THE SACRAMENT OF RECONCILIATION

Hampl, Patricia

THE SACRAMENT OF RECONCILIATION It's an operation on the heart Patricia Hampi ill Jack, my old friend from grade school, has the cute one, sometimes winked)....

...Since w6u AUrcx GALLIN, O.$.u...
...By grafting an indigenous pagan idea-the Druid ready for the next thing...
...I shared a couch in a room full of green plants Pilgrimage was a popular and public medieval form of with my therapist's elderly springer which regarded me expiation, and storytelling stood at its very heart...
...From the right in front...
...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...
...mortal sins, boys and girls, as you make your examination of con- That Saturday, I shilly-shallied between Slattery and science, but remember, a venial sin must still be understood as a sin Kennedy-which one to present with what, after all, was of consequence...
...I've busted plenty of vows, I must confess...
...He radiated a quiet, absorbed interest in my sins...
...mulating a decent tally to present in the confessional...
...My church was "progressive," and its allegiance tain, I realized I had settled on a face I wished to make my conto tradition and to ancient liturgy were also, in their self- fession to...
...So listen to the radio...
...bred deep inside a pre-Vatican II mind...
...Or TV was good...
...The most troubling long-term effect of this legalistic tion...
...Commonweal 12 April 7, 2000 Then, a couple of Our Fathers and a handful of Hail ing God's mercy for their return) restored penitents to the statMarys, and I was in the light again...
...We both smiled over it...
...Yes, we had a radio...
...fore daylight-savings, when it was already dark by seven Signs of grace abounded...
...Sometimes the rosary was held, two-fisted, the pale gray hulk of Saint Luke's on the far corner...
...The easy presence of sacramental life all around us...
...I didn't see this for a long time...
...October 3-November 12, 2000 In the fragile and apocalyptic early church, penance was An in-depth experience of prayer during which the conceived as a public reconciliation, necessary to the very ex- participant receives personal direction in prayer...
...At least a list has its clean purpose, nothing sacrament, the radiant lightness of the shriven heart...
...The black box had opened, its dank closet revealed itself now as nothing less than the panorama of the glorious world...
...I was simply disappointed by the et, standing in the long line trailing from the quality of sin available to me, the predictability and flat anticonfessional with the white card marked FA- narrative tedium of my lists...
...tireligious) passing century-James Joyce, Mary McCarthy This method for unloading the burden of sin involved no come to mind-this was, finally, a sacramental act...
...reminded me...
...0-268-01489-2  $32.00 cloth 288 pages world, knowing the truth was down there and might bite, might be mine...
...Well, did we have a radio...
...It streams I slipped from the couch, and left the room full of green clouds of cultural assumptions from other, more commu- plants behind...
...Nuns dipped into the side door o'clock...
...The community had to see, in public weeping, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, clear symbols of repentance so that the reclamation of the individ- For descriptive flyers or information contact: Secretary, Loyola House, ual could be entire...
...But I thought lyric tendernesses...
...Moving with his baleful spaniel eyes before sighing deeply and across the earth, close to the ground, in a small band of fel- rounding into his corner of the couch where he slept the low penitents bearing a pilgrim scallop shell as their talis- sleep of the blameless for the entire hour, moaning occaman, sinners pondered their own life journey, and listened sionally, whether from dreams of misery or delight, it was to the tales of others along the way...
...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...
...I didn't seek out the there he was...
...Here in the late medieval springtime, I went every week...
...It is an eloquent coinci- not clear...
...But there was nothing to do, just put yourself in the presence of it and see what happens...
...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...
...we and mingy...
...But it was, in a way, even derscores the liberation that is meant to be the core of the less compelling...
...Pause at Summit, their destination faintly moving...
...I told it this way...
...The scant sweepings of venial sins I was left my real first confession...
...I'd always been a Kennedy penitent, an instinct for If the kingdom of God was within me, as Sister claimed, his lightness, the cheerful wink along the sidewalk...
...But where was Satan...
...A bit showy maybe, and only for older ladies deep pockets of their cassocks, each priest roots out a big understood to be widowed or otherwise alone in the world...
