all remains indelible and permanently mysterious to him, too: those Saint Paul Saturday nights in lilac time, the years before daylight-savings, when it was already dark by seven o’clock. Monsignor Cullinan, little barrel of a body, shuffling up the slight incline of Lexington in an oddly staccato way. And Father Slattery. Handsome and remote. He always accompanied monsignor, and slowed his long-legged gait to match the old man’s. A priestly Mutt and Jeff. They were returning from their after-dinner stroll, headed back to Saint Luke’s to hear Saturday night confessions. In the cobalt light, their cassocks slapped softly against their trouser legs.

Easy to bring them back. They come up Lex from Grand, a busy street even then. Pause at Summit, their destination the pale gray hulk of Saint Luke’s on the far corner. From the deep pockets of their cassocks, each priest roots out a big handkerchief. Then, waving these white squares above their black shapes, they step off the sidewalk. Cars screech to a halt. They proceed across the avenue, holding up traffic, their white flags fluttering in the growing gloom of early evening. They disappear through the side door to the basement church where the Catholics are already patiently lined up, waiting to present their sins.

That’s how it was, late 1950s, even well into the 1960s. On a Saturday night, this typical exchange: someone, probably my brother, calling out, "Wanna go to the movie at the Uptown?" And one of us replies, "Sure. Go to confession first? Movie doesn’t start till 7:30." The easy presence of sacramental life all around us.

The casual assumption of religion, the unapologetic publicness of it on the streets of our neighborhood, the parish priests (in those years there were several for a big parish like Saint Luke’s) walking along Summit in the late afternoon, reading their breviaries. You were supposed to move out of their way if, absorbed in prayer, they happened to stray to your side of the pavement as you passed by, though it was considered a nice touch if a priest raised his head briefly from the prayer book and smiled (Father Kennedy, the cute one, sometimes winked). Nobody spoke—oh no. They had to read their Office, it was a dark sin not to—their kind of sin, not a sin we needed to bother with, but a sin nonetheless. Leave them to it.

Signs of grace abounded. Nuns dipped into the side door of Saint Luke’s, "for a little adoration," as they airily said. Children were excused from class and trooped over to the church from the grade school next door to sing, in birdy voices, the dank sentiments of the Dies irae at weekday funerals when the professional quavering contralto of Alma Quince (no kidding) was elsewhere engaged. It was not uncommon to see people, women especially, walking along one of the parish side streets, Oxford or Milton, saying the rosary, hand in pocket, fingers passing over the beads, lips faintly moving. Sometimes the rosary was held, two-fisted, right in front. A bit showy maybe, and only for older ladies understood to be widowed or otherwise alone in the world. But in such cases, this public piety was the badge of a solitude well employed.

We were surrounded by worship, buoyed up by gestures of belief, as if many wings were flapping all about us, like the white hankies miraculously stopping traffic on Summit, keeping us suspended in the peculiar vacancy of our ordinary lives which, in this way, were not allowed to pass for ordinary at all. The kingdom of God is within you, boys and girls. Never forget that.

How ever could we?

Yet, standing in the long line trailing from the confessional with the white card marked FATHER KENNEDY (Never go to monsignor! we warned each other—he’ll give you five rosaries, all fifteen Mysteries), it was hard not to feel hopeless. What, exactly, could I come up with in the way of presentable sins?

I had been instructed, along with everyone in Sister Julia’s second-grade class, to make a careful examination of conscience before entering the confessional to recite my sins. This entailed ticking one’s way down the Ten Commandments, flushing out faults in a bookkeeperly fashion, accumulating a decent tally to present in the confessional.

My life—all the world around me—I saw glumly, bred a terrible absence of activity of any kind useful to the purpose. Forget mortal sins—they were in a class far above anything we could hope to muster ("You are unlikely to encounter any mortal sins, boys and girls, as you make your examination of conscience, but remember, a venial sin must still be understood as a sin of consequence"). The scant sweepings of venial sins I was left to scavenge were hardly inspiring.

If the kingdom of God was within me, as Sister claimed, well and good. And I could feel it—wasn’t that what happiness was? But where was Satan? Where his works and pomps? Didn’t they—sins and sinning—constitute the other part of life, hidden but vast, a kind of thrilling hot breath seething somewhere beyond everyday life?

It wasn’t that I felt myself to be in a state of perpetual grace, already perfected, enclosed within a spiritual sanctuary bounded away from the reality of sin and its complications. None of that. I was simply disappointed by the quality of sin available to me, the predictability and flat anti-narrative tedium of my lists. Even the tallies seemed foolish and mingy. Bless me, Father, it’s been two weeks since my last confession. I disobeyed my folks, um, ten times...maybe more, maybe twenty times....No, ten is about right....

