I was second in line. Ahead of me was a thin, angular woman wearing a calf length brown winter coat. Wool, I suspected, slightly frayed at the hemline, and looking like it had protected her through many Chicago Winters. Black netting covered fading brown hair streaked grey by the seasons. I thought of the doilies my friend’s mothers pinned to their hair for one hour every Sunday in the early sixties. Around her neck was a loosely tied white silk scarf. I couldn’t see her face as she had her back to me, but I knew what she looked like. She looked like all the grandmothers I’d seen standing on line back then, gray faces resolved to Extreme Unction. There was the solidity of faith to her and she was eager to renew it. I was drawn to her, drawn to renewal, a renewal I occasionally believed in. I knew exactly what I was looking for and hoped that this old ritual would lead me there, but didn’t believe I could, or should, go through that door.
To stand on the marble floor in that short line was a snap decision, though something I had thought of for weeks. It had been 25 years since I’d stood on line like that. Once decided, instinct born of the old repetition took me by the hand. I remembered the opening lines; mine, his. But as I stood there the years yawed open beneath me. What in the world was I to say? To what would I cop? Worse still, am I sorry? Sorry for what, repentant to whom? What to do when belief fled? I had no business standing on that sacred line.
The gold chains slapped against the censer as I swung it in slow arcs side to side just below my waist. The pale incense coiled to my nose then tangled above me before dissipating under the vaulted ceiling. I stood still as Father Holliday motioned me to lift the lid of the gold censer. As I slid the dome up the chain Father Holliday produced a small gold urn from which he spooned a light gray powder and poured it onto the smoldering brick of incense in the base of my chalice. The powder ignited a steady stream of fragrance that drifted forth penetrating every corner of the church, as Jesus’ love penetrated the souls of all who came to him, according to Fr. Holliday, I thought as I watched the dissipating cloud spread out, over and into the congregation.
I stood next to Father, and at the age of 11 had my first taste, ephemeral as it was, of what I would later come to know as apostasy: smoke isn’t, I thought, Jesus Christ, smoke is smoke. I loved this stuff, but it was just smoke. I’m not right, am I? Sweat inched down my skinny back.
How could I think that?
But, I did think that.
My detour into the past dissolved as the woman with the frayed coat stepped out of the box—in my reverie I never saw her go in. I hesitated, unsure what to do with myself. The door stood open, inviting. I finally stepped forward into the gloom and closed the carved wood door behind me. I was in the confessional. A place I hadn’t been in for over 25 years. Decades of incense penetrated the closet and leather kneeler, it sighed from the old wood panels that surrounded me. Hazy light filtered through the closed window separating me from the priest’s side of the confessional. I was on his right; someone was in the midst of their confession to his left; the rise and fall of muffled voices, the incantations of the supernatural. Oh, yes, decades, but very, very familiar. Nice.
What propelled me into this boudoir of darkness with its feigned intimacy? Because it was comfortable, because it is nice?
As I strained to listen to the voices in the dark, like trying to hear my parents whispers through the wall, I realized I hadn’t the slightest idea as to what I was doing there or what I wanted to say. Did I really want to confess my sins? What were they through the last quarter century? I no longer thought in terms of sin, certainly not the sin I’d grown up with: disobeying my parents; missing church on Sundays; swearing; and most of all, dirty thoughts. I had plenty of those. I was assailed by dirty thoughts at least 5 times a minute, hourly, daily. But in confession I only copped to 3 or 4 during the preceding week. The only thing I could think of was the dirty thoughts of an adult 43 year old man. Over the last few years I found, to my growing dismay, that my ubiquitous dirty thoughts had all but vanished under the haze of pain, and more pain. They’d been stopped cold, as if they had hit a cement stanchion on a bridge. Their disappearance made me feel old, impotent.
The thin wood door separating me from the priest slid slowly back revealing the outline of a man several years older than me.
“Bless me father, for I have sinned. It’s been…uh, well…Jeeze, 25 years, I’m guessing, since my last confession.”
“That’s a long time. Any particular reason?” He asked in a humor tinged growl.
His humor relaxed me. “I’m sometimes agnostic but most days an atheist.”
After a few beats, he said, “But here you are, nonetheless. What draws you?”
“Desperation? Hopelessness? I don’t really know.”
“Those two will do it. Every time. What’s the desperation?”
“I’m afraid the story’s too long, Father.”
“Give it a shot. There are plenty of other priests here this afternoon; they’ll take up the slack. Everybody will get their turn, don’t worry.”
I thought for a moment, two, and then another. Finally, “Well…an exotic disease…constant, ghastly pain…poor outlook…appallingly strong death wish…guilt…” I fell silent and I could hear the hiss of his heavy nasal breathing through the screen, and the scuffing of shoe leather on the marble floor in the surrounding sanctuary.
“Any one of those could bring someone to Jesus…”
‘Jesus?’My iced heart fell. ‘Jesus?’
“…but altogether, man, sounds like you’ve got the devil’s pitch fork prodding you in the ass,” he said with an air of bonhomie that laved oil on my agitation.
