By: Sterling Warner
I: First Dysfunctional Confession
“Bless me Father for I have sinned; this is my first confession,” I began, knowing I’d correctly uttered my lines. During the past few days, I practiced delivering mock confessions to my brother and sister and had gotten the whole remorseful voice down pat.
“Yes, my son. Continue.”
“Well father, my family had a pet rabbit that we kept in a cage—which my parents called a hutch—in the back yard. My brothers and sisters could get in the hutch and play with the rabbit, but we weren’t supposed to let it loose in the yard. I knew this, Father, but felt sorry for the rabbit, so I often let it out and would chase it back in the hutch before anybody noticed.”
“So, letting the rabbit out was your sin?”
“No, Father, but I am getting to that. One day, my cousins from Woodland, California came to visit, so I had to show them how the rabbit and I could communicate—you know, like Tarzan and the animals in the jungle.”
“Proceed, my son,” the priest calmly coaxed.
“My older cousin, John, seemed particularly keen to see me connect with the rabbit, so I visited it a few times and told it not to worry about strangers. But I messed up, I guess.” My sudden silence caught the priest off guard.
“Messed up? This is rather vague—”
I interrupted his guidance and continued to confess my first sin in earnest with all the candor I could muster. “Yeah, messed up. You see, Father, I didn’t hook the latch on the rabbit hutch tightly, so when I approached it with cousin John, the rabbit pushed the door open, ran around the far backyard, escaped between two trash cans into the backyard right behind the house, and eventually ran under the house through an open vent.”
“Excuse me,” my confessor requested as he coughed, blew his nose, and then cleared his throat. “Go on,” he said.
“We called to the rabbit again and again for over a half hour—making sure my parents didn’t see or hear us—but the shivering rabbit just stared at the vent and ignored our pleas. Then I got some rabbit food and made a trail with it. Rabbits get hungry, you know, Father? Anyway, it didn’t seem to go for the food either. Now, cousin John’s father was a hunter—particularly a duck hunter—but my father hated guns and hunting, so I didn’t know what John was thinking.”
“If only we had a lifelike decoy to draw the rabbit from underneath the house,” John thought out loud.
“Decoy?” I inquired.
“Yeah, like the duck decoys my father uses when he goes hunting. Live ducks see the wooden decoys floating in the water, fly down, join them, and then BAM! my Dad shoots them,” cousin John smugly explained.
“So, Father, even though the look of pride on my cousin’s face disturbed me, he had given me an idea. Before I confess that, however, I need to give you a bit of background on the neighbor behind us…. She was a witch and had been angry with us since my parents attached part of our hutch to her fence.”
“What on earth are your talking about?”
“The witch lady! We’d run past her house when going to school because she hated children and—according to my friend—would torture them if they stepped on her property.”
“Well, on her side of the back fence, she had pots, baskets, strange tools, and all sorts of clay things sitting around in her own yard. I remember one item in particular: a white bunny statue. Easily, I persuaded John to lift me over the fence, so I could borrow the white bunny and use it as a decoy to draw my rabbit from under the family house. I grabbed the plaster of Paris statue and ran for my life towards the fence. I could hear the witch lady’s dog barking as I passed the rabbit over to John. Then, I scrambled up the fence and fell onto hard dirt.
“Give me strength…,” the priest softly mumbled.
“John asked if I had a rope, and I knew we did, so while I went to the garage to get it, John carried the white bunny decoy to the open vent. That’s when I took over, tying the rope around the decoy’s neck. Next, since I was smallest, I pushed the decoy as deep under the house as possible; we pushed it even further with a shovel—and waited, and waited, and waited. Every now and then I’d tug back the rope, so the rabbit would think the decoy was moving out the hole.
I was just about to change my method of pulling the rope tied to the decoy when the doorbell rang; it was the witch lady! In a manner of minutes, my parents called us all to the front door to answer the witch lady’s accusation that we were messing around in her backyard. Cousin John spoke first and explained that he had climbed over the fence to get the baseball he had accidentally tossed too high. I didn’t lie Father; cousin John committed that sin.”
“Please, stay focused on your own sins at a confession,” a somewhat less patient priest asked.
