“Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” (Genesis 2:19; RSV-CE)
A long-ago co-worker of mine, Joey, a genial but opinionated young man whose company most people seemed to enjoy, was unabashed in his disdain for organized religion. Knowing my faith and, I suspect, my proneness to blushing, he would sometimes publicly tease me about belief in God being a “crutch for the weak.” We would joust a bit, nothing mean-spirited, and always parted on friendly terms.
Whether or not he intended it, Joey’s provocative teasing spoke to a curious paradox. Indeed, human weakness before God is always a given; yet, lived Christianity is far more Cross than crutch.
When my wife, Marianne, and I first viewed the apartment, the middle floor in a triple decker home, we were so hopeful. For a number of reasons, the relationship with our current landlord had grown strained, and we were more than eager to find a new home for our young family.
The apartment featured two bedrooms, a large kitchen, surprisingly high ceilings, beautiful hardwood floors, and a sunroom that could function – at least while weather permitted – as an office. The building was owned by a friend, and he generously set the rent at a rate we could afford on our very limited budget.
My aversion to bugs goes way back. I remember, for example, being a small boy in the front yard of my first home when a yellow-jacket landed on the sleeve of my sweater. I was paralyzed as I watched this winged demon twitching for what seemed an eternity before finally flying away.
Another time, when I was a bit older but still a young boy, I noticed a folded newspaper wedged inside the hedges alongside a neighbor’s home. Wanting to be helpful, I reached in to pull the newspaper out, intending to drop it on the doorstep where it belonged. Just a second or two after I had pried it from its perch, however, an earwig emerged from one of the folds and ran across the top of the paper. I immediately dropped it on the sidewalk, which caused, at least to my impressionable eyes, an earwig exodus. I felt traumatized watching those ugly creatures scamper from their newsy nest and recall instinctively rubbing my hands on my pant legs over and over as if doing so would somehow remove the horror.
Perhaps “aversion” doesn’t go far enough.
The day after we moved into the new apartment, I was eating breakfast at the kitchen table when something on the counter caught my eye. I literally gasped as a large cockroach, which I knew right away was just one of thousands, stood menacingly still, save the waving of its long antennae. We were suddenly, unexpectedly at war.
I had never lived with these invaders before, and it was a nightmare. While most encounters took place in the kitchen or bathroom, the roaches were by no means restricted to those spaces. Consequently, I was ever on alert, knowing that one (or more) could dart out suddenly from almost anywhere. That prospect, like the scurrying earwigs so many years before, honestly haunted me.
Our landlord, to his credit, understood and responded to our plea for help. He hired a local exterminator, who was soon on the scene for an assessment. He informed us that both the upper and lower apartments were infested and that he would need an aggressive approach to eliminate the problem. Of course, we were onboard.
The initial treatment resulted in a discernible drop in the number of sightings, but it didn’t completely eradicate the problem. A second treatment offered brief hope, but it too yielded unsatisfactory results.
After weeks of watching the population grow back to pre-treatment levels, we appealed again to our landlord, who proposed switching exterminators to a firm about which he had “heard some good things.” This was long before the advent of Angi and other such online review sites.
The new exterminator was notably more meticulous than his competitor. He spent considerable time analyzing the situation and assured us that the problem was resolvable. He added, however, that success ultimately depended upon our “proper preparation.”
I would not be at all happy when I learned what that term implied.
I am among those Catholics, apparently a minority in the U.S. today, who continue to rely upon the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a trusted channel of God’s forgiveness and healing. While I personally consider the Sacrament a precious gift, I am not blind to its potential complications and abuses. I have had wonderful experiences in the confessional and still others that were less than edifying – some even disturbing. In this respect, I know I am not alone. Recently, for example, a spate of Confession-related horror stories have been posted on social media sites, many focusing on women’s troubling interactions with their confessors.
The Church teaches that, for the Sacrament of Reconciliation to be valid, there must be proper matter (i.e., true contrition, confession of sins, and performance of penance by the penitent) and form (i.e., absolution pronounced by the priest). Validity, however, does not always translate into a positive experience for the penitent. For that blessed outcome to be realized, I would suggest two other ingredients. First, finding a regular, trusted confessor is helpful. For me, this does not suggest a theological milquetoast; rather, I favor a priest who is compassionate and non-judgmental but who is also not afraid to challenge me when necessary, though always within safe and appropriate boundaries. The second is – and here’s that phrase again – “proper preparation,” which, regarding Reconciliation, has traditionally been known as an examination of conscience.
