I was brought up Catholic and like most young boys indoctrinated in that faith, begrudgingly accepted it with apathy. I didn’t have any choice in the matter of religion. I was captured at birth, nay, at the moment of my parents’ marriage. The wedding vows, which seize future Catholics, go something like this. “I vow to raise our children under the light of the Lord, God Almighty, within the sight of the church, as good penitent Catholics, with all here to bear witness, under all the laws of God and the Holy Roman Church.” I was trapped, captured like an animal in a snare at the uttering of these words. My existence, not yet even a passing thought in my parent’s minds. But before I was conceived, already was I promised to love a deity not of my own choosing. So I was conceived, born, baptized, grew older, and then it was time to learn.
Catholic school, like all institutional settings, it seems building architecture is set aside for cost and functionality. The school was nothing more than a post-modern cement block bunker above ground. By the time I attended school in the eighties, many of the teachers were secular, the scarcity of nuns a reality due to dwindling numbers; it seems abstinence is not as appealing a lifestyle as the church hoped it would be. Still, most of the lay teachers that instructed me, were zealots in their own right. Always a cross hanging around their neck, or abstinence a reality of theirs, the only difference between them and a penguin was the habit they chose not to don. Overall though, I received a good education, learned much about the church, and even then drifted farther away from its farcical preachings.
I just couldn’t get past how the church treated me like a hollow, empty vessel, one which nurtured no free thinking, instead asking for obedience and blind faith. As if your cranium opened on a hinge, and with a bucket they could pour in the ecumenical teachings of the Vatican, you were coached to work on sheer faith. I was not there to think, but to absorb and accept. For the religious teachings I was to be assimilated, a number on a spreadsheet touting the increase in a population of hypocrites. As a child though, I was curious. I pondered, and sought reason for actions. This did not bode well though for a young Catholic. Curiosity is never mistaken for faith and instead is chastised as cynicism.
Confession was always the hardest for me. If I could directly pray to God and have my prayers heard, then why couldn’t I just pray my sins to him? The answers to my questions were shifty. Like a politician in front of a congressional hearing, it seemed their responses created more questions than answers, and my curiosity was met with obtuse quips. I became a pariah of sorts. This was not because my classmates thought I was difficult or frustrating, but because I did not feign acceptance like the others, which caused class to draw on with each debate I induced. As the dutiful Catholic though, I still attended confession with my mother in that sweltering, stuffy church, and it was there I felt the most shame and guilt.
Catholics are infamous for guilt-wracked minds. They are shamed from the moment of birth. Even though you are unaware of your latent sin, you later discover your iniquities, which were bestowed upon you the moment you entered this world. When you learn this, you develop a thin layer of self-reproach, as if your skin had been replaced overnight as you slept, with the dermis of a malefactor, and you clamber for your first confession. For the church emerging into life through the filth of meconium, blood, and amniotic fluid isn’t enough, your soul has to be stained with a curse, resulting from a sin committed a few thousand years prior, by a lustful, naive couple, who’s only greatest transgression was eating a goddamn piece of fruit. I mean, these same people don’t believe in evolution, but believing we were eternally damned from birth because of the devouring of a luscious pome seems to hold legitimacy.
So there I was, kneeling in the pew of that sweltering church, enduring the guilt for sins I could not find in my mind. I felt a weight bearing down upon my shoulders just for being there, as if my presence in that place of worship signified a sin of some sort. I would search my mind, while the tall steam radiators against the walls clanked and hissed like rattlers ready to strike. As the confessional line wrapped past these heating receptacles, they were asps in the desert anticipating the poor Christian pilgrims, with the devil himself awaiting his spoils.
In summer, the large vaulted room was humid. Sweat slid down the valley of my back, saturating my t-shirt. During the winter an arid heat could spontaneously produce nosebleeds. It was overwhelming, as if the fires of hell themselves were licking my feet. All the while, the temperature never changed with the seasons only the moisture content of the air, and my thoughts seemed to remain like the heat of the room, a constant boil.
I would pour through my mind, probing the deepest, darkest recesses, but the problem remained I could never find a sin. I believed I was good and the inner turmoil a Catholic of waning faith battles: how do you confess when you don’t believe in sin? Now, again, I was a good kid, but I sinned. Small sins. Things that I didn’t know were sins until years later. But when I was in church sitting in those pews, I felt unclean. I felt the inequities of my life brim over my shoulders and up my neck. I felt my filthy, dirty thoughts fill the back of my throat and begin to drown me in a sea of pornography and amorous touchings. I felt it suffocate my mouth and pour out onto the pew in front of me, and like a fountain’s sculpture posed somewhere in Rome, I oozed my sins like water from my lips as it drowned my soul.
What is a Catholic to do when he is faced with a priest through an opaque screen, where only the outline of his face, a silhouette of a holy man, is the only thing he sees? What is that Catholic to do, when he realizes, he cannot come up with any sin? Easy, he lies to the priest. And it began with a simple white lie, due to my scatterbrained nature.
