I’m going to do something crazy. Serialize the narrating of my inner unfolding in a shamelessly autobiographical manner. This is my truth and intimate meaning. I do not care if it offends, but that is light years away from my intention. (Use index at left for specific chapters; here is the previous episode.)
Fragment 2 — Holy Sacraments
Allegedly I received baptism as an infant but the event eludes my memory. So my first real encounter with the pomp and ceremony of Catholic Church sacraments came with Confession and First Holy Communion. You must be at least seven years of age to be eligible for Communion, so I was one of the small group of immature onlookers during the sacred preparations of my classmates in May towards the end of first grade. The nuns lost no opportunities to dramatize the onset of these proceedings. And to be kind, several of the older ones truly adored the warm sunny outdoor spectacle of little children becoming ex-toddlers in the faith amidst hundreds of bouquets and an enormous statue of the Blessed Virgin within a stone grotto across the lawn from the church.
After mid-May or so, the ones who’d been initiated because they were old enough, were able to themselves approach the alter during Mass and re-purify themselves with the white hosts every Sunday. And I would sit and watch. During the parts of the Mass when you were required to be kneeling it used to bother my knees after some minutes, and I would shift around looking for a comfortable position. Those wooden benches were hardwood and lacked any padding. I would observe Eileen often in these moments, who was already seven, and at the time, in my estimation, the prettiest girl in the class. Amazing how she could just kneel there in perfectly devoted repose with seemingly infinite stamina. Zero fidget. Her hair was always flawless. And then I postulated why. It had to be the grace — the grace conferred down upon her through the miracle of having received First Holy Communion. Other kids could withstand the kneeling well also, but Eileen was the shining exemplar. Literally aswim in a vapor cloud of my grandmother’s finest gravy. Would it be too much to suppose that perhaps even the Blessed Virgin herself interceded on Eileen’s behalf bequeathing her a special glowing grace?
The following spring it was my turn at last. That was when I realized that the core of the buildup overseen by the nuns was the Holy Penance, the act of Contrition. You had to be pristinely forgiven before taking your first host. The communion instructions were pretty straightforward. Open the mouth wide submissively, tongue only modestly extended, have your teeth well brushed, do not smile, and accept the wafer serenely. Make sure the priest has removed his hand before closing your lips. Let the host dissolve against the roof of your mouth and think beautiful thoughts. Do not chew! (Anthony advised me that he chewed it a few times though. Wanted to see if there was any faint trace of blood flavor. But Anthony was always a bit off.) That was it; I was pretty confident about the host part. The confession stuff disturbed me though as the weeks grew closer. You walked into the tiny chamber when it was your turn, had to close the dark curtain behind you, kneel down, and wait for the little sliding window to open, upon which you were to recite. Bless me Father, for I have sinned. Then he would ask you, as Vicar of Christ mind you, to get into the specifics and you had to spill the beans. I figured I could summon the composure to deal with all that, but I had a content issue. One of us had asked about the time interval necessary for recounting our youthful violations, and the nun had blithely informed that it was since birth of course. And now I was in a tangle. It was absolutely vital to be utterly truthful and honest during your First Confession, for the penance/retribution the priest would give had to accurately balance things and make your soul entirely clean for the redeeming Host. And I was a math kid! I lived and breathed the secrets of numbers. How could I possibly form a reasonable enumeration of all the sins committed since my arrival? Venial though they certainly were.
I must have surveyed my memory ten times a day that final week. The only sins I could come up with were lying and stealing. That seemed a paltry list to me so I strained and produced the unspecific: disobeying my parents. That seemed closer to a more respectable inventory to me. What else? Needs something else. I wasn’t really a curser yet at that age, so taking the Lord’s name in vain was out. Then, in a flash, I recalled a time I had gotten a little too rough with my younger brother, who for some reason loved exploring his pugnacious side far more than I did, and made him cry in outright fear. This was perfect! Maybe it even approached the boundary line between venial and mortal. Satisfied I had a decent mix I next turned my attention to the quantitative. How the heck would I count the number of lies and disobediences and cookie thefts and so on since infancy? A thorny predicament. I didn’t believe I sinned daily. That would mean reporting a number in the hundreds and might even make the Vicar consider me permanently lost. After playing around with it, I came up with a solid estimate: thirty-five. 35. Yes. Sounds very reasonable. And I would even be sure to modify it with the phrase “about, Father” so I wouldn’t come off as smugly analytical. On the last day I added the final touches, realizing I should make the lies about 35 and the disobediences about 30. Because how likely would it be that both sin counts were exactly equal over 7 years. And in any case, I had “about” as my ace up the sleeve. I was ready.
When the window panel slid open it was quicker, less ritualized, and more cursory than I’d pictured. I did my best and the priest even seemed to consider the entire confession unremarkable, considering all my prep work. His voice had a warmth buried in there, a sympathy, but also a kind of mundanity to it. I got an image of how monotonous forgiving a hundred or so sinners must be. For my specific retribution he decided upon 15 Hail Marys followed by 10 Our Fathers and the Act of Contrition. And then “I absolve thee in the Name…” and that was it. The window panel slid closed and I was clean. Sinless. Host-ready. Up at the altar afterwards, I lost count somewhere near the end of the Our Fathers because Eileen had happened to pass by pretty near to me, but I made that good by saying three or four extras. Patrick said that it was possible to get an entire rosary recital — and people would know because you had to use the beads — in your Penance instead of just Hail Marys and Our Fathers, but he wouldn’t say what for. I thought maybe murder.
I wasn’t 100% certain, but I think I felt a little more elated, holier than before. Goodness triumphed over Evil.
This tale is to be Continued… The next installment will be linked right here.
[ Image : some enduring obsessions of mine include musical instruments of the world, wildflowers of America’s northeast, and birdsong calls. To lighten the narrative I choose one such example each installment. This is a Hungarian cimbalom, beautiful and expensive, an example of the class of instruments known as hammered dulcimers. I encountered one at a live gypsy (Romany) band performance in central Slovakia in 2005. It’s as tough to tune as an old piano and can be played lightning quick by an expert, but the sound never loses its evocative Eastern European quality. To hear one: link. ]
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