Marriage is sometimes referenced as a metaphor for the spiritual life, and that makes sense to me. This coming March, Marianne and I will be married 40 years. When people learn of the longevity of our union, they will sometimes ask about our secret (i.e., to a happy marriage). My response is always the same: “Transparency.”
Hidden things can absolutely ruin a marriage; and, though nothing is ever truly hidden from an omniscient God, hidden sins can also grind spiritual growth to a dead halt.
When I resumed practicing my faith in my early to mid-twenties, my relationship with God followed something akin to a romantic arc. What began as a vague attraction to the holy, quickly deepened to a true desire for God. Some deliberate, though fumbling, steps toward intimacy (through prayer) came next, followed by a passion to learn more about my Beloved (through study). Finally, and not without resistance, came the time for my personal transparency before God; however, I wasn’t sure how to get all the way there. I would go to Reconciliation and make what I believed to be a thorough confession, but I would often leave feeling as though I hadn’t allowed God into those secret places, i.e., the ones that most needed God’s healing touch.
In 1986, some dear friends sponsored me on a Cursillo weekend. During that unique experience, I met a wonderful priest, Fr. Martin, who seemed to personify the qualifications I desired in a good confessor.
During one of Fr. Martin’s presentations at the Cursillo, he spoke of penitents who came to Reconciliation expecting to knock priests off their chairs with the thoroughly unique and awful sins they confessed. He then said something I’ll never forget. “The penitents are shocked – some, even disappointed – when the priest yawns at their sins because sins are boring. It is only God’s forgiveness that is exciting.”
Shortly after my Cursillo experience, I began seeing Fr. Martin for spiritual direction, a relationship that would continue for nearly twenty years. Early on, I told him about my desire for greater transparency before God but always feeling as though there were things I was afraid to confront. Exercising characteristic wisdom, at one of our sessions he gave me a copy of the “Young People’s Forgiveness Prayer” by Fr. Robert Degrandis, S.S.J., and he asked me to pray it every day until further notice.
While the prayer was not terribly long, going through it thoughtfully took a good bit of time, and I frankly found the practice tedious. When I would go to prayer, I often prayed that prayer first to get it out of the way.
But, God is a God of surprises.
Our new apartment had a dark walk-in closet that shared a wall with both the bathroom and the kitchen. In fact, the water pipes from both rooms ran through the back of that closet, making it a likely enemy stronghold. On the day we moved in, we had innocently stored a number of our still-packed boxes deep in that closet. Once the bug problem was revealed, I came to view those boxes, figuratively speaking, as multiple folded newspapers stuck in the hedges; and, I was more than content to leave them undisturbed.
“The key to addressing your roach problem,” the new exterminator explained, “is getting the treatment into all of the places where the bugs potentially nest and thrive.” As he walked with us through the apartment, he pointed out all of the areas we would need to empty out so that he could treat them thoroughly. I was quickly filling with dread.
When he came to the walk-in closet, he noted that it was a special area of concern.
“I’m really not crazy about pulling out those boxes,” I offered, looking warily at the open door.
“I understand that,” he said, “but to eradicate the problem we sometimes need to go into uncomfortable places.”
I swallowed and nodded.
As young parents of two small children at the time, Marianne and I were both quite used to a lack of privacy. Perhaps a couple of months into my practice of laboring through the Degrandis prayer daily, Marianne surprised me one day by announcing that she had errands to run and would be taking both children with her.
“You’ll have most of the day to yourself,” she observed. “What will you do?”
“I’m not sure,” I replied, barely hiding my excitement. “But I’m sure I’ll find something to keep me busy.”
When Marianne and the children had left, one of my first instincts was to grab the Degrandis prayer, again wanting “to get it out of the way.” As I began to go through it, however, grace rushed in. It is nearly impossible to explain an experience like this; but, portions of the prayer that had seemed extraneous to me before began to manifest much deeper meaning. It was extraordinary.