“Bless me father for I have sinned. It has been…” That was the beginning of it all. It was so easy. I was a space case as a child. I was all imagination and not enough focus. So here I was, reciting the first lines of the confessional, and I couldn’t remember how long it had been since my last confession. And really, would a child have payed attention to that? As if I was marking it off at home on the complimentary lumber yard calendar my father got for us every year. So there I was, kneeling in that booth, face to face with the screen, and the first thing I did was lie. A small white lie. Bless me father for I have sinned, it has been…two weeks since my last confession. Yeah, two weeks, that’s a good number. Two weeks shows dedication. As if I couldn’t have just told the priest, “sorry father, I can’t remember.” But it was so easy, that one little lie, that simple little fib. It rolled off the tongue so easily, wormed its way into his ear, and if he knew it was false, he didn’t show it. I had lied to a priest and he didn’t know any better.
That was how it began, with a so small, so tiny, so vapid a lie. It was easy thereafter, so easy. That first little sinful secret I stole away in that booth, stayed with me for subsequent confessions. A little seed was planted in my mind. That initial fib, that little white lie. But like all seeds planted, all that are cared for and nourished, it sprouted and flourished growing into a large tall tree. I was a good person when I walked into that confessional, but the pangs of guilt overwhelmed me, and that confessional became a booth where I learned how easy it was to sin.
After a while it was a natural act, but in the beginning, I made mistakes. At first it was out of fear and pressure that I confessed these fallacies. My mind was blank of all immoralities, and the line outside the booth was fifteen deep. Many of those awaiting redemption were wrinkled, purple haired women with rain bonnets pinned to their chemical curls. They whirled through the beads on their rosaries with a ferocity, as if the absolution the priest would confer upon them was deficient to dissolve the sinful nature attached to their souls. Inside though, I froze. I sat there, muttering, mumbling, looking around the booth, and eventually, blurted out the first sins that came to mind, sins which I made up in that dark claustrophobic booth.
Sins became numerated, valued, commodified. Each one held a value, appraised with a certain number of Hail Mary’s or Our Fathers, and for a few, a mixture of both. Over the years I learned the value of sins, and the importance each held. The banality of certain sins had to be given that little nudge into wickedness to make it worth a few prayers. Some days I went in meekly, with a few menial, petty sins, garnering a few Hail Mary’s, and an Our Father or two, a brown nosing golden boy of Catholicism. Other days I went in full tilt, having practically burnt the town down, had sex with the mayor’s wife, and kicked a homeless man. My spurious sins allowed the good boy to live a fabricated life of corruption, at least in that small four by four booth of clemency. In the end though, those days were rare, and I ended up creating instances where I felt a modicum of guilt for nacho chips stolen before dinner or having lied to my mother about when my homework was accomplished, only so I could play Atari.
One sin though was always off limits. I could not bring myself to admit it, especially to a stranger who hid behind a wicker screen. The silhouette I produced lies for could be someone I really did know, and he might recognize my voice. Besides that, the church was built to carry acoustics. It was always embarrassing for me to imagine all these judgmental Catholics standing in line, listening to the whispers of my confession, invented or not. I felt like the priests reveled in the idea of a whole congregation listening to your ‘private’ confession. Voices carried across the pews as if you were talking into a microphone, with speakers lining the walls of this holy space. Yet there I was, kneeling in that hot booth, lying to this priest, and the thought of my carnal endeavors scrolled across the screen of my mind. It announced my nighttime proclivities like departures and arrivals at an airport. He asked for sins, and the one sin I knew I committed on a daily basis, ran, hiding in the darkest spots of my mind. My tongue numbed at the thought of admitting my frequent explosions of pleasure, and even then, no one could convince me, that this was sinful.
As I sat in the darkness of my bedroom at night, I explored myself and found a euphoria and thrill of sensation that I couldn’t believe existed in one’s own body. The joy of it all was better than video games or television, bike riding or smoking, drinking or playing pool, it was rapture, pure and simple. And then to find out masturbation was a sin. I was crestfallen. How? How could something that brought me such pleasure be a sin? And that was just the beginning, soon I began dating. My girlfriend taught me a world that brought me to the precipice of ecstasy, and then promptly kicked me off that edge. I tumbled through the air until, instead of hitting the ground, I learned to fly above the earth, aiming straight for the sun, until I melted under its warmth, as if I was made of wax. I just couldn’t get behind this idea of my hedonism nothing more than immoral acts, that I would somehow go to hell for such amorous encounters. So I refused to acknowledge it as sin. If I did, they would win the battle for my soul. My sybaritism was my salvation, and I relished in those moments of blinding elation as my release from the bonds of such a restrictive life.
I cannot tell you the last time I went to confession. My memory is hazy in those years, but I am pretty sure it was somewhere around tenth grade. I remember that church so well though. The carpet, the ceiling, the painted frescos of angels staring down from above. The stained glass windows were tall, ominous, yet striking pieces of art. Recessed cubbies of the stations of the cross, three dimensional works with Jesus always the center of attention, filled the walls between each window. I remember everything so well. I remember the booth, that constrictive booth, in which I developed a sinister secret of deceit. I entered that booth for absolution, and ended up walking out a sinner.
At the end of every confession though, I always allowed one small nagging doubt in my mind to flourish. After all of my resolve and atheistic belief, after my blinding euphoria of sensuous exploration had set me free, there was always that Catholic guilt clawing at my back. So one last sin would be confessed. With no explanation behind it, a simple sin would pass my lips, and float as a whisper on the stifling air. “I Lied.”
Bless me father, for I am about to sin.
Guilt is a useless emotion. It is not so much the sin it is how we sin. Are we addicted to sinning.