“Sure, Father. Anyway, I knew I had to return the plaster white bunny to her because I’d stolen it for selfish reasons. Yet, I feared she’d spot me if I jumped the fence again. Therefore, after it got dark, John and I snuck out of the house, walked around the corner with the plaster rabbit, placed it on her doorstep (wiping off the stature like in the movies to remove fingerprints), rang her doorbell, and scurried home. That was my first sin.
When John and I walked into the house, everybody looked worried and my mother was crying. Anne, my youngest sister, disappeared. My father searched for her up and down the block, knocking on doors, looking for answers. Meanwhile, my brothers, sisters, and mother went room to room throughout the house, looking underneath beds, inside of closets, and behind doors.
By chance, I glanced out the window and saw our white pet rabbit run from the vent under the house to the far back yard. I gave up on the posse seeking my lost sister, and I ran outside to capture the loose rabbit once and for all. Beneath the moonlight, the rabbit’s white fur seemed to glow, and as I walked towards it, the rabbit suddenly bolted and ran right back into its own hutch. Oddly, it wasn’t alone.”
“On her hands and knees inside the hutch, Anne contently munched down on rabbit food and rabbit poop (the pellets and tiny poop were about the same size and color). After closing the rabbit hutch door, I called to family members, ‘Anne’s back here in the rabbit hutch.’ In a matter of moments, fear and worry change to relief and amusement. I had found my lost sister, yet I alone knew I had left the hutch door open, so the rabbit escaped and Anne entered it. Thus, I lied when I told my parents, ‘I can’t imagine how she got in the hutch.’”
“Wrap it up, my son.”
“But lying about my sister was only my second sin, father.”
“You’ve been confessing for over 25 minutes,” he reminded me. “Others are waiting for absolution and grace.”
“Got one more, father. My third sin took place last month on the Fourth of July weekend. Some of our relatives had come to visit, so all the kids were told to go dig in the pit. You see, my parents were poor, so we didn’t have a lot of toys or anything outside. However, our parents explained that toys took a person nowhere.
“They sound like humble Christian souls.”
“Yeah, Father,” I continued somewhat annoyed. “Anyway, not exactly sure what our parent meant, they did give us an opportunity to explore by digging in “the pit” which was a direct hole to China—or so we were told—right in our far back yard. My brothers, sisters, and I had made quite a bit of progress. The hole was around 4ft by 4ft and more of an oval than a circle.”
“Please, get to the point.”
“Yes, Father. Now, it had been very dry that July, so my parents only watered the front lawn. Everything in the backyard had been left to die. My parents didn’t want to pay for outside water I think—they always worried about bills.”
“And your sin was?”
“We would take turns peeing in the pit, hoping it would soften the dirt—but it was a waste of time.”
“Urination is not a sin, my son.”
“Right, Father. Although the pit only was about three feet deep, Lynn, my sister, would put her ear to the earth and listen every now and then for confirmation of our success.
‘I hear people speaking Chinese in China,’ she’d say so often, we began to question the truth of her testimony. Thus, after a shovel or two of dirt, my other siblings took turns listening for life on the other side of the earth…. Did I tell you we were poor, Father?”
“Yes!” the priest curtly replied.
“Well my mother did not like to waste anything. That’s why we used the same Christmas wrapping every year—wrapping that we’d carefully open so as not to rip the paper. In fact, we became so aware of the need to save paper, when we’d go to a friend’s birthday party, we’d bring wrapping paper from the presents home to mom.”
“Your mother sounds like a wise woman.”
“Uh huh—she didn’t toss things out…. We had few regular glasses in the house; only grown-ups could use them. The rest of the glasses consisted of empty peanut butter, jelly, and jam jars—minus their tops of course. I always disliked putting my lips over screw part on what mom referred to as our creative kid’s glasses.
Anyway, we kept digging and listening for foreign voices under the earth, and all of a sudden, I hit something hard. Moving the earth around it, I discovered it was a glass—a regular drinking glass—that had been buried for who knows how long? After I dug up the entire glass, I held it up to the sun, but dried dirt and mud on the inside and outside of the glass made it impossible to see through. Then it hit me. If mom knew I had dug up a dirty glass, she’d make me wash it and drink out of it as my special cup…but I did not want to drink out of it.
