Monday, June 20, 2011

Confessions about Confession.

The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is the same thing as Confession but I guess the name is suppose to make it sound less scary and unpleasant.

Father Bill explained healthy guilt as the nagging of our conscience. We make amends for what we've done, if possible, and resolve to do better and then move on. Neurotic guilt is guilt that we hang on to, often irrational guilt, that is crippling and prevents us from making forward progress in our lives (personal, spiritual, emotional, whatever). So Father Bill often counsels people on how to overcome neurotic guilt. In some cases, Confession can be like a free therapy session.

But to get the most out of Confession, one has to avoid freaking out. Just like I had to go to Health Services every few weeks to get my blood pressure tested before it stopped skyrocketing as soon as I entered the building, I'm told it's useful to go to confession regularly so I'm not an incoherent bundle of anxiety as soon as I open my mouth. And based on my blood pressure measurements, I know that the obligatory once per year is not going to cut it. Since I never got around to making my pre-Baptism practice confession I started with the real thing on Saturday. I meant to show up armed with my informational brochure "The Light is ON for You" but I forgot it at home and had to go with my fail-safe of being all confused.

So I showed up at this church I'd never been to before (long story as to why I went there instead of my home parish) and it took me a while to figure out how to get in (the doors are pull instead of push). This is the church with the pimped out adoration chapel. Father was hanging out in a pew waiting for me and gave a friendly greeting. I told him I was a little anxious (TOTAL understatement). He smiled and said, "Oh, that's ok." He's obviously had a lot of practice remaining calm around highly anxious people and I was glad he didn't try to calm me down because that makes me more nervous. Father took me into a little room. He said he wasn't expecting anyone to bother us but partially closed the door just in case.

I decided to do the Confession face-to-face because that makes me less anxious. I hate calling people because I have a weird phone anxiety that I think has to do with not being able to see the other person. And since I had called for an appointment, anonymity was impossible, even though there is a little desk with a screen to sit behind. I thought it was cute when Father pointed out the obvious. "You can sit behind the screen if you want, but of course I already know who you are." Father sat down across from me and put on his purple stole which marks his transition from average Joe to proxy-for-Jesus. (Although I didn't see any Divine Mercy laser beams like the ones being shot at St. Faustina.)

Thankfully I had brought some notes on what I wanted to say because my adrenaline was pumping due to my nervousness. I spit out a rush of words complete with neurotic back-and-forth arguments with myself. Father listened as though I were giving him a weather forecast. The main sin that I admitted to is pride--for example, I get annoyed when people don't understand a point I'm trying to make. "Haven't they been paying attention? If they had been paying attention, surely they would understand." He didn't comment at all until I was done monologuing, although I did get him to crack a smile and sort of chuckle a couple of times.

The first thing Father said to me was to be patient and I immediately realized that I hadn't confessed being impatient, so I thought, "Well done slipping that one in there, this guy is good!" Then he gave me some good advice and suggested a penance. I read a prayer and then he absolved me. To my surprise, I noticed that all of my anxiety immediately evaporated and I felt more relaxed and peaceful than since I-don't-know-when, even though I was still sitting in the same room with the same man. Father walked me out and gave me a new brochure and said something cryptic like "I'm sure we'll cross paths again."

It was kind of great! This super nice guy was morally obligated to listen to me pour my heart out and then give me loving words of encouragement, what's not to like about that? Why waste time dating when I can just go to Confession? I could get used to this.

The minuscule amount of penance I'd been given was to pray for a few minutes that I can have strength to do better in these areas during the coming week. On the way home I started thinking, "That's it? Was he even taking my Confession seriously? Didn't he think I could handle a harsher penance?" Then I busted out laughing, realizing that this was an awfully proud reaction. I may as well have turned around and marched right back in there! So yes. It seems the penance was apt.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

An unexpected trip to Mount Carmel.

Update: Baptism and Confirmation went well; Father Bill didn't turn me away. I took advantage of the opportunity to die to my old self. But so far New Sarah seems so similar that nobody should miss Old Sarah too much. And for your enjoyment, a bizarre new story from the Jesus Experiment.