...darkness of the little box, overwhelmed with gratitude, and But there it was-and there it stayed until evangelizing in possession of a wondrous discovery-that we are crea- Irish monks gave the medieval church the model of private tures born for radiance...
...An artist...
...This was my and expiation needn't be a private hairshirt, a half-step short life...
...It is about hardness of heart...
...None of that...
...pected the cream-colored robe...
...There was a contradiction not an idea but an intense throb of liberation...
...Modern psychology, on the other I was never going to figure it out...
...It was a comWith the Renaissance winking on the horizon, the me- pletely absorbing enterprise for perhaps eighteen months, dieval penitent seems to have the best of both public and and at the same time I marveled at the boredom of it, the private penance: sin needn't be shaming public exposure, tedium of my telling...
...Puberty, in a way, saved me...
...it referred to the ball of pride and fear and misery that makes freedom so difficult...
...I had exconfession department of Catholic life...
...The days began before dawn with lauds in the chapel...
...I told him what I wished for, the qualities of heart I lacked and wished were mine...
...And instantly became a Commonweal 1 4 April 7, 2000 Negotiating Identity Catholic Higher Education since 1960 Alice Gall in, O.S.U...
...But the old-style confession, the kind that still The soul-friend heard a private recitation of offenses and fires the popular imagination and that has fascinated and assigned a penitential act...
...The room was large and airy...
...Such moodiness at the heart of Western it...
...Take six months-don't rush...
...Leave them to it...
...reconciliation, communal and not sin-specific, take care of the He was wearing blue jeans and a plaid flannel shirt...
...There was absolutely no disapproval for anything I said...
...He suggested I read the whole Gospel of Luke for my penance...
...It was a scriptural term, he reminded me-hardness of heart...
...exactly, could I come up with in the way of presentable sins...
...But, of course, "We don't have a hi-fi, Father...
...And one of us replies, "Sure...
...I went through a childhood of Saturday night recitations I had been instructed, along with everyone in Sister Julia's feeling guilty not for my sins but for the boredom of my life...
...He wasn't toying with me...
...He smiled as I looked around...
...Then he smiled, "Seeing you've been away from the sacrament so long, you can afford a long penance...
...way to begin...
...And most of all, I didn't would hear my confession, but he agreed immediately...
...This essay is excerpted from Signatures of Grace: Catholic Writers on the Sacraments (Dutton), edited by Thomas Grady and Paula Huston...
...But in my storyWithout the inner satisfactions of forgiveness, the self is telling there was a desperate wish that made my testimony burdened beyond its capacity to carry on, to make the jour- unreliable...
...grocery list-or worse, it was an antique clerk's desk into This entailed ticking one's way down the Ten Command- whose pigeonholes I divvied up my sins like shopkeepers' ments, flushing out faults in a bookkeeperly fashion, accu- bills come due: so many lies, so many disobediences...
...It is tempting to dismiss newly converted Celts to the exuberant confession of sins...
...Reprinted with permission of the author...
...My life was a science before entering the confessional to recite my sins...
...Finally, I approached the My life-all the world around me-I saw glumly, bred a confessional in a cold sweat...
...the resurrecting earth...
...A priestly Mutt and Jeff...
...It was sacred ground, impersonal, sacramental...
...of neurosis...
...What God wants is "a broken, August 1-9 8-day Retreat contrite heart...
...11 Commonweal 1 5 April 7, 2000...
...We were meeting in a free middle, between friendship and being utter strangers...
...and secrecy breathed upon me...
...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...
...The kingdom of God is within you, boys and girls...
...ney of its life...
...Orders of penitents, roughly parallel to PO Box 245, Guelph, ON N1H 6J9 catechumens, were created, and returning sinners, during Tel: (519)824-1250 [ext.2661 Fax: (519)767-0994 their period in the penitential order, were encouraged and e-mail: loyolahouse@easynet.ca supported by the Christian community...
...he desire to be free "from all anxiety," as one rl® LOYOLA HOUSE of the blessings of the Mass puts it, is the oldest Z %%N Guelph Centre of Spirituality human spiritual hankering we have record of...