I went through a childhood of Saturday night recitations feeling guilty not for my sins but for the boredom of my life. There was no story in any of this confessing. My life was a grocery list—or worse, it was an antique clerk’s desk into whose pigeonholes I divvied up my sins like shopkeepers’ bills come due: so many lies, so many disobediences.

Puberty, in a way, saved me. Finally, I approached the confessional in a cold sweat. Finally, the hot breath of stealth and secrecy breathed upon me. This was what all the shouting was about. More than the sudden alarm of sex, it was this: I experienced the self at stake.

That Saturday, I shilly-shallied between Slattery and Kennedy—which one to present with what, after all, was my real first confession? Monsignor, of course, was unthinkable. I’d always been a Kennedy penitent, an instinct for his lightness, the cheerful wink along the sidewalk. But this was something else again, something which, I intuited, required a more stately impersonality. I pulled aside the mud-colored drape of Slattery’s confessional and knelt in the sudden dark, waiting for his hand to slide open the little window veiled with tallow-colored muslin where, at last and with the desperate "contrite heart" we had been told was the proper state for the penitent, I would confess to "thoughts," and yes, to "deeds" as well.

I had decided to lead with my usual tally of disobediences and "unkind thoughts" and so forth, plenty of those at the ready. They would serve as a sort of hors d’oeuvre for this new thing of the night, the alarming, hungry shadows of desire. Then, the plunge, gratefully grabbing the exquisite euphemism provided by the "examination of conscience" under the Sixth Commandment at the back of the Baltimore Catechism—"impure thoughts and deeds, Father...."

"Alone or with others?" Slattery murmured smoothly.

With others? What was he thinking of? "Alone, Father!" I cried, the shock hurling my voice aloud, out of the confessional whisper.

He lowered his own voice slightly, and in the same uninsinuating, unconcerned tone, suggested I might listen to music on the hi-fi at such times.

"We don’t have a hi-fi, Father."

Well, did we have a radio? Yes, we had a radio. So listen to the radio. Or TV was good.

Then, a couple of Our Fathers and a handful of Hail Marys, and I was in the light again.

The dark cubby of the confessional, the low whisper of the private voice rendering to God not what is God’s but what is the Devil’s—it was an astonishing procedure. Confession, as we experienced it at Saint Luke’s, was not an occasion of self-inflation or egotism, nor (once the initial shock of declaration was absorbed) was it an exercise in humiliation. It offered, in return for the humble acknowledgment of the broken truths of the self, nothing short of a new life. Here was the baptismal promise beating along the pulse—not an idea but an intense throb of liberation. A moment of personal liberation: to emerge from the time-out-of-time darkness of the little box, overwhelmed with gratitude, and in possession of a wondrous discovery—that we are creatures born for radiance. Our natural state is to be light, free, ready for the next thing.

Maybe this liberating sensation was just a surfeit of relief, bred of a ruinous scrupulosity. It is tempting to dismiss it that way. But the old-style confession, the kind that still fires the popular imagination and that has fascinated and marked writers in the supposedly nonreligious (even antireligious) passing century—James Joyce, Mary McCarthy come to mind—this was, finally, a sacramental act. If by "sacramental" we mean an authentic, if mysterious, change wrought within the human heart by ritual gestures and words, murmurs and the absolving movement of an anonymous hand poised above a bowed head.

The desire to be free "from all anxiety," as one of the blessings of the Mass puts it, is the oldest human spiritual hankering we have record of. The Psalmist knew its essential inwardness even in the public life of a tribal culture. "Not burnt sacrifices you want, O Lord," he cries from the pathos of the private self struggling against the weight of public gestures, "burnt offering you do not desire." What God wants is "a broken, contrite heart."

In a way, the long history of the sacrament has been the history of the struggle between the need of the inner self to be unburdened and the requirement of the institution to have its members within its embrace. The progression of its name changes—from penance to confession, and more recently to reconciliation—bespeaks this tension.

In the fragile and apocalyptic early church, penance was conceived as a public reconciliation, necessary to the very existence of the congregation. For if, after the drenching purification of baptism, people did still persist in sin (as Paul’s letters attest again and again) then there had to be a method, a mechanism even, for re-conversion. The community had to see, in public weeping, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, clear symbols of repentance so that the reclamation of the individual could be entire. Orders of penitents, roughly parallel to catechumens, were created, and returning sinners, during their period in the penitential order, were encouraged and supported by the Christian community. A public liturgy (praising God’s mercy for their return) restored penitents to the status of faithful Christians.