Still my mother would think the dirty glass a gift from beyond for our poor family. All I could think about were the dirty lips that probably drank from the filthy glass, so I had to defy mother’s good nature and values. The glass had to go! I found a paper bag in the garage, went back to the pit, picked up the glass, and tossed it inside. Then I walked around the yard, picking up stray paper and leaf or two, also placing them in the bag before burying everything under piles of stinky garbage in the family trash can. I knew I had done something wrong, so it must have been a sin; my mother could have used that glass, but I couldn’t—”
“Just tell me your sins—and how many times you committed them. Did you disobey your parents? Did you laugh and talk in church? Did you lie? Did you steal or covet another’s goods” Did you miss mass or forget saying your prayers?”
“I don’t remember,” I replied honestly and concisely.
“Did you have impure thoughts?” he continued.
“What are impure thoughts?”
“Something to look forward to,” he seemed to mumble—but was never sure. Then the priest deeply sighed, cleared his throat one last time, and told me, “For penance, say five Hail Marys and five Our Fathers. At this time, recite an “Act of Contrition.”
“OK. Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name….”
“Go in peace—and from now on, confess to Father Heally.”
II: The Rosary Quickening
In the 21st century, more and more Catholics seem to consider going to confession and receiving the “sacrament of reconciliation” an optional activity. I guess I could relate—but attitudes towards confession differed in 1962 when my life’s sins had been initially absolved. I never really regretted my sins, but long before I developed a taste for drama and other literature.
I loved the theatre of church—not the teachings—the ritual embodied in the liturgy: acolytes lighting candles and ringing bells, call and response between priest and congregation, as well as thumbing a rosary—meditation beads with well-defined mantras.
My first confession proved to be an exhilarating, albeit confusing experience. I had never heard a priest practically shout at me, but I figured it was all part of the absolving process. Besides, after forty minutes of testimony detailing my three sins, a great weight had been lifted. I felt cleansed, experienced, and fully prepared to sin and confess all over again! Nobody could take that away from me….
Still, as I left the confessional, I sensed that I’d be different than the boy who entered the booth. Everything and everyone I looked at seemed to embody sin in one way or another. Later, my grandma delighted in informing me that I had become a good Catholic because guilt had begun to preoccupy my thoughts. She believed feeling remorse—for real or imagined wrongs—was akin to holiness. Bullshit! Yet I had the bug—guilt—and have yet to shake it in my adult life. But that’s another story.
I realized guilt would be a guiding force in my life after I received a box that contained my personal rosary which I had received following my first holy confession. Strictly, my mother told me to keep the box in my pocket and not to open it until I got home. I knew mom wanted the best for me, but the sealed box seemed so inviting. Regardless, I stuck it in my jacket pocket and headed out to exercise yard. There, we played volleyball and other games in between the day’s activities that marked our “rites of passage” as Catholic children.
Within minutes, Linda approached me and said, “Check it out—my own rosary! I’m wearing it around my neck so I won’t lose it.” I looked at the circle of glittery beads draped over her petite shoulders, with Jesus on the cross centered just above her belly button. “Did your parents buy you a rosary too?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I sheepishly replied, “but I gotta wait ‘til I get home to check it out.”
“Why?” Linda inquired, but, thankfully, she walked away before I made up some bogus reason. Linda was cool and cute; I didn’t want to feel stupid around her. Nonetheless, she asked a very compelling question that began to haunt me: “Why?”
Looking up into the sky, attempting to find direction from a superpower who I had borne my soul to—three detailed sins—earlier that morning, I felt forsaken (yeah, I learned that word in church and try to use it often). Finally, I uttered, “God, please stop me if I really shouldn’t open the box in my pocket to check out my personal rosary.” Well, God didn’t do a thing to stop me as I slipped my beads out of the box. Then guilt hit me like a pile of bricks, and I started to worry if what I had just done—disobeying my mother’s orders—stained my newly cleansed soul, damming me to hell when, as an abominable sinner, I took my first communion on Saturday.
