An Act of Contrition (5/2014)

The confessional was a foreboding, tomb-like, rectangular box with three openings: one in the middle with a door for the confessor, and one on either end draped in “darker-than-the-fires-of-Hell” red velvet curtains that you, the penitent, pulled back before entering the cubicle where you would confess guilt, as heavy as the curtains recently closed. The air was weighted, too. Stale and heavy like the sins, that all the guilty revealed in this purposely claustrophobic space, encompassed you. Taking a deep breath or any breath was nearly impossible for you while inside this boxed-in area—-maybe to make you realize how close to spiritual death sin was. Had an asthma or COPD victim ever really died inside a confessional while struggling for a deep, life-sustaining breath? A person without either condition had a hard enough time. Inside the confessional, you, the penitent, were required to take gulps of air and taste the stale, bad-breath, bitter leftovers from sins of past confessions.

And, oh, was it dark, once you drew the velvet curtain over the doorway! The space between curtain and floor provided barely enough light for you to see the hard wooden kneeler you were forced to kneel on in order to unburden your soul of sin. Whether your sins were mortal or venial you endured the same humbling position. And in the confessional you were forced to anxiously wait your turn. Kneeling in front of a small screen covered by a door that the priest could move back and forth, you contemplated your confession and the priest’s reaction. Nausea clouded your stomach and meandered up your throat as you thought.

While in the tomb-like box, you heard muted whispers, low, deep, ominous hums eerily wafting from the other two cubicles—-the priest and the other penitent. You tried hard not to understand any word that was said between those two. A confession was a private conversation between priest and penitent, so sacred that it was protected by law. Who were you to hear of another’s misdeeds or their prescribed penance for being human? You would get your turn, and when you did, you hoped the next person in the opposite outside cubicle was not listening in.

Your turn was signaled by a slow swoosh, like a prisoner walking in leg irons over sand, of the priest opening the door to your screen, ending with a jarring thump as the door reached its final destination. Suddenly, a silhouette of the priest loomed before you, a dark gray upon a lighter gray background. Sometimes, if you dared look closely enough, you could make out the priest’s ear more clearly than the rest of his features as he leaned in to hear your sins. God’s ear!

By that time, your mouth was dry, almost too dry to talk. You cleared your throat hoping for some relief before you admitted your guilt. Just a little water would have helped, a few drops even, but none would be provided, you sinner—-suffer!

And suffer you did! Every agonizing syllable forced from your mouth like a giant stone that had been stuck there. All your effort was concentrated on making no mistakes and coming to the end. That end was signaled by the priest asking you to recite “The Act of Contrition,” a prayer packed with tongue twisting words hardly ever spoken together in the real world.

At last the priest released you with a penance and a blessing. As you left the confessional, you heard a repeat of the prisoner in legs irons and sighed. Drawing back the thick velvet curtain, your eyes were startled by the light on the other side. You could see your surroundings clearly, vividly. Your regular-life breathing returned, and the air that entered your lungs was cleaner, crisper, fresher, lighter, easier to take in–breathable. You felt lighter, too! Fresher, cleaner somehow. Perhaps this is what resurrection is like. Worth it?


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