The walls are lit with a hovering glow, intimate, flickering – what I associate with holy. I walk into the chapel, and register a line of people, waiting, walking the slow dance to confess their sins in the tiny room, a little light signaling that it is time to approach.
My heart feels like teeth after an afternoon of sugary treats and soda – plaqued, crudded, sodden with sin – in need of a cleaning. I feel the familiar need to go, to say it all to the priest, to hear the words of absolution, to feel in the heat of his hands that unmistakable murmuring hum of grace enter through my forehead. To experience myself known fully and loved fully.
Confession starts at 11:30, and it lasts until 12:00. 30 minutes and so many people in this line. I calculate. If each person goes in for 3 minutes – can we all make it? No. How about 2? Possibly. I feel the urgency of each minute. Among this line, will I get a chance? I become aware of the hollow and silent, unmentioned chasm between the ‘ought to’ part of me, and what I know as the real me. I ought to care about all of these people, all of these souls, and to hope that we all make it in and out, like little cars at the car wash, and leave sparkling, shining inwardly with flames relit, the joy beaming through our eyes. Really, I just hope this line is not so long that I don’t get my own chance. A selfish truth. Something more to confess.
I pray a Hail Mary like an untrained puppy, aware of its smallness, its ugliness, its predictable predilection for failure. I feel the prayers of Mary cover me and advocate for me, the small one, longing for the goodness and beauty and truth and being just a little dusty terrier on the heels of grace.
The confession line moves – not slowly and intermittently, like some, but somewhat like a line to a bathroom, I think, and realize that in some strange part of my brain, I’ve connected the relief of confession somewhat with the need and relief of the toilet. This is not anything I would ever tell anyone.
An old woman enters, carrying coats, places them in a pew, and takes her place ahead of me several places, between a mother and her sons. I feel a flash of indignation for those of us who have been waiting in line all this time – what made her think she could cut ahead? I am like the prodigal son’s brother, like the man who worked all day for the same wage as the one who started an hour ago. She must be the mother’s mother. I quiet myself, I accept it. This is good for me.
The mother has honest eyes, open, like small pools of water. Her sons look to be 14, 12, 10, and I see, nestled underneath the oldest brother, a young girl about 7. The boy’s eyes are all reiterations of the mother’s. They stand in line, whispering to each other, jostling, fidgeting. The whispering is constant, but it flares and peaks at times, and then quiets.
I meet the mother’s eyes, not intending to smile, wanting only to look, and yet I see in her eyes the desire for a smile, and so I do. I think, “So many kids!” thinking of wanting to be further along in the line, and on my way out. I realize that I should be inwardly thanking this woman for her openness to life, and so I decide to be grateful instead of impatient. The oldest boy shushes the younger ones, and the second oldest barely conceals a defiant glare. Everyone inches forward.
People keep entering – elderly men in their seventies, mothers and children, businessmen from the office. From the doors, they see half the line, and prepare to step in it. And, over and over, like a repeating punchline, each person comes to recognize, with a disappointed half-slump, that the line is very long – twenty people now, maybe even twenty-four. We’re all here on our lunch breaks; we’re all playing the lottery of the confessional, betting on time being enough to hold us all.
People stare ahead silently. The man after me askes, “Is there only one priest?” “Yes,” I reply. He seems to want to continue the conversation, so I stare ahead of me at an invisible object, hoping to convey an attitude of deep prayer and reflection.
The statues are covered thoroughly in purple. It all begins tomorrow – Holy Thursday Mass, and the washing of the feet. I remind myself that Peter was still falling, even then, and he lived with Jesus personally for three years, so it’s natural that I am still a sinner too. The line moves fast enough that I know the priest will just hear me say my piece and absolve, which is comforting, in the same way that it was comforting to hear my piano teacher just say, “Okay,” when I told her I had not practiced much, rather than receiving the long lecture too. To say the same laundry list each time is humbling. And sometimes, I even wish that my sins might be more creative, or might at least show greater strides forward.
I can feel the synchronicity of a different time – and Galileans, just very much like these Minnesotans, cloaked in their politeness, and their ideas of what they should be and their sense of what holiness looks like, inwardly calculating their turn, their place, their thoughts still so mercenary, ordinary, self-seeking. So many bodies moving and straining and yearning to meet Jesus, to see in his eyes His perfect knowledge and His love, a love that covers and transforms our dirty sloppiness, our dingy rags.
I see a crowd that, in its collective inner desire, pushes against each other, makes petty rules and arguments. I see a woman who loves her ailing mother and so pushes her closer to Jesus, unaware of the man who needs a cure who has not gotten pushed further away. We know He heals and that we need His healing. We can’t afford not to be healed. And so we push.
We see with human eyes a man who must choose some and not all, because there are so many – so many bodies, so many souls here. We see a man who has only two eyes, two ears, two feet. We cannot but believe there are limits, as we ourselves are limited, despite the limitlessness we see deep in His gaze, as it turns to us.
And so we push. We pretend not to – but we push, with our minds, with our hearts. We shout out prayers, we repeat them, babbling, feeling so small, so unheard, so forgettable. We hear out own selfish thoughts and attempt to hide them like a hole in our clothing, conscious of what makes us unlovable, unbeautiful, impure. We hide behind beatific smiles, wanting the smile to be only the manifestation of what is truly in our hearts. But we, who see our hearts from within, recognize our fakery. To own it is best.
I am now next in line – suddenly, it feels not too long, but too short. The woman ahead of me will soon be out. And I’ve forgotten everything. I’ve forgotten what I’ve done. I’ve forgotten what to say. I have only a moment to say it, and now I can’t remember. The light blinks on, I go in. The words come out, somehow. The walls reverberate with patience and with love. The priest receives my words, not a flicker of reaction in his face. His hands are interwoven with the beads of a rosary. My mind thinks, “farmer’s hands,” – see how the farmer waits for the autumn and the spring rains.
My head is bowed. I make my act of contrition. I feel over my head, like a hood, a thrumming of grace, the peace and the love coming in through my forehead through these hands. Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace.
My heart dances like the bright Sunday sun in my memory of being five years old. I feel a weightlessness, a pureness, a wholeness. I sense joy down in my core, beaming out through me as though I am glowing. I smile at the priest and thank him, feeling like Scrooge on Christmas day. As I leave the confessional, my eyes smile and take in all the people still in line, wanting them to receive the warm rays of light. I sense that something has gone from me, and has left room for this whole and all-embracing joy-light, and that now I am ready to go out again, sparkling and made clean.