Back in the days of confession boxes and the ritual of relaying misdemeanours to a man in a dark box wearing a white collar, I must confess that I dumbed down the sins. I made minor adjustments so that the Reverend Father wouldn’t think I was a daughter of Satan.
If I stole my brother’s chocolate, as was the case almost always, I’d lay it on as ‘I was a bit mean to my brother Father’. If I was hopelessly envious of a classmate’s fancy pencils, I’d pass it off as ‘I was not as nice to a girl in my class as I should have been Father.’ If I cursed blind for whatever reason, I’d just keep shtum about it.
By the time I got into the business of real sins, I’d decided there was something creepy about confessionals and had stopped going for a face-to-face with a man of God who’d give me a few prayers to recite by way of penance. Confessions are generally held at off-peak hours, when churches are not in full flow, alive with the beat of prayers, sermons and ageing parishioners all trying to outdo the next in loud hymns. This only adds to the sobriety of the affair. Entering a quiet church, to then enter a dark and very quiet box has eerily funeral qualities to it. The few seconds during which you enter the confessional and sit waiting for the priest to open his side of the shutter can feel interminable. You never know what you’re going to get.
Fr. ‘Ah you’re grand, say two Hail Marys and be kind to your brother’, Fr. ‘You have sinned child and you know it, say twenty Our Fathers, ten Glory Bes, learn the Rosary in Latin and transcribe the Book of Deuteronomy before half ten mass next Sunday’. Maybe he’ll be an ancient priest who looks like he might have hung around with the apostles. This one will be hard of hearing and when you tell him you were mean to a friend, he’ll tell you that murder is a bad sin and not to do it again. When you tell him you were not kind to your Mother, he will advise that embezzlement is a sin in the eyes of God and you should reflect on that before turning yourself in to authorities. Then there are the sound priests, the ‘Howaya getting on there, were you at the match on Sunday? Good wasn’t it? Great for the club. What can I do for you? Sure you’re not a sinner. Go on home with ya and don’t let me see you in here again.’They are in the minority, as are all priests these days, but they do exist.
Yet, even the sound ones don’t enamour me to the process of spilling your sins to a man behind a chickenwire screen in what resembles a dark wooden portaloo. I have, by now, accumulated a wealth of sins, many of which I wouldn’t share with most friends, nor family. I certainly wouldn’t sully the mind of a man of the cloth with such extremities. Sure, God might forgive me for the best part of them, but it’s the best parts of them that I don’t want forgiveness for. It’s the best parts that I most enjoyed and regret in equal measure. It took great effort to sin, and to sin consistently and to sin consistently well. Gloating in my sinfulness, is further evidence of the blackness of my soul. But black is never out of vogue, and sin is oldest pastime we have. Some people call Joe Duffy to confess, some write to Dear Linda, others splash salaries on shrinks. I’m sure some people still believe that the priest in the black box can purge the residue of a life well lived. That he’s somehow purer. Less tainted.
We are all equal. We all err. Fr. What’shisname and Joe and Linda, yourself and myself have done right and wrong and everything in between. And we will continue to do so for the rest of humanity. We float on an ocean of sin, we drink it, we eat it, we are it. Darkness doesn’t show us the way, light does. And that is within us.