...dinary at all...
...The couch was slung so low that I felt I was rising dence that English narrative literature begins with Chaucer from a crouch when I finally left at the end of my hour, among the pilgrims, penitents expiating-and retelling as rudely awakening the dog as I heaved myself up and out...
...Nobody spoke-oh no...
...Blanche Blank, Center for Philanthropy, New York University, and former President of Hunter College Available at bookstores, or order from: UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME PRESS Chicago Distribution Center 1103(1 South Langley Avenue Chicago...
...Then April is not yet the "cruellest month" of the alienated self...
...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...
...It offered, in return for the humble acknowledgment of direction was that, like baptism, the sacrament of penance the broken truths of the self, nothing short of a new life...
...Together in the stillness of the natural U;.11_ Negotiating Identity Catholic Hfght'r . E ,twvfItir...
...Monsignor, of course, was unto scavenge were hardly inspiring...
...Even the tallies seemed foolish Y THER KENNEDY (Never go to monsignor...
...He al- church from the grade school next door to sing, in birdy ways accompanied monsignor, and slowed his long-legged voices, the dank sentiments of the Dies irae at weekday fugait to match the old man's...
...They would serve as a sort of hors d'oeuvre for this new thing of the night, the alarming, hungry shadows of desire...
...I conscious ways, progressive too...
...I sat in a similar chair facing him...
...It is about hardness of heart...
...was allowed only once in a lifetime as the early church deHere was the baptismal promise beating along the pulse- veloped its thinking on the subject...
...halt...
...Handsome and remote...
...second-grade class, to make a careful examination of con- There was no story in any of this confessing...
...present my tally of sins...
...Their method brought the sacrament, mous hand poised above a bowed head...
...In the cobalt common to see people, women especially, walking along light, their cassocks slapped softly against their trouser legs.one of the parish side streets, Oxford or Milton, saying the Easy to bring them back...
...I kept talking...
...Con- cedure whose legalisms undermined the impulse among most fession, as we experienced it at Saint Luke's, was not an oc- Christians to pursue reconciliation...
...Bless me, Father, it's been two weeks since my last warned each other-he'll give you five rosaries, confession...
...Not burnt sacrifices you want, 0 Lord," he cries from the pathos of the private June 13-21 8-day Retreat self struggling against the weight of public gestures, "burnt June 26-July 4 8-day Retreat offering you do not desire...
...IL 60628 Tel: 773-568-1550 Fax: 800-621-8476 http:llwww.undpress.nd.edu priest, and the setting sacramental...
...Alone, Father...
...fling up the slight incline of Lexington in an oddly staccato Children were excused from class and trooped over to the way...
...THE SACRAMENT OF RECONCILIATION It's an operation on the heart Patricia Hampi ill Jack, my old friend from grade school, has the cute one, sometimes winked...
...But who, exactly, does the forgiving...
...Might have-but didn't...
...Some days it was impossible to find the horizon, the air less me, Father, it has been thirty years-make that and water had conspired so successfully to confuse themthirty-two-since my last confession...
...He was playing with the form...
...Movie doesn't start till 7:30...
...Where his works and white hankies miraculously stopping traffic on Summit, pomps...
...It is a modern form of hard-heartedness, earnest but rigid...
...Go to confession first...
...anmchara (soul-friend)-onto the sacrament of penance, the Maybe this liberating sensation was just a surfeit of re- monks developed the idea of a confessor, and drew the lief, bred of a ruinous scrupulosity...
...Commonweal I I April 7, 2000 We were surrounded by worship, buoyed up by gestures well and good...
...No, ten is about right...
...us of faithful Christians...
...A public liturgy (praisCommonweal 13 April 7, 2000 inevitably, to the brink of storytelling and the magic healing "my issues," sorting out the litter of a life at what felt like the of narrative, as if to the doorstep of its true destiny...
...Certainly pilgrimage as a form of expiation un- It wasn't a grocery list of sins...
...I talked...
...This was what all the shoutForget mortal sins-they were in a class far above anything ing was about...