“Right,” mumbled my disappointment.
“Say what? Lose you there? Still with me?” He probed, concerned.
Pessimism swelled in my chest. Jesus, all ready? Was I prepared to argue with this priest? Is that what I really wanted? I didn’t think so, no. When I was a kid in my catholic school the doctrine of infallibility extended in a straight line from god the Father to the pope; from the pope to the parish priest and, by unacknowledged dogma, to the lesser legions of Christ—the sisters and brothers of miss-education. In theory, it extended to all adults no matter how obviously venal or stupid. I didn’t think this man was either, just blinkered by horseshit Vatican doctrine.
“I’m here, father, but you’ve come close to losing me.”
“So soon? How so?”
“Ahh…did you…did you have to inject Jesus so soon? We’re not even off the ground and you hit me with that banality.”
“Banality? You saying Jesus… A banality?” He sputtered in genuine disbelief.
“Mmm…predictable…trite.” Suddenly tired. Disinterested? My dead brother’s blank face in shrouded candlelight hovered like an icon. It hung and hung. A swag of guilt rolled over me. An ominous shame bubbled. I won’t think of that. I won’t. My mind emptied easily as it always did since his death.
“Trite, is it?” The growl with an edge this time: offended.
“Don’t you think so, father?” Why am I doing this? I don’t want this; this isn’t why I’m here, am I? The words pressed and pushed me past reason. “You really haven’t heard from me why I’m here and you’re already trotting out Jesus. I know that I’m in a Catholic Church engaging in one of the sacraments and Jesus is certainly implied, but you don’t know anything about me other than I’m sick and in pain.”
“The suffering have always come to Jesus. Jesus went to them, to care for them, to cure them, to demonstrate God’s power. Don’t you see…”
“Yeah, father, I get that’s the teaching. But I’m not here to be taught; I had enough of that from the nuns and the priests when I was a kid. Didn’t do me a lick of good. Won’t you let me…”
“We all need teaching, man. Sharks die if they don’t keep moving and man spiritually dies if he stops learning. You stopped learning!”
“What in god’s name are you talking about, Father? You can’t possibly know what I’ve learned. I’ve been studying and learning my profession all of my adult life. How can you possibly say that? Really, Father, tell me?”
“Good Lord, man. That’s easy.”
“Oh?” Dizzy, I felt upended, exposed.
“Sure, you told me you were an atheist.”
“I said I was most often an atheist, but I spend considerable time being an agnostic.” The leather kneeler ransacked my ruined knees. Why can’t we sit? This fucking kneeling is enough penance.
“Agnostic, shmostic. That just means you lack the courage of your convictions. Be a man! Stand up for yourself. Don’t namby-pamby around my confessional as an agnostic. Claim it man, you’re an atheists!”
“Whoa, there, father. Your confessional? Isn’t it mine? Doesn’t it belong to anyone who comes here for absolution, advice? It’s yours? Really?”
“I’m God’s representative in this space. I speak for him. This confessional is his, therefore, mine.”
“That’s not ownership, father. That’s hubris and if I’m not mistaken, hubris is a sin.” Decades of the soft odor of tallow candles seeped through the cloying incense.
“You’re right; it is a sin that you are committing right now…”
“Me?” I ask in total surprise. My hands strangled each other in front of my chest.
“You’ve come into this confessional with the hubris, right here in God’s home, to claim that He doesn’t exist?”
“It’s only hubris, father, if I believed in god. Since I don’t, no hubris.”
“Hmm…” the affable grumble again. Logic intrigued him.
I shifted my weight from both knees to my right knee. My left knee had begun to throb to the beat of my quickening pulse.
“So, what are you doing here? Confessing your sins doesn’t seem to be foremost in your mind.”
“Wait, wait, wait! How am I supposed to get beyond what I think is your hubris? You claim god’s mantel? You can speak for him? No way, Father. You don’t, nor all your brethren, speak for god. You cats forfeited that years ago when all those craven priests began fucking children? Children, Father! You guys’ve been stonewalling that for years. How do I know you’re not one of the apologists who needs to be confessing to me?” My words made me cringe. What was I doing?
“Slow down, let me answer.”
“No, Father, I can’t, it seems. I’ve knelt on enough three-cornered rulers. My knees are shot. I put up with being whacked with wooden pointers, rulers and open hands. What the fuck was that about? Huh? What catechismal instruction was that?”
“Hum… is right. You have no possible answer for that. You people have been a complete fraud.” Damn. I didn’t mean that, did I? No. Why was I doing this?
“I take it you’re not here for confession, are you?”
