Tuesday, March 04, 2008
Penance and First Sacraments
Lent is a penitential season. We all know it. We all try to live it, and we try to live it throughout the year.
But how many of us really understood this when we were children? I'm constantly amazed by the child Saints...Blessed Imelda (Dominican, by the way), Nellie of Holy God, St. Therese of Lisieux (died when she was 24...was already a Saint before she reached 18), Blessed Antonia (age 15), St. Maria Goretti...the list goes on.
And yet, as I have spoken to the parents this year of their seven and eight year olds receiving the sacraments of initiation, they are skeptical. I can see that they themselves don't really believe. Some do...and God bless them, they give me strength. And they give the Church strength. But so many others just see these sacraments as "hoops", and really, let's face it...most people don't live out their faith. Most don't seem to care. They have been seclarized. First Confessions are just a prereq to First Holy Communion, which itself is a debutante ball. It's all about the dress, it's all about the veil and the gloves (or lack therof), it's all about which children can be together. Never mind "bridezilla".
Spare us, O God, from MOMZILLA!
The children...they, for the most part, have a certain understanding of the gravity of the occasion. Sadly, it's the parents that wreck them. Or help them into Sainthood. Or secularism.
There are children I could name who would be Saints...but for their parents.
I've been praying to Blessed Imelda on their behalf...and for me, because I'm babysitting them all.
When I was a child, my family attended a small church in a small town. The tabernacle was front and only a little off-center, still in the sanctuary. The stained glass windows fascinated me with their brilliant colors, even more interesting at night when it was dark outside. I remember studying the patterns when the light did not pass through. I remember the crowds close around us. I remember the red carpet, the brick walls, the kneelers, and the rituals Mom always tried to point out. We always sat somewhere in the middle, and I still can recall kneeling on the red-clad kneelers, my chin resting on the pew in front as I looked at the prayer postures of those around me. The could rest their elbows on that pew and lean on their hands, heads bowed in prayer. I couldn't do that. I tried a couple times, but my neck would simply NOT stretch enough to reach my hands! And, realizing how ridiculous I appeared in that posture, I dropped my hands and rested my chin on the pew, content to kneel there and even somewhat grateful I didn't have to work as hard as everyone else in order to pray.
Not that I was praying, clearly.
Yet, that preparation for First Communion changed everything.
Mom was more attentive to my reverence...or lack thereof. My brother was an altar server, so I had something new and interesting to observe. After all, if he screwed up, I could tease him. And on that day when he fainted during the consecration, and Mom went up to get him, I teased him even before he was fully conscious. Although I felt guilty...he didn't look right. And he didn't respond. He only sat there, dejected, there in his robe, silently trying to ignore the sympathetic stares of the people around us. He kept rubbing his eyes so I left off poking him in favor of making a pretense at being the "good child." After all, I hadn't fallen over while Father was talking!
The week before our First Communion, we experienced our first opportunity to receive the mercy of God in the Sacrament of Penance. And that's what they called it officially, although Mom called it "Confession". And she went regularly, we with her, which was always a bore because we would sit in the dark stained pews in the dark church and wait for Mom to stand in line to talk to Father, and then she would come out and ignore us in favor of bowing her head and kneeling for awhile. And then my brother started to do the same thing. And finally, it was my turn when I reached first grade.
I don't remember standing in line so much. But I do remember walking in and there was Father, whom I considered to be a very nice person. He was both less intimidating and more intimidating when he was not vested for Mass. And I was a very shy child who had never failed to grasp for his hand after Mass. I liked him because he respected my shyness and never called attention to me, just smiled a lot and said nothing. That was nice. But that day I actually had to TALK to him, and was too shy to say what I had been taught to say. But he didn't seem to mind, and with all the patience in the world guided me through my first confession, asking me about my Mom and Dad, my brother, about school. And then he gave me forgiveness from Jesus, and I happily skipped out so that the next child could talk to Father.
I had some understanding, sufficient for a child, I suppose. And finally I knew the mysterious ritual experienced by Mom and my brother.
The following week was First Communion. We'd long had my dress, which I liked...but liked others better. It had a big, round ruff around the collar, trimmed with lace. It was a skirt just below the knees, and most exciting of all, I had a veil! When we tried it on I kept putting it over my face, like a bride. Mom kept pulling it back, saying "YOU'RE NOT A BRIDE! STOP IT!"
