He who goes about to reform the world must begin with himself, or he loses his labor.
St. Ignatius of Loyola
I can still feel the sensation of the padded kneeler dropping just a bit to the floor as I placed the full weight of my body on it in the confessional booth. That kneeling movement triggered a light, letting the priest, and all outside my closeted cell, know that someone was in there, awaiting their turn. We used to watch and see how long the light stayed on. And sometimes, to get a laugh, we tried to sneak in a few bounces on the kneeler, making the light blink back and forth.
Dread was my usual response to going to confession. I didn’t want the priest to know who I was. Should I mask my voice? I didn’t want my friends to think I was in there for a long time. I didn’t like remembering my sins and saying them out loud. But what I really feared, were those sins I couldn’t recall.
We were to review our time since our last confession, and come up with a list. Mortal—God, I hope not—and venial sins; those of commission and omission. I lied—commission. I resented my sister—commission. I failed to say anything when my desk mate was teased—omission. But I always knew my list left out things I simply forgot. Was I still guilty for those? Was it a hopeless effort to get oneself into some state considered, if not blemish free, at least good enough? And how long could that state possibly last? My penance, those prayers I was told to do after reciting my multitude of wrongs, was never very difficult. Nor did it really seem like it matched the crimes—they were just prayers that we said all the time, when happy, sad or in between. But I always ended my penance with a sort of good luck charm—and God, I’m sorry for all the sins I forgot, or for those things I didn’t realize were sins. I really hoped that covered it.
Sometimes, I was asked to make restitution, and that made more sense to me. It was tangible. I could see I did my part to right my wrong. My clearest such memory was after stealing five Bazooka Joe bubble gums from the convenience store. I needed those five for the wrappers—then I could mail them in and get a prize. But they fell out of my hiding spot under my shirt as I returned to the car, and my mom marched me right in to apologize and return them. The manager scowled and gave me a quick lecture. We zoomed straight over to confession, where I admitted to my thievery. The priest told me to repay the amount, but I told him we did that before coming to the church. He paused, clearly puzzled on the other side of the wooden screen. Then you are ok, he said. But just to be safe I said some rote prayers. This time, I left off all those things I couldn’t remember. I felt free.
I haven’t been to confession in years. Just like phone booths, those wooden confessionals are mostly relics of a past era. Now, you can go “face to face” or simply attend a Mass where everyone gets absolved all at once, whether they remember every sin or not. I’m not sure if people still wonder if they are in a state of grace or not, but clearly, culture has moved on from those days of my childhood.
I find my myself worried again, though, about all those unannounced and unknown sins. Even though I’ve worked my whole career as a minority in a majority brown and black setting, there is so much I am still learning about my white privilege. My unearned freedoms, power and even supremacy. How could I have been so careful to bend toward justice and equality, to align myself with the poor and marginalized, and still be so culpable? What do I do? Will it ever be enough?
My grasp of God has also bent toward grace, a word full of meaning about unearned privilege, power and freedom. How do I reconcile all these things, my faith, my culture, my place in the midst of the universe? I remember that now we know in part—someday fully, but not now. I remember that all of us are fallible—any sense of our perfection makes the angels crack a wry smile and let out a few belly laughs. And yet, I am responsible for participating in efforts at transformation, actively engaging in the work of justice, humbly.
I think of another religious image, one I mocked in my youth. Tent revivalists, shouting Repent! Repent sounded like such a backwater term. Let me bop you on the head and tell you to repent! But maybe that is actually just right for our present predicament. Repentance, from the Greek, is metanoia, which is understood as a fundamental transformation, a new view of looking at the world, of turning around and seeing things as God does, as they are intended. My penance was meant to show me this, thus the same prayers that were said in celebration were said in forgiveness.
Repentance is a necessary precursor to reconciliation; the latter is the more modern term for the sacrament of confession. Repentance does not favor incremental change. It is radical. It is active. It makes us responsible for what we do know, and suggests that if we really do recover a holier vision of the world, all those sins done in ignorance will meet a timely death.
Today, we resist fully turning away from our familiar visions. Turning away from our idol worship—graven images, those statues of war heroes or icons of celebrities that tell us our way of thinking must be kept supreme, powerful, privileged. We say all people are of equal merit, yet we clamor to honor some as superhuman. Can we pivot from our love of symbols, of statues, of filtered victory stories, to embrace the idea that in this world, human glory is always a both-and, a troubling paradox?
The monuments I’ve admired in the past did affirm for me some of what is truly wonderful about historic leaders—they protected lands, opposed slavery, wrote incredible declarations that soared with spirit. But they also had public and private sins of omission and commission. They cheated on wives, enjoyed the servitude of others, hoarded wealth. What did they know about the extent of their iniquity, and how much sin topples one from a pedestal? How do we honor them now and yet speak truth? Is there anyone who ever deserves a statue? Or are all such figures just graven images we are prone to falsely worship?
Where is that fleeting sense of a state of grace? I’m not sure how we unite in these times. I think another garden full of heroes will just create more golden calves. Who is in and who is out? Who decides? Can we all turn, somehow, away from a lust for graven images and toward a love for image bearers? That would be radical. Even worthy of a tent revival and a dousing with holy water.