...I told it that way...
...What was he thinking of...
...This is meant to be registered this fact with pleasure, with a sense of liberation...
...midpoint...
...On a Saturday night, this typical exchange: someone, probably my brother, calling out, "Wanna go to the movie at the Uptown...
...thinkable...
...W. Norton), a finalist for this year's National Book Critics Circle Awards...
...Alone or with others...
...The sacrament is not really about sin...
...It was not unSaint Luke's to hear Saturday night confessions...
...But inevitably, of course, I blamed myself...
...I pulled aside the mudcolored 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...
...The monks, who dressed in casual clothes around the Maybe because of that association, I had let the sacra- monastery grounds, wore cream-colored robes in the chapel, ment "lapse"-another old-style Catholic term...
...Monsignor Cullinan, little barrel of a body, shuf- of Saint Luke's, "for a little adoration," as they airily said...
...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...
...There were plenty of hims and hers to work over...
...And, in place of one "sacramental" we mean an authentic, if mysterious, change chance on earth to wipe the slate clean before final judgwrought within the human heart by ritual gestures and ment, it offered a repeatable pattern of forgiveness in the words, murmurs and the absolving movement of an anony- natural round of life...
...An istence of the congregation...
...Penance degenerated into casion of self-inflation or egotism, nor (once the initial shock a coercive penalty rather than a voluntary method for rehaof declaration was absorbed) was it an exercise in humilia- bilitation...
...It asks us Shortly after this, I went on a retreat to a monastery perched to receive forgiveness, to see that it is a gift given, not an ac- high on a mountain above the Pacific, the steep slant of the complishment of our own making...
...An absurd selves...
...They disappear through the side door to the basement church where the Catholics are already patiently lined up, waiting to present their sins...
...the old formulaic beginning of confessional recitation is religion...
...py...
...He raised his hand over my bowed head, said the ancient absolving words I knew from Latin: "Ego to 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...
...t The Psalmist knew its essential inwardness even DIRECTED RETREATS in the public life of a tribal culture...
...I let the congregational ritual of We met later that day in a room at the side of the chapel...
...What, maybe twenty times...
...nal, even tribal-and certainly hierarchical-times...
...I produced the little Saint Luke's style grocery list I had prepared...
...tuary bounded away from the reality of sin and its complications...
...handkerchief...
...They proceed across the avenue, holding up traffic, their white flags fluttering in the growing gloom of early evening...
...But as he sat down in a And, of course, I went into therapy, huddling for months straight-back chair, he produced a hand-woven stole and of weekly "sessions," "dealing with" what I learned to call draped it around his shoulders...
...I disobeyed my folks, um, ten times...
...It was almost casual, like sitting in a boat on one of the lost inland Minnesota lakes with my father, waiting for a nibble...
...grace, already perfected, enclosed within a spiritual sancHow ever could we...
...It all remains indelible and per- They had to read their Office, it was a dark sin not to-their B manently mysterious to him, too: those Saint kind of sin, not a sin we needed to bother with, but a sin Paul Saturday nights in lilac time, the years be- nonetheless...
...That's how it was, late 1950s, even well into the 1960s...
...A moment of here, of course, with the basic gospel teaching of ongoing, personal liberation: to emerge from the time-out-of-time even constant forgiveness...
...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...
...I told my tale...
...They come up Lex from Grand, rosary, hand in pocket, fingers passing over the beads, lips a busy street even then...
...To my greater surprise I hand, demands that we forgive ourselves...
...Maybe you should just talk a little," he said...
...Cars screech to a tude well employed...
...He seemed startled when I asked him if he solemn drama of the little black box...
...The dark cubby of the confessional, the low whisper of But by the sixth century, the process by which penitents rethe private voice rendering to God not what is God's but turned to the community had calcified into a canonical prowhat is the Devil's-it was an astonishing procedure...
...But this was something else again, something which, I intuited, required a more stately impersonality...
...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...
...Sometimes I blamed him, someit belongs in Chaucer to the elemental happiness rising from times her...
