We were a good hour’s drive from the catholic church that Claire liked, but somehow that didn’t seem that far away. The bigger a state is, the farther one has to drive to make it seem like a long way. This is why in Rhode Island it’s like, whoa, you’re going 20 miles? You better pack an overnight bag. While in California we knew people who thought nothing of driving from San Francisco to Monterey for dinner in a hip restaurant–two hours each way if there was no traffic.
It did mean getting up a bit earlier than I had been in order to drive there in time for the English language mass, though. She roused me by shaking my shoulder.
“Time to get up. Sunday morning. I’ll put on the coffee, all right?”
“All right. Thanks.” I sat up and looked around the strange room doing that thing of trying to remember where we were for a second. This was a fairly usual thing for me to do.
I put on my cleanest, darkest pair of black jeans–the ones with no holes in them yet so they could pass for dress pants if you didn’t look too carefully. And I pulled a Christmas-gift sweater on over a flannel shirt. In the mirror I looked almost preppy except for the rock-and-roll bedhead hair. I set about trying to tame it into an orderly ponytail and ended up braiding it to keep it neat.
Claire had made toast as well as coffee by the time I emerged from my bedroom. We ate our toast with jam. The coffee was very strong but I wouldn’t really have called myself awake. Maybe she wasn’t really awake yet, either, given how quiet she was.
We got in the car and I started the engine. The snow hadn’t lasted. I didn’t even have to scrape the car windows.
When we were getting near, I remarked, “Oh, we’re way early. I guess we made better time than I thought.”
“Not too early for confession,” Claire said.
“Oh, did you want to go to confession?”
“We may as well, since we’re here in time for it.”
That didn’t answer my question and I knew I wouldn’t get one now. “I can’t go to confession.”
“Of course you can. Everyone can.” Ah, there was the usual Claire who had been absent for the past few days. The stubborn one who refused to see if reality didn’t conform to her ideas. “You had better. Especially if you’re going to go to communion.”
“But I never got confirmed, remember?”
“You don’t have to be confirmed to go to confession. You only have to have your first communion.”
I wasn’t sure she was right. I was pretty sure there was some hoop at confirmation that had to be jumped through. But maybe it was just that first confession usually came with confirmation? I didn’t really remember the rules. “And then there’s the problem that I don’t repent my ways.”
“What ways? You’re a perfectly nice boy.”
I didn’t laugh although it was kind of hilarious for her to be saying that. “I’m a perfectly gay boy and the church doesn’t take kindly to that.”
“Oh, pooh on that. Father Francis doesn’t care about that.”
“I don’t think he gets a say in it.”
She didn’t reply to that, just sniffed.
Inside the church we got in line and then I noticed the sign with the posted times for confession. They didn’t last very long. Could they really hear all the confessions necessary in only twenty minutes before Mass? I guess so. Maybe the people around here were so pious they didn’t have a lot to say.
I made to go sit in the pews but Claire held me by my sleeve. “Stay with me.”
We were the last ones in line and no one really paid any attention to us. When we got to the confessional, Claire went in first. I figured I’d wait for her to come out and then escort her to a seat. I figured I’d refuse to go in if she tried to get me to.
But she was in there a fairly long time, or at least it felt like it. When she came out, her eyes were red and she had a hankie against her nose. “He wants to talk to you,” she said, before gulping down a sob.
“Go on.” She stepped out of the way and gestured to the confessional booth with her other hand.
All right, fine. On TV confessionals always look like something out of the Middle Ages. This one looked more like a phone booth if phone booths were opaque. On the other side of the wooden slat door was a platform for kneeling as well as a small shelf where one could sit and still lean your elbows on the little rail by the grille between you and the priest. I chose to sit and then I leaned in.
“Hi. My mother said you wanted to talk to me?”
“That’s not the way one usually begins a confession.”
“Well, my confession is that I’ve never actually been to confession before.”
That almost got a chuckle out of him. It sounded like Father Francis, the priest Claire liked. “Is that so?”
“Yeah. I had my first communion when I was seven, but then my parents quit church for a while and so I never got confirmed and never did this before.”
“And how old are you now?”
“I turn twenty-four next week.”
“All right. And are you here to ask forgiveness for your sins? That’s what confession is for. Is there something in particular you feel sorry about?”
“I’m feeling a bit guilty that I haven’t done my exercises lately, but I doubt there’s a commandment against that, is there?”