But by the sixth century, the process by which penitents returned to the community had calcified into a canonical procedure whose legalisms undermined the impulse among most Christians to pursue reconciliation. Penance degenerated into a coercive penalty rather than a voluntary method for rehabilitation. The most troubling long-term effect of this legalistic direction was that, like baptism, the sacrament of penance was allowed only once in a lifetime as the early church developed its thinking on the subject. There was a contradiction here, of course, with the basic gospel teaching of ongoing, even constant forgiveness.

But there it was—and there it stayed until evangelizing Irish monks gave the medieval church the model of private confession. By grafting an indigenous pagan idea—the Druid anmchara (soul-friend)—onto the sacrament of penance, the monks developed the idea of a confessor, and drew the newly converted Celts to the exuberant confession of sins. The soul-friend heard a private recitation of offenses and assigned a penitential act. Different sins had different satisfactions and these were listed in books called "penitentials." This method for unloading the burden of sin involved no social stigma, no public exposure. And, in place of one chance on earth to wipe the slate clean before final judgment, it offered a repeatable pattern of forgiveness in the natural round of life. Their method brought the sacrament, inevitably, to the brink of storytelling and the magic healing of narrative, as if to the doorstep of its true destiny.

Pilgrimage was a popular and public medieval form of expiation, and storytelling stood at its very heart. Moving across the earth, close to the ground, in a small band of fellow penitents bearing a pilgrim scallop shell as their talisman, sinners pondered their own life journey, and listened to the tales of others along the way. It is an eloquent coincidence that English narrative literature begins with Chaucer among the pilgrims, penitents expiating—and retelling as stories—their sins. Here in the late medieval springtime, April is not yet the "cruellest month" of the alienated self. Though it is the painful season of Christ’s agony and death, it belongs in Chaucer to the elemental happiness rising from the resurrecting earth.

With the Renaissance winking on the horizon, the medieval penitent seems to have the best of both public and private penance: sin needn’t be shaming public exposure, and expiation needn’t be a private hairshirt, a half-step short of neurosis. Certainly pilgrimage as a form of expiation underscores the liberation that is meant to be the core of the sacrament, the radiant lightness of the shriven heart.

Without the inner satisfactions of forgiveness, the self is burdened beyond its capacity to carry on, to make the journey of its life. But who, exactly, does the forgiving? The medieval mind knew it was the Lord God, through his ordained representative, the priest. Modern psychology, on the other hand, demands that we forgive ourselves. This is meant to be a liberation (from the strictures of a confining institution), but it proves to be a ruinous burden for the lonely self.

The sacrament comes to us out of our deep past. It streams clouds of cultural assumptions from other, more communal, even tribal—and certainly hierarchical—times. It asks us to receive forgiveness, to see that it is a gift given, not an accomplishment of our own making.

Bless me, Father, it has been thirty years—make that thirty-two—since my last confession....An absurd way to begin. But when, a few years ago, I returned to the sacrament, I might have said something like that. Might have—but didn’t. But I thought it; the old formulaic beginning of confessional recitation is bred deep inside a pre–Vatican II mind.

Maybe because of that association, I had let the sacrament "lapse"—another old-style Catholic term. Confession belonged to the bad old church, not the one I was trying to be part of. My church was "progressive," and its allegiance to tradition and to ancient liturgy were also, in their self-conscious ways, progressive too. I didn’t stand in line in the basement of Saint Luke’s anymore; I didn’t seek out the solemn drama of the little black box. And most of all, I didn’t present my tally of sins. I let the congregational ritual of reconciliation, communal and not sin—specific, take care of the confession department of Catholic life.

And, of course, I went into therapy, huddling for months of weekly "sessions," "dealing with" what I learned to call "my issues," sorting out the litter of a life at what felt like the midpoint. I shared a couch in a room full of green plants with my therapist’s elderly springer which regarded me with his baleful spaniel eyes before sighing deeply and rounding into his corner of the couch where he slept the sleep of the blameless for the entire hour, moaning occasionally, whether from dreams of misery or delight, it was not clear. The couch was slung so low that I felt I was rising from a crouch when I finally left at the end of my hour, rudely awakening the dog as I heaved myself up and out.

I went every week. I told my tale. I told it this way. Then I told it that way. I was balled up in a passionate determination to "figure things out." Sometimes I blamed him, sometimes her. There were plenty of hims and hers to work over. But inevitably, of course, I blamed myself. It was a completely absorbing enterprise for perhaps eighteen months, and at the same time I marveled at the boredom of it, the tedium of my telling. But how could I be bored? This was my life!