I think I need to start with some background information. I had been reading about the Catholic devotion of wearing the brown scapular, which consists of two small pieces of brown wool tied together with string and worn like a necklace making a sort of sandwich board. The pieces of wool are usually decorated with a pretty picture of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus. This kind of scapular is based on the monastic scapular which is a part of the religious habit that hangs from the shoulders (getting it's name from the scapula bone, or shoulder blade) down the front and back, something like a Catholic poncho. There are plenty of reasons one would wear a scapular. Practically, it serves as a spiritual reminder, like tying a piece of string to your finger. But it also has mystical associations. The tradition of the brown scapular is that the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Simon Stock of the Carmelite Order. She was holding a brown scapular and told him that, "the one who dies in it will be saved". Since I already wear a scapular medal (apparently less good because it's even less like the monastic scapular) I was thinking about being formally invested into the brown scapular devotion, which is not trivial. The actual wearing of the scapular is more of a sign and reminder to fulfill certain promises such as not having promiscuous sex and saying the rosary each day (it varies a little from person to person). That's what makes it a devotion.

Anyway, the point is that I was researching the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel during the days before I went home for Memorial Day weekend.

On Thursday, I left work to drive the eleventy-billion miles to VT, usually about a 9 hour trip, and a third of the way home I was running low on gas. I also wanted to eat, so I passed some rest stops because they didn't look like they had good food. I guess I passed one stop too many because now there weren't any exits at all, much less any with gas stations. So I started to freak out. I was about to run out of gas and didn't want to call AAA for the second time in one month (after locking my keys in the car at work). But I didn't see any option other than to keep driving so I decided to pray for someone or something to save me from my own stupidity. I started repeating the Hail Mary, knowing from my history of praying the rosary it would, at the very least, quiet my perpetually anxious mind. In the meantime I silently pleaded that my car, Cherry, and I make it to a gas station.

I was close enough to running out of gas that I knew I had to get off at the next exit even though it didn't have a sign for a gas station, or any sort of civilization. As I got closer, I read the exit sign for--I kid you not!--Mount Carmel, PA. I started to have this eerie, Twilight-Zone-type feeling as I pulled off the exit. I came to a T-stop and didn't have a reason to pick one way over the other so I turned toward Mount Carmel which was something like 5 miles away. All I could see was farmland, no inkling of a town or gas station in sight. My feeling of Divine Providence instantly fell away. Until.... the road curved very steeply down hill. The road was so steep that I had to use the brake to maintain a safe speed. I drove several miles like this, realizing there was no way I could make it back to the highway and a little worried that I didn't know where I was. The road bottomed out and started up a small hill and I cringed as I pushed the accelerator and my car struggled up the hill. And at the top of the hill there it was! A gas station. With a yard sign in the empty lot next door saying something crazy like "Jesus could come today!"

Of course as soon as I had what I wanted, I stopped the desperate praying and internally said something like, "Um... thanks?"

The rest of the trip was equally eventful when, about two thirds of the way home, I was just outside of Binghamton and listening to the radio. All of a sudden warning after warning came from the Binghamton weather service that a storm was in the immediate area with 80 mph winds and capable of quarter sized hail and tornadoes. Of course they mentioned a lot of towns and counties that I didn't know. Eventually the rain was so hard that I couldn't see anything. I managed to get to a gas station. Other people stopped, including a guy who only lived 10 miles away, and one person drove into the recycling bin. After texting mom we figured out the storm was ahead of me and moving at 30 mph so I waited for an hour and then set out.

I kept listening to the same radio station to see if there were more warnings. They were playing Delilah. She was taking callers and a woman was telling Delilah that she was on a cross-country road trip with her aunt. "It's been fun so far, but we already ran out of gas once. But we were at the top of a steep hill and were able to coast down and into a gas station. Isn't it amazing how God works in our lives sometimes?" Whoa.

Ok! ok! Fine. I get it. Maybe I should stop making fun of Evangelical Protestants.