I did not grow up going to confession. Frankly, I did not grow up confessing much at all. The few confessions I can remember always followed getting caught. Though typically not immediately following getting caught but with a couple attempts at lying and subterfuge thrown into the middle. There was the time my friend and I shot bottle rockets off the roof of his parents house, hiding behind the dormer when the sheriff drove up. Or the time that I was a resident alien in the subdivision next door and thought it would be a good idea to join up with a group of 5th grade thugs in throwing a kids bicycle in a pit and piling rocks on top. But what might have been my coup de grâce when my father got home from work was the time that my brother and I were fighting in the living room. I ended up pushing my brother through the wall where he landed in the garage. Having somehow co-opted my brother, we laid out an elaborate scheme in which we would confess to the lesser crime of running in the house and then become victims of fate having tripped over a misplaced dumbbell lying on the floor. Surely my father would just be happy that we were alive. But my father, being an astute man, can recognize a dumbbell when he sees one. My story was punctuated with a swift kick to the shin, one of my father’s favorite moves. My father then hung a large wall calendar over the hole lest the landlord should visit before the repair.
But today I found myself in the confessional. “Forgive me Father for I have sinned, it has been two weeks since my last confession.” I had already decided that my first sin to confess would be pride but the irony of feeling that sin in my heart when I said “it has been two weeks” while thinking “it has only been two weeks” almost threw me off my carefully planned script. I must note for the reader and to ensure that I do not soil my newly clean conscience, that this is the very first time I have ever told a priest the time since me last confession in units shorter than months or years. And since I have told you this much, I might as well tell you the rest of the sins I confessed in addition to pride. I confessed not showing charity at every opportunity. I confessed to being disobedient to what I felt God was asking me to do. I confessed to separating myself from Christ by allowing my thoughts to dwell on ideas that were anything but pure. But the priest jumped on the issue of pride. It seems he might have been as astute as my dad. He pointed out that the opposite of pride is humility and that I should contemplate being humble by focusing on Jesus and what He wanted and not on myself. He got a bit carried away on this topic even going so far as to warn me about attachment to material goods. It’s not that I wasn’t guilty of the sin of being overly attached to material goods, but rather that I had decided to leave it unsaid. Instead I deftly lumped it into that “all other” category of sin covered by the last line of confession, “I am sorry for these and all my sins.” The Father told me to say three Hail Marys as my penance. I left the confessional and went to find a pew to do my penance.
I did not yet realize that I was about to have a “God moment”. I learned about these mini miracles from a religion professor in college. “God Moments” aren’t full on miracles like healing the blind, crying tears of blood, or seeing an apparition of Our Lady. That is, they won’t get you sainted. However, they do have a potency. They just might have enough power to make you want to be a little more saint-like. Being a (formerly prideful) overachiever and knowing that my penance due was much higher than what the priest might actually have suspected, I decided that I would kneel and pray the Rosary. Surely fifty Hail Marys is better than three. Since it was Saturday I prayed the “Joyful Mysteries”. There are five “Joyful Mysteries” and they are in order:
- The Annunciation – Gabriel addressing Mary as “full of grace”
- The Visitation – Elizabeth goes to Mary after being told by an angel about her pregnancy
- The Nativity – Mary delivers Jesus in the stable
- The Presentation – Mary presents Jesus in the Temple
- The Finding in the Temple – Mary finds Jesus teaching in the Temple after he was “lost” for three days.
Now I am almost as inexperienced in praying the Rosary as I am in making confession. But the general idea is to ask the Blessed Virgin to intercede on your behalf that Jesus might help you to become a better person. That by contemplating on various aspects of Mary’s goodness we might begin to imitate her virtues. Since there may be some protestant readers who, if they are even still reading after the confessional bit, may be ready to stop now. I want to point out for these good Christians, that when we Catholics pray the Rosary we are not praying to Mary. We are not worshipping Mary. We are simply asking Mary to pray for us, to intercede for us. In the same way that I am now asking all of you to pray for me, of course when you finish reading this and not right this moment, I ask Mary to pray for me to Jesus. But my intent here is not a Marian apology or a course in Marianology; it is to tell you how God sometimes works in the life of a sinner.
There are various devotionals that go with the five “Joyous Mysteries” but they generally ask us to focus on a specific virtue with each mystery. But before I share with you the specific virtues suggested in the particular devotion I was reading, I want to remind you of my four confessed sins. My readers being human beings and human beings having a natural affinity for remembering the sins of others, this may be an unnecessary step. But for the sake of my story and for the pure among my readers, here is the ordered list:
- Being too prideful
- Not always showing charity when having the opportunity
- Being disobedient to what God was asking of me
- Separating myself from Christ by dwelling on impure thoughts.
After beginning with the Apostles Creed I read the short devotional for the first mystery, The Annunciation. It ends with these words, “Beg of her to obtain for us the virtue of humility in imitation of our Lord, who lowered Himself in taking the form of a servant.” I then said the Our Father. While praying my ten Hail Marys, I remembered the words of the priest in the confessional. That humility is the opposite of pride. God now had my attention. I finished with a Glory Be and then I read the second reading for The Visitation, “Ask through the intercession of our Lady the Grace of perfect charity toward our neighbor.” I glanced up at the crucifix above the tabernacle and felt His Presence. Another Our Father, ten more Hail Marys, a Glory Be and then I read the third devotional for The Nativity, but it didn’t say anything about being obedient. I felt a little disappointed. The thought entered my mind that this whole thing might just be in my head. I doubted. Following the next round of prayers I read the fourth reading for The Presentation, “Like Mary who was submissive to the Jewish law , we should cultivate the virtue of obedience.” There it was! It wasn’t in perfect order but maybe it was good enough for God. By this point it was hard to concentrate on the Hail Marys. I either prayed nine of them or eleven. After the Glory Be, I read the fifth and final devotional for the last mystery The Finding in the Temple, “Ask that we may ever seek Jesus with our whole heart, and that sin may never separate us from him.” I’m not afraid to tell you that at this point I trembled a little. I clumsily finished the rest of the prayers for the fifth decade. I then said the concluding prayers, The Salve Regina and The Loreto Litany but my mind was racing thinking about what had just happened.
Four out of five wasn’t bad. It seemed more than a coincidence but why wasn’t there perfect symmetry? Why hadn’t God given me a perfect miracle? I went back and read the third mystery, The Nativity, to see if I had missed something. I had indeed missed something. Here is what I read, “Ask that we may be detached from all the things of the earth in imitation of Him Who was born in a stable for our sakes.” When I read it the first time, I had been looking for something about obedience and I had missed the message. I had almost missed the miracle. It was the sin left unsaid. The sin left unconfessed. The sin the priest had somehow known in spite of my non-disclosure. God had made perfect what I had corrupted. I had doubted Him and I lacked faith. I had also tried to hide sin. I hadn’t even managed to get out of the church fresh and clean from confession before sinning again. But even as a sinner God showed me unfathomable grace.
Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.