I am sitting on a wooden bench waiting my turn for absolution. I have been dreading this all day, and now with only two people in front of me and a heart heavy with baggage, I wish the whole thing over before it’s even begun. Nervously, I pull out from my pocket, a folded, half-sheet of paper and look it over for the hundredth time. My own handwriting, barely legible, spells out the true state of my pathetic position.
I am a self-proclaimed expert in hypocrisy. I know what to say, how to tilt my head sympathetically, when to smile, and where to stand, neck bowed, in reverence. Each time I unleash my tongue with gossip, let jealousy quiet due praise, exasperate my child by assuming fault without understanding the circumstances; when I spend money we don’t have to assuage my own stress, avert my eyes to evade conversation, avoid work that is dull and monotonous or listen distractedly in order to assert my own opinions, I stuff these acts of selfishness out of sight, but not out of mind, until I am ready to burst from the weight of them.
I am relatively new to this. Ten years ago I was quite content to repent before God on my own time, and in the environment of my choosing. The idea of formally listing my faults in front of a witness seemed dry and altogether unnecessary, like reciting out loud this week’s grocery list to my husband. My lifestyle was relatively innocuous and I couldn’t fathom what kind of sins would be worth mentioning at such a ceremonious event. How many ways could I possibly spin laziness?
Never before had the occasion arisen to sit down, beatitudes in hand, in order to take spiritual inventory of my soul. “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit”, the Sermon on the Mount begins. Blessed are they who acknowledge their complete dependence on Christ, and trust not in their own strength or capabilities. How authentically was I praying the words “Thy will be done?” Did I insist on trudging through with my own plans, looking only to God for verification? In what ways that day, that week, or even that month had I denied myself of anything? Each question asked, unearthed deeply rooted habits barricading my will from submission and hindering my spiritual growth.
The gentleman next to me rises from our shared pew and walks softly toward a small alcove with a table carrying a cross and the Gospel. Above these are icons of Christ, the Theotokos, and the Saints. Their stern faces, intolerant of evil and the havoc it wreaks on the hearts of men, draw out from confessors meditations on eternity usually smothered by earthly distractions. Our priest smiles warmly, wraps an arm around the shoulder of my fellow parishioner and together, heads drawn in collaboration, they begin the work of purification. Grace had instilled the desire to seek out holiness, and this young man’s loving response was his effort put forth to purge his soul of transgressions.
I bounce my knee and go over in my head the laundry list of reasons why I sit here, in the dark, on a Saturday night. I am embarrassed to reveal my same petty, manipulative, bratty tendencies and wish, just once, I had an epic sin of passion to offer, like murder for love or theft due to hunger. It is these quiet, unassuming, self-centered behaviors, however, that stick, like glue, to my persona and ingeniously distract me from the path of salvation. It isn’t until I am chin deep in the mire of my own inconsistencies and miserably annoyed by my weakness that I am able to surrender, out of desperation, to my true purpose as a servant, poor in spirit but rich in mercy.
My turn has come. It is now me walking on tiptoe, carrying my sins to the table. I am still thinking of ways to be honest about my shortcomings while allowing for just a touch of validity to sweeten the presentation. My own shoulder feels the warm embrace of my spiritual father, and my eyes meeting the piercing gaze of Christ and His saints, moisten with wonder at this sacred crowd gathered in loving concern over one wayward lamb. Standing here, my agenda changes sharply. No longer am I concerned about my status or reputation. In front of God, His priestly witness, and His church I want to turn myself inside out, revealing every last speck of dirt muddying my soul. This official handing over of a burden is a gift beyond explanation. The Church, acknowledging how parching a journey down the “road less traveled” can be, put in place an oasis of refreshment available to us all, if we just show up and drink.
I kneel, with my head under the stole and firm hand of my Priest, while he recites the anticipated prayer of absolution. As I rise, he offers his blessing and this final benediction:
“Now, having no further care for the sins you have confessed, you may go in peace.”
With my thirst quenched and strength renewed, I depart.