Of course, I WAS a bride, and it was completely appropriate, for we were all becoming the Bride of Christ. Mom was naturally trying to enforce proper behavior, and she herself knew the symbolism of the veil...but was likely trying to ensure I did not approach the altar with my face covered. Can you IMAGINE?! I do not believe I would have done such a thing, but I can certainly understand Mom's concerns!
That day was simply beautiful. I and one of the boys brought up the gifts, guided by the altar servers. A girl with blonde hair, a girl I knew and didn't like was the server behind me. (She was kind of a bully, but was nice when we were in Chuch). And I remember dutifully removing my gloves before going up to Communion. It is common these days for parents to bring their children with them for a blessing when they go forward for Communion...not so back in the early 80's. So my First Communion was ALSO my very first time approaching the altar.
We were taught to receive Jesus in our hands, although I do recall that our teacher mentioned receiving on the tongue, but it was not explained very well. I think the teacher was expecting Mom or Dad to give this part of the teaching. In any case, I received Jesus in the hand then, and until my 30th year.
And after First Communion, we took photos, and then went home and had a party. It was a very big deal, that special day, and I knew it was special in a way that differed from my birthday or Christmas. It happened only once in a lifetime, to have that special First. First Confession, First Communion. It was all about Jesus, even if it did involve fashion to some degree.
Yet as I got older, into my teens, Confession became something I didn't like. And religious education was a chore...I hated our classes, which meant nothing, taught me nothing, and actually only subjected me to the bullying presence of some really disturbed girls.
I quite literally faked being ill every month in order to get out of going to religious ed. It wasn't about Jesus...it was about avoiding being bullied.
And although Mom made sure we went to Mass regularly, and in this time I got involved with music ministry, and she made sure we went to Confession, for me, the faith was superficial.
It's not Mom's fault...don't ever blame her for my failings. And don't even blame the bullies. I was exposed to Christ himself far more than many of those other girls were. My failings were my own.
Granted, what catechesis I had was bad, but it could have been worse. And in fact, sadly, Mass was worse.
Mom's heart was in the right place when she made us go to Mass and Confession, and I will forever be grateful for her persistence. Yet I remember having to go to Confession which I only did out of obedience to Mom. In my heart, I did truly want to be clean, but I didn't see how some sins could be "mortal". Already, as a teen, I was buying into secularism and relativism.
And I remember going up and making my confession. The priest was a dissident priest but was, at the time, at least seeming to take the Sacrament seriously. And he asked me very directly about certain sins...which I actually denied. And I denied them because I was face-to-face with him and thought that if I confessed to THAT, then he would think less of me. And I was supposed to be one of the "good" kids, although I knew I was anything but. I wanted him to think I was fine.
This last had more to do than with confession, but rather, as a child of divorced parents, the one with whome we lived was insanely bipolar, the other, with whome we did not live was an active alcoholic. I wanted to project the image that all was well, I was wholesome and fine and holy and would NEVER even CONSIDER committing such a terrible sin as THAT!
NOPE! Not ME! I'm a good girl!
Oh, yes, I lied. To a priest. During Confession.
I have officially lied to God.
And I challenge any of you to ask yourselves seriously whether you've done the same thing.
When I experienced my true conversion, I remember taking this issue to Confession, and I was seriously shocked at myself. And I knelt there behind a screen and told Father that I had lied to a priest, and almost under my breath I said, "I can't believe I lied to a PRIEST!"
From behind the screen came a soft chuckle, which was quickly reined in.
After all, it is a serious sin to lie in Confession! But perhaps my consternation at my teenage behavior was humorous to him, which I can understand. And now I think it's funny, too. Not the sin, but rather the confession and my way of going about it.
Maybe this is one of those "you had to be there" kind of things.
In any case, here we arrive at the bottom of the post, and what have I said?
That nothing is resolved. That I am a sinner, that maybe my time with these parents and these children is penance for my years badly lived, and my ongoing sins.
None of us arrives at conversion in the same way. Some special souls are Saints from childhood...others are converted and become holy as adults. And the rest of us have an ongoing battle, and do penance in ways that truly parallels the sins of our youth.
I, for one am grateful for all of it. Because all of life reveals God's mercy, and the hope that springs eternal in the children He destines for His Kingdom. Would that I could be one of them.