It wasn’t a grocery list of sins. But it was, in a way, even less compelling. At least a list has its clean purpose, nothing more, nothing less than its gathered details. But in my story-telling there was a desperate wish that made my testimony unreliable. I didn’t see this for a long time. I kept talking. But finally, as if the tumblers of a resistant lock had come round in the magical right combination, I got the message: I was never going to figure it out. To my greater surprise I registered this fact with pleasure, with a sense of liberation.

My therapist congratulated me: I was done with therapy. The springer spaniel didn’t even cock an eye open when I slipped from the couch, and left the room full of green plants behind.

Shortly after this, I went on a retreat to a monastery perched high on a mountain above the Pacific, the steep slant of the hillocky land ending in the great pastel muddle of sky and sea. Some days it was impossible to find the horizon, the air and water had conspired so successfully to confuse themselves. The days began before dawn with lauds in the chapel. Every day was silent except for our mouthing the psalmist’s ancient passions, his cries for mercy, his rebukes and terrors, his lyric tendernesses. Such moodiness at the heart of Western religion!

The monks, who dressed in casual clothes around the monastery grounds, wore cream-colored robes in the chapel, which strangely accentuated their individuality rather than obscured it. One day, toward the end of my week on the mountain, I realized I had settled on a face I wished to make my confession to. The lean and abstract face of an elderly monk. I hadn’t even realized I had been looking for a confessor, but there he was. He seemed startled when I asked him if he would hear my confession, but he agreed immediately.

We met later that day in a room at the side of the chapel. He was wearing blue jeans and a plaid flannel shirt. I had expected the cream-colored robe. But as he sat down in a straight-back chair, he produced a hand-woven stole and draped it around his shoulders. And instantly became a priest, and the setting sacramental. I sat in a similar chair facing him. The room was large and airy. He smiled as I looked around. "I suppose you’re used to doing this in the box," he said with a gentle irony that referred not to me, it seemed, but to the world we both had once inhabited and which, he intimated with his smile, I was braving again.

I told him I didn’t even know what confession was anymore. I knew this admission wouldn’t faze him. I produced the little Saint Luke’s style grocery list I had prepared. We both smiled over it. "Maybe you should just talk a little," he said. But I didn’t tell my tale. I told him what I wished for, the qualities of heart I lacked and wished were mine. The sacrament, he said, as if to himself, though I was aware I had been listened to with absolute attention, is not really about sin. It is about hardness of heart. It was a scriptural term, he reminded me—hardness of heart; it referred to the ball of pride and fear and misery that makes freedom so difficult. The sacrament, he said, is about freedom.

I talked. He listened. There was absolutely no disapproval for anything I said. He radiated a quiet, absorbed interest in my sins. Like a doctor looking at a symptom, trying to find cause and cure. He had a perfect pitch of warmth and coolness. We were meeting in a free middle, between friendship and being utter strangers. It was sacred ground, impersonal, sacramental. It was almost casual, like sitting in a boat on one of the lost inland Minnesota lakes with my father, waiting for a nibble. Together in the stillness of the natural world, knowing the truth was down there and might bite, might be mine. But there was nothing to do, just put yourself in the presence of it and see what happens.

He suggested I read the whole Gospel of Luke for my penance. "Take six months—don’t rush." Then he smiled, "Seeing you’ve been away from the sacrament so long, you can afford a long penance." He wasn’t toying with me. He was playing with the form. An artist.

He raised his hand over my bowed head, said the ancient absolving words I knew from Latin: "Ego te absolvo...." Then we parted, he to the monastery, I to the mountain where I stood alone in the late afternoon light, looking out at the rind of America as it peels off into the flourish of the sea, the sky somewhere out there in it all too. The sacrament is not really about sin. It is about hardness of heart.

The burnt sacrifices of self-castigation, of blame and shame, all the slaughters on the high altar of the self that it is possible to present as one’s truth. It is a modern form of hard-heartedness, earnest but rigid. A sentence formed in my head—though it felt as if it came not from me but out of the damp air drenched with the smell of eucalyptus: You don’t get to understand, you just get to acquiesce.

The black box had opened, its dank closet revealed itself now as nothing less than the panorama of the glorious world. I stood there, shivering in the growing cold, unable to make out the hinge of sea and sky, glad of that confusion, glad to give over to the mystery at last.


This essay is excerpted from Signatures of Grace: Catholic Writers on the Sacraments (Dutton), edited by Thomas Grady and Paula Huston. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Related: The Empty Box, by Raymond C. Mann
Margaret O'Brien Steinfels reviews Patricia Hampl's The Florist's Daughter
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Patricia Hampl is the author of The Florist's Daughter and several other books. She teaches creative writing at the University of Minnesota.
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