...I was balled up in a passionate determiThough it is the painful season of Christ's agony and death, nation to "figure things out...
...I cried, the shock hurling my voice aloud, out of the confessional whisper...
...I had decided to lead with my usual tally of disobediences and "unkind thoughts" and so forth, plenty of those at the ready...
...They nerals when the professional quavering contralto of Alma were returning from their after-dinner stroll, headed back to Quince (no kidding) was elsewhere engaged...
...Then, waving these white squares above their But in such cases, this public piety was the badge of a soliblack shapes, they step off the sidewalk...
...The sacrament, he said, is about freedom...
...It wasn't that I felt myself to be in a state of perpetual Never forget that...
...I told him I didn't even know what confession was anymore...
...For if, after the drenching purifi- excellent experience for those in a time of renewal, cation of baptism, people did still persist in sin (as Paul's let- transition or sabbatical...
...If by social stigma, no public exposure...
...hillocky land ending in the great pastel muddle of sky and sea...
...Alice Gallin is one of the brightest stars in the world of higher education...
...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, Patricia Hampl is the author of I Could Tell You Stories (W...
...And Father Slattery...
...I always find it in my heart to forgive myself...
...maybe more, all fifteen Mysteries), it was hard not to feel hopeless...
...Different sins had different satismarked writers in the supposedly nonreligious (even an- factions and these were listed in books called "penitentials...
...And I could feel it-wasn't that what hapof belief, as if many wings were flapping all about us, like the piness was...
...I didn't stand in line in the hadn't even realized I had been looking for a confessor, but basement of Saint Luke's anymore...
...Didn't they-sins and sinning-constitute the other keeping us suspended in the peculiar vacancy of our ordi- part of life, hidden but vast, a kind of thrilling hot breath nary lives which, in this way, were not allowed to pass for or- seething somewhere beyond everyday life...
...I knew this admission wouldn't faze him...
...The me- But finally, as if the tumblers of a resistant lock had come dieval mind knew it was the Lord God, through his ordained round in the magical right combination, I got the message: representative, the priest...
...He had a perfect pitch of warmth and coolness...
...But when, a few years ago, I re- Every day was silent except for our mouthing the psalmist's anB turned to the sacrament, I might have said cient passions, his cries for mercy, his rebukes and terrors, his something like that...
...Our natural state is to be light, free, confession...
...The progression of its name changes-from penance to confession, and more recently to 40-DAY SPIRITUAL EXERCISES INSTITUTE reconciliation-bespeaks this tension...
...The springer spaniel didn't even cock an eye open when The sacrament comes to us out of our deep past...
...Her most recent book, Negotiating Identity, brings us a remarkably well-written, lively, yet detailed account of what has happened during the past 40 years, as American Catholic education has become simply `catholic.' It might be said that she has justified Alexis de Tocqueville's claim that American Catholics are 'both the most obedient of the faithful and the most independent of citizens...
...it that way...
...But I didn't tell my tale...
...With others...
...One day, toward the end of my week on the mounbe part of...
...Finally, the hot breath of stealth terrible absence of activity of any kind useful to the purpose...
...ters attest again and again) then there had to be a method, a mechanism even, for re-conversion...
...But how could I be bored...
...August 1-9 Contemplative Retreat In a way, the long history of the sacrament has been the August 11-19 8-day Retreat history of the struggle between the need of the inner self to August 22-30 8-day Retreat be unburdened and the requirement of the institution to have its members within its embrace...
...Like a doctor looking at a symptom, trying to find cause and cure...
...a liberation (from the strictures of a confining institution), My therapist congratulated me: I was done with therabut it proves to be a ruinous burden for the lonely self...
...More than the sudden alarm of sex, it was we could hope to muster ("You are unlikely to encounter any this: I experienced the self at stake...
...He listened...
...more, nothing less than its gathered details...
...Slattery murmured smoothly...
...stories-their sins...
...Confession which strangely accentuated their individuality rather than obbelonged to the bad old church, not the one I was trying to scured it...
...The lean and abstract face of an elderly monk...

Vol. 127 • April 2000 • No. 7


 
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