My mom told me not to remove my rosary from its box—but I did! Now, I had only one choice: find the priest playground supervisor and make my second confession. Perplexed, since I was new at the game, I wasn’t even sure one could confess twice in one day. Moreover, I heard that a “white lie” was a little lie and minor sin and had begun to wonder if I had committed an act of “white disobedience”—something insignificant in God’s grand scheme of things. No, I had to looked for a priest and confess.
Behind a throng of screaming kids, a puff of smoke filled the air, and Father McKay turned around puffing on a cigarette. At first, I couldn’t believe what I saw. I mean, I never knew priests smoked. Quickly, however, I snapped out of disbelief and approached him.
“Father McKay? I opened the box containing my new rosary a few minutes ago.”
“That’s nice,” he replied. “Did you like it?”
“Well sure, but my mother told me not to open the box.”
Father McKay took a deep drag from his cigarette, exhaled, and then said, “Put it back in the box, and when you get home, she’ll never know!” Then he winked at me and continued to enjoy his cigarette.
I never knew if Father McKay realized that he instilled a crisis of faith in me from which I’d never recover. Rather than forgive my egregious sin of disobeying my mother’s order, he suggested that I pretend I’d never opened the box which would be a lie and another moral offence requiring absolution to be strong and holy for my first communion. Then and there, it occurred to me that contrary to what the nuns claimed, the only free will I had was to remain guilty anywhere and everywhere, day or night—in church or at home. Of course, I also realized that my recent epiphany must be a sin too.
The following morning during my first communion, the Eucharist wouldn’t melt on my tongue which I attributed to yesterday’s two unconfessed sins. I thought about chewing it a bit to make it easier to dissolve, but realized that I’d be grinding the body of Jesus Christ between my teeth—yet another Catholic crime! Well, I swallowed Him whole, and the wafer got stuck in my throat on the way down—punishment for my evil deed, no doubt. Clearly, I was fated to sin and deserved to suffer; in time, I became a master of both.
III. Another Fallen Angel
Apparently, when baptized, my Godparents rejected Satan, his works, and all his empty promises on my behalf. Now, a full-fledged adolescent, I had an opportunity to affirm that rejection by going through a new Catholic ceremony: confirmation. Therein I would verify my Christian belief, choose a biblical confirmation name, and become what my grandma called a full member of the church.
Since I liked the formal procedures of induction rituals and as well as belonging to clubs, I sort of looked forward to my confirmation as colorful theatre—another notch on my peg board of memberships, if you will.
Selecting a confirmation names promised to be fun. Sister Agnes told us time and time again that we could pick our confirmation name from any name that appeared in the Bible. Fully prepared, I had carefully read the Bible and in addition to my first choice, I had selected two alternate names.
Linda, my sixth-grade sweetheart and fellow Catholic facing confirmation chose her
name first. “I pick Teresa,” she announced.
“Good choice, Linda,” Sister Agnes affirmed. “St. Teresa’s writing dealing with Devotion of Peace, explains where human will be surrendered to God—something all of us must do.”
Ted White raised his hand and Sister Agnes continued, “Yes Ted, what Biblical name did you select to add to your birth names?”
“I always liked animals, so I picked the name, Francis—you know the saint: Francis of a sissy?” Ted beamed with confidence and pride.
“That’s Francis of Assisi; he was not a sissy, Ted. I’ll explain the difference to you in private. Now Emily, what name did you pick?”
“Good! The name means daughter of an oath. Were you aware of that?”
“No. My mom suggested it because Gregory Peck, her favorite actor, played King David, in the movies, and King David married Bathsheba.”
Sister Agnes interrogated all of the would-be Christian soldiers declaring their confirmation names, and if possible, explaining their selection. Though Frank told Sister Agnes he liked the name because Barnabas had been a builder in the Bible, he’d really chosen Barnabas because it was the name of his favorite character, a vampire, on Dark Shadows. Tony then picked Jesse, father of King David, though he chose it because he admired Jesse James. On and on it went until, finally, Sister Agnes called on me.
“What confirmation name did you pick?” she asked. I knew the answer to her question, for I’d given it a lot of thought, still, I couldn’t resist playing with her a bit.
“Did you say we could pick any name from the Old or New Testament in the Bible? I inquired clearly and respectfully.
“Yes, Old or New Testament of the Catholic Vulgate Bible.