“Well, sloth is one of the seven capital sins, but it generally refers to being the type of person who always shirks work or exertion, not so much to just skipping the gym once in a while.”
“Oh, these are rehab exercises, for an injury I had, and for my voice, for my profession as a musician. Both are about getting back to being a working musician again.”
“I would count that not as sloth then, but it would fall under ‘thou shalt not kill.’ That includes killing one’s self with neglect.”
Wow, that took a turn I really hadn’t expected. I shivered. “I… am I really?”
“Your voice wouldn’t be shaking if you didn’t think it somewhat true.”
“Did my mother tell you about me?”
“No, she just talked about herself.”
“I’m neglecting myself to take care of her. Isn’t one of the commandments also ‘honor thy mother and father?’”
“It is, but is it actually necessary for you to cease caring for yourself in order to care for her?”
I didn’t answer that. I mean, was it necessary? No, and yet…
He let me stew a minute before asking, “Anything else you’d like to tell me about?”
“I’m sure there are plenty of things I do that the church would count as sins, but I don’t. So, no, there’s not a lot to tell you. And look, I don’t really need your–or Jesus’s–forgiveness.”
“Are you sure about that? If you had the power to forgive yourself, you wouldn’t be beating yourself up about not doing your rehabilitation. You’d simply start doing it again. Accept Jesus’s forgiveness, though, and you’ll no longer be dragged down by the guilt and you’ll be able to move forward.”
“Oh, is that how this is supposed to work?”
“Yes, my son, that’s how this is supposed to work.” He sounded like he was suppressing a chuckle again. “My job now is to give you a penance, especially one you can enact before leaving the church. Do you remember the prayer ‘Our Father’?”
“Um, yeah. I can even do it in Spanish.”
He did chuckle, maybe remembering how we came to Spanish Mass that one time.
“Your penance, which I would recommend doing before you leave the church today, is to say three Our Fathers. I would also recommend, if you have time, to stop for a moment of reflection at the statue outside at the fountain before you go.”
“All right. Um, am I supposed to say something special now?”
“You’re supposed to say you accept the penance, are sorry for your sins, and then I absolve you.”
“Okay, sure. I’ll say the Our Fathers and I’m sorry.”
He was definitely cracking up and trying to hide it. He said some ritualized words for me and then said “Go in peace.”
I said, “Thank you, Father.”
I was glad he got a laugh out of it instead of scolding me about being so clueless, but I didn’t really share the mirth. Killing myself with neglect, eh? And that was literally against the ten commandments. Jeez. (Well, so was taking the lord’s name in vain, but I didn’t feel bad about that.) My palms felt sweaty.
I saw Claire had already sat down, as had most of the people showing up for Mass. I went to one of the side altars and knelt down to say my Our Fathers. I mean, why not see if it worked, right? Who was to say that religion wasn’t a kind of therapy that worked for some people?
My palms were damp as I pressed them together and then pressed them against my forehead. Now, how did that prayer go? Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…
It came back to me just like song lyrics that I couldn’t have recited but which came out just fine when the actual performance was happening. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.
There’s a sort of rhythm to the prayer in English. Was it translated from Latin at some point? Whoever translated it had a great ear. The cadence of the opening lines was satisfying, and then after the matching beat of the word “bread” went into a kind of bridge: Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And then right back to the cadence. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.
I had not really thought about the meaning of the prayer before. It was kind of a to-do list, wasn’t it? It was kind of saying hey God, you’re awesome, but don’t forget we need food, forgiveness, and protection.
I repeated it two more times… possibly three. At one point I forgot how many I’d done so I did one more to make sure. The repetition kind of zoned me out. (It being before ten AM also zoned me out.)
I sat through the Mass at Claire’s side without really absorbing it. When it came time to go for communion, I followed her. Father Francis gave her a grave and serious nod when it was her turn. Me, I got a knowing look and a pat on the shoulder. Huh.
Killing myself with neglect. That was a serious accusation. And it made it seem a lot more dire than I’d previously felt about it.
After services were over, I looked for the fountain. I had assumed the woman was Mary the last time we’d seen it because we hadn’t gone close enough to read the plaque, but up close I could see she was surrounded by a band of cherubs playing harps and lyres and flutes and horns. The plaque identified her as Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music and musicians.
It was a while before we could get in the car and leave, because it took me a while to stop crying.
Maybe the priest was right. Maybe it was more dire than I thought.
(Keep it up, folks! If you’re going to get to 50 comments by the end of the month you’ll have to ramp it up a bit… -ctan)