“Confession? My confession, Father? Have you not heard me? It’s your confession I want. It’s your sins that want forgiving. It’s your sins that need divine intervention, not mine.” I couldn’t help myself, I kept going. “You people have polluted millions of us. Do you know what some dumb fuck nun said to me when I was in the second grade? A seven-year old, Father? Seven? That stupid Appalachian crone with barely a high school education had the stupidity to tell me that my Episcopalian mother, yes, Father, my EPISCOPALIAN mother was going to hell because she wasn’t a Catholic. An Episcopalian, for Chrissakes. As close to Catholic as you can get without kissing the pope’s ass. And dumb ass me? A seven year old, Father, I believed her.” Where the hell was I going with this? What insolence pushed me? Why was I hammering some guy I knew nothing about? Some guy who might be trying to help me!
“Slow down there, son. You’re going over the line here.’
“Line? What line?” I couldn’t, or wouldn’t stop.
“Yes. You need to clean up the language.”
“God almighty, Father. You suppose that Jesus didn’t hear that sort of language when he hung out with the poor, the sick, the destitute, prostitutes, lenders and criminals of all categories? Are you saying that he didn’t hear this language? Didn’t talk it himself? What? He talked to them in Greek poetics? Come on, Father, my language isn’t the issue. It’s what I have to say, what you have to say. Especially you.”
“What is it that you want, my boy?”
“First of all you can knock off that ‘my boy, my son’ crap. I’m neither. What do you have to offer? Like all the others, I stood in a line to come in here because we thought you had something to offer. What is it?”
“Forgiveness, my…no…forgiveness, sir.”
“What do I need that for. I don’t know you, probably never laid eyes on you. What sinful thing have I ever done to you?” He was right and I knew it.
“Ah, come on, man. You know better than that. You know full well that I stand in for God. It’s God’s forgiveness you need. We’re all sinners, and yes, even though I don’t know you, I know perfectly that you are a sinner needing to reconcile yourself with your maker.”
“So you propose to help reconcile me to god, right?
“Is that it, Father?”
“What else is there?”
“Sadly, father,” my voice trailing to a whisper, “I’m beginning to think you’re right.”
“Why sadly my chi…”
“Don’t,” I blurted. I bent over at the waist, my head touching the screen to relive the knifing pain in my low back. My breath caught in my throat. I forced a penetrating breath and went on. “I don’t believe in god, as I’ve said before or at least most of the time I don’t believe in any god. So how can I be reconciled to something that is nothing for me other than moral narratives?”
“Hmm…A fairy tale now is it.” His chair creaked as he shifted his weight. Just a man looking for comfort. Why couldn’t I accept that, he was just a man doing his job?
“Yes, father,” I said with less heat. “But what about Jesus’ message? What about his call to serve others, care for the sick, poor, imprisoned. What about that? Is that where sin lies? Is sin really just inaction in the face of human need? What about the money I’m making. I’m not rich, but I make way more than the average wage earner. What should I be doing with that income? Is spending it on a large mortgage a sin? Is my large income even a sin? I don’t know what sin is, but I feel it. Yes, I feel it deeply. But what is it?”
“Your conscience is after you, and hard, it would seem. And you want me to tell you what sin is, to enlighten your conscience so you know what’s wrong, and all the time what you really need is God’s comfort and protection.”
“No, no, Father. Stick to enlightenment.” Talk of comfort shivered me. Comfort?
“Why? I’m a representative of a God you no longer believe in. Is that your sin? Non-belief? Is that what makes you suffer? Because suffering is what I hear in your voice.”
“Of course you hear suffering in my voice. The pain of kneeling here is ferocious. And it’s not just the physical pain, Father. It’s the awful emotional pain that drags along behind it. Darkness. A void. Loneliness even though I have a lovely wife and fabulous baby and friends galore. Loneliness. Stygian loneliness and monstrous rage. Hate, too.”
In my mind I could see him shaking his head on the other side of the screen.
“Man, that’s an awful burden. Who do you share it with? Who helps lighten that load? Where’s the compassion in your life?”
“Compassion.” The word shattered like Chrystal behind my eyes; nausea rolled out.
“Jesus,” I muttered in disgust as I rose unsteadily from the kneeler, turned and reached for the door handle.
“I mention burden and compassion and you’re out of here?”
I turned back to the opaque screen and hesitated between the nausea and desire to speak to this man. I could hear him breathing slowly, steadily on the other side of the screen. Waiting. Waiting. As I fought to stand straight pain shot up my spine and across my shoulders and lower back. A howl rumbled deep in me, so deep it might not have been me at all. Maybe it was a howl from the collective unconscious. I trembled, threw my head back as far as my ruined neck allowed as a low moan quaked through me and past my clenched teeth. Shuddering became heat, sweat.
“Stay with me,” a voice kind and distant.
I turned away from the screen, unlatched the door, looked over my shoulder once, and stepped into the soft light of the Cathedral, turned left and walked on grinding knees down the white marble aisle, through the heavy wood doors and into the bleak Chicago night where the hawk always ruled.
I stood trembling in the roaring blast. Coagulating tears sludged down my face. I was unmoored by that disembodied voice barely disguised by an ancient screen. Lost in my frozen heart, unable to decide which way to turn, which direction to take to the train station and home, I was frozen like a salt statue staring over my shoulder, looking at the heavy closed door, looking at the awful despair.