Inadequately explored events, relationships, and sins from my past, areas requiring my and/or God’s forgiveness, became perceptibly present, along with all of the associated feelings, regrets, and (sometimes) shame. Tears flowed freely.
I’m not sure when it struck me, but at one point I realized that I should be journaling about the experience while it was happening. I hastily grabbed an unused notebook from the bookcase and began writing as I prayed.
When the experience finally yielded, I had written seventeen pages of notes and felt a great sense of transparency and relief. I realized that, with God’s help, I had explored those heretofore hidden areas of my life. I also knew that the content of my next confession was in those handwritten pages.
At my next meeting with Fr. Martin, I walked into his office and placed my notebook on the arm of his chair.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“That is my full confession,” I responded happily.
He opened the notebook, thumbed through a few of the pages, closed it, and held it out for me to take back. “Actually, I’d like for you to read this to me,” he said.
For some reason, I was caught completely off guard by his response. I had imagined that the cathartic experience had ended for me with the writing of the final page of my journal/confession. I was wrong.
I took back the notebook and asked shakily, “Do I have to do this?”
“I think you should,” he gently replied.
Knowing well the content of those pages, I was gripped with fear and shame; but, Fr. Martin’s gentle expression helped me to trust that I was in a safe place, so I forged on. I was not even through the first page when the fierce tears began. About halfway through, Fr. Martin said, “Let’s pause for a minute.” He then stood up and motioned for me to come to him. He embraced me, allowed me to grieve and weep on his shoulder, and all the while repeatedly assured me that God loves me beyond measure.
At some point, I regained my composure, blew my nose, and told Fr. Martin that I was ready to continue. When I resumed reading, the tears no longer came. As I looked at the remaining pages, the sins, which I had been incapable of facing apart from God’s extraordinary grace, seemed devoid of their power to embarrass, wound, and inhibit. In fact, Fr. Martin’s words now seemed so real. “… sins are boring. It is only God’s forgiveness that is exciting.”
When I was finished, Fr. Martin gave me absolution, and I felt a lightness in my being, an ineffable sense of peace in my spirit.
I did my best to thank him – and God, but all Fr. Martin did was smile.
After a period of blessed silence, he asked: “Do you understand why I wanted you to read the notebook to me?”
“I know that doing so ultimately brought me peace,” I answered, “but I’d like to know your reason.”
“In the Bible, there is a power in naming,” Fr. Martin explained. “In one of the creation accounts in Genesis, for example, Adam is given the task of naming all of the creatures God had created. You see, in the ancient mind, to know the name of something is to have power over that thing. In the same way, by speaking and naming your sins, you took authority over them, brought them into the light, and stripped them of any power they previously held over you. Then, God could truly set you free.”
I nodded in deep gratitude, and he continued.
“This is important. I want you to take that notebook home and destroy it. God has forgiven and forgotten. Now, be finished with everything that’s written there.”
When I got home, I wasted no time in ripping those pages to shreds and then delighted in throwing them all away. Looking at the pieces in the trash barrel brought yet another experience of extraordinary peace.
The roaches? I had no need to name them because, as the Biblical folk tale explained, Adam took care of that task long ago. What I could name was my fear of entering the dark closet where the crawly creatures dwelt, one of those hidden places that only God’s grace gives us the courage to explore.
By prying those boxes from their “hedge” and bringing them into the light of day, the exterminator’s treatment could penetrate to the root of the problem and thus proved effective. We lived the remainder of our time in that apartment sans the bugs.
True freedom? Often, we get there by facing our deepest fears.
A crutch? Sorry, Joey, but you just don’t understand.
Addendum: After reading a draft of this essay, a friend asked me if I attributed my remarkable prayer/journaling experience specifically to the Degrandis prayer or to grace. I have since thought often of his question, and I believe it warrants an answer here. The Degrandis prayer has no unique mystical power. In my circumstances, however, it proved to be an effective tool for excavating some things in my past that needed to be brought into the light. Other “examination of conscience” tools may have worked just as well had I made use of them. I will never know. I can say with certainty, however, that the breakthrough came as a result of God’s grace. I have no other explanation.