“Any Biblical name, Sister?
Looking her straight in the eyes, for a third time I asked, “Any Biblical name?”
The rest of my friends began to grin; they all disliked how Sister Agnes picked on them or would belittle them in front of others. Again, I looked at her in the eyes, then finally spoke.
“Judas. I pick Judas because he was an apostle,” I said. The entire classroom erupted in fulsome laughter.
“That’s not funny; you’re an evil boy for insulting our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
“But you said to pick any name from the Bible—and lots of guys selected the name of an apostle for their confirmation.”
Red faced and shaking, Sister Agnes slapped a ruler down on the table defiantly, and screamed, “Chose another Biblical name!”
“Lucifer,” I replied smugly—knowing full well my answer would only increase her wrath and anger (something she’d have to confess). Her following tirade bordered on insanity.
“I’ve had it with you and your lack of respect for the Catholic faith,” she yelled, waiving her arms wildly and tossing an eraser across the room. “You and your trashy family should be excommunicated from church. Jesus doesn’t love you; why should He? You’re no good and will never amount to anything. You…you…you…hell-bound punk. You…you…you…Godless heathen…!”
For a second, I considered becoming a priest, so that I’d have a sure ticket to heaven and could meet Sister Agnes at the Pearly Gates and have the last laugh with regard to my soul. Just then, two other nuns ran into the classroom, accompanied by Father Heally. “Get her out of here,” he motioned to the silent nuns attempting the comfort Sister Agnes who continued her hysterics long after leaving us. “What happen?” he asked.
“Sister Agnes didn’t like either Judas or Lucifer for my confirmation name,” I explained. “I followed the rules—both names appear in the Bible many times!” Father Heally shook his head and rolled his eyes.
“You’ve one last chance to select a confirmation name from the Catholic Vulgate version of the Bible yourself; if you don’t do so in 30 seconds, I’ll pick a name for you,” growled father Heally. For some reason, however, I believe he’d been thoroughly amused by the way I had actually followed Church doctrine in selecting my confirmation name, as well as my behavior towards Sister Agnes. At least, that’s how I interpreted his wink.
“Athanasius,” I uttered forcefully. “Did you know that four Roman emperors had him exiled? Athanasius’s writings supposedly helped shape the Catholic church!” I had done my homework. “I want to be a writer too,” I added.
“Very well. Athanasius it is,” he said mispronouncing the name. (I wonder if he ever realized I had selected Athanasius because it was five syllables long and hard to pronounce?)
My Confirmation ceremony proved uneventful. To begin with, I had a severe asthma attack in the morning and missed the walk through. I did make it to the afternoon ceremony though. Still, I had not gone to confession for a few weeks either, so once we—candidates they called us—gathered in church, I absolved Ted White, and he absolved me. Then, I—along with the rest of the candidates—marched up to the communion altar. Next, I kneeled down, waited for the bishop to ask me about my confirmation name, dip his thumb in some oil called Chrism, make the sign of the cross on my forehead, and confirm me with the words: “Athanasius, be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” I had anticipated fireworks at becoming renewed, but only one predictable thing occurred: the bishop mispronounced Athanasius.
Soon after my confirmation, my mind began to wander from strict church teachings to a common sense, if not exploratory, lifestyles. At that point, the Beatles’ fascination with the Maharishi and techniques of Transcendental Meditation captured my imagination. Granted in less than a year, such interest decreased in its intensity, often replaced with new found philosophy—especially existentialism. Many peers and I, even Linda, began to refer to ourselves as either dysfunctional Catholics or Fallen Angels; it all seemed rather humorous at the time.
Years later, once I had begun to teach language arts and literature at San Francisco State University, Sister Beatrice picked up a copy of my first poetry collection. One sunny day she remarked, “I appreciate all of the Biblical and spiritual imagery in your poetry, as well as your articulation of internal conflicts…. By any chance, were you raised Catholic?”
“As a matter of fact, yes,” I replied, affirming her suspicion.
“That explains so much about you,” she snapped, cracking a somewhat snarky smile. To this day, I have had an eerie feeling that Sister Beatrice was critiquing my character rather than complimenting the deft application of religious imagery informing my verse.