By the time I arrived at the Church I was worn out, uncomfortable, and nervous. I did my best to make some small talk with people as I cleaned myself off a little in the entry-way of our Church. I could feel that lump in my throat, the fear I was already feeling. I could intellectualize all I wanted about how easy it would be, how good it would feel, and how important it was, but my sin was whispering doubt and fear and judgement in my ears. I sat down in an empty part of the Church (near the front, if you're Catholic you'll get this. We are back pew dwellers by and large), but quickly small groups of people I knew sat around me. I wondered if they could feel my anxiety. They probably chalked it up to how ponderously pregnant I looked and felt. I find the hard wooden pews very uncomfortable when I'm pregnant, so I'm entirely sure I made a spectacle trying to sit and stand with a modicum of grace. The service was nice, although I can say easily the highlight was the Gospel reading. As it common in these settings, it was the parable of the Prodigal Son. I was fully ready to go into auto-pilot when our Pastor asked us to listen to the words as though we were hearing it for the first time. What an invitation! How often do we hear the Gospel and think "I've heard it all before!" then go on making our assumptions for what we will hear. That invitation to listen with fresh ears opened me up in a way I couldn't imagine to the beautiful imagery of a loving and merciful Father. If I can leave you with one thought, it would be to go and read the parable of the Prodigal Son like it was the first time you'd ever read it. I defy you not to cry as the Father runs to his son, saying he was dead but now alive again. That reading set the tone for the rest of my experience.
When all the prepared service was done everyone there (a good number in fact) wandered off into little lines to wait to have their confession heard by one of the many priests who had come to serve us patiently. I decided I'd go see my Pastor, who I've known since I was 15 or 16 years old (100 years ago now, right?). I knew I could give him the Coles notes version without feeling the need to over-explain. God knows my sin, but the point is that saying it out loud is so important. It gives me freedom but also accountability. So there I was in line, waiting, waiting waiting. I started to get jittery and considered simply leaving. I was in fact moments away from doing just that when I saw something that changed my heart. There was a young girl in front of me with her Mom. I found out later she was in grade 4, just a few years older than my oldest child. She looked a little anxious too, but when her turn came she went right up and received the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I was pleased to see this young girl out on a school night, choosing to go up and do something I, a grown woman, was so nervous about. When she was done, she came running back to her Mom (who was next in line) and gave her a big hug, tears streaming down her face. She was the picture of the joy and was clearly overwhelmed by her experience. I was so incredibly moved by her simple display of faith, by how deeply she felt the forgiveness she had been so anxious for. While I stood in line I leaned over and let her know that her joy made me want to go up too, that I was really nervous as I hadn't been to Confession in a long time, but that I wanted to feel the way she felt when I came down. She was shy and smiled so sweetly. A little Saint in the making I think.
With that in mind, I waited a little longer and then my turn came. I thought my heart was going to explode, or fall out, or simply melt away I was so nervous. Sounds so silly, I know. I am so out of the habit of seeking out the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I could barely think as I walked over and sat in the chair across from my Pastor. Thankfully, I managed to blurt out right away how I was feeling, that it had been so many years, and that I couldn't even remember what I was supposed to do. The picture of a gentle Father, he prayed with me, invited me to share what I needed to share, and listened with patience as I rambled for a few moments. No admonishments. No judgements. No taunting or teasing. Simply joy that I had come back seeking mercy. For my penance, he asked me to go home and read Luke 15, the parable of the Lost Sheep. At the end he smiled and I realized that I hadn't really been breathing for the majority of my time there. I was waiting for him to tell me what a bad person I was maybe? I don't know. Instead he laid his hand on my head to bless me, and with that the last of my fears washed away, along with my jealously protected sins. In their place flooded in a feeling of peace. This was what I had been running away from, pretty much my whole life. The Sacrament of mercy, forgiveness of peace. How can I cling to my sin so firmly knowing that this is what I could exchange it for? No more excuses. Time to trade my fear for security.