A few times of year, once during Lent and once during Advent, my school offers the sacrament of reconciliation. It is always one of my favorite days of the year. Do I believe that we need a priest as a mediator between us and God? No. Some of my most authentic moments of confession have happened when I am alone with God crying on the bathroom floor. And I do believe that our limited, human brains cannot begin to comprehend God’s mercy and love. I would guess that we are somehow deeply and fully forgiven before we even ask for forgiveness. But there is something powerful about confession. There is something radically powerful about reconciliation. There is something refreshing about being able to talk to someone we may never have to see again like a priest or counselor. And something in my heart changes when I take the time to say I am sorry and hear my own voice ask for forgiveness. Our chaplain at school refers to it as a spiritual check up. We take care of our bodies and respond to pain, but we often ignore our hearts and souls and conscience when it wants our attention. Why is it human nature to distance ourselves from love? Why do we deny ourselves the opportunity to be forgiven and know wholeness? I truly think if God is not constantly pursuing us than God is at least not running from us. It is me who is doing the backpedaling. I am creating the distance. I am denying myself the opportunity to know abundant and unconditional love, healing, wholeness and peace. I think it may have something to do with hard work. It is easy to be angry and be convinced that I am right. It is harder work to be wrong and move to let go of anger and righteousness. But there is physical, emotional and spiritual liberation that happens in the act of reconciliation. It is beautiful to be a part of.
In the history of the Catholic Church, there was a time when the sacrament of reconciliation was very public. Penance was public, which makes sense when I think about how many people in my community are affected by my projectile vomiting and misguided anger when my heart is broken and in need of confession. When we distance ourselves from God by things we have done or not done, may I dare say when we sin, I do believe that we also distance ourselves from our community and our authentic self. Thus, penance was public.
Then the sacrament went through an extremely private period when there was a whispered conversation between a person and a priest behind closed doors. The Church has moved toward finding a mean that often entails having private confession in the presence of community. So a couple days a year, the 1350 students at my Catholic high school stream into the theatre at some point in the day. The lights are down and candles are lit. Soothing music plays. Especially kind and warm priests from the neighboring parishes come and sit with the students and talk. The community as a whole admits that we are limited creatures who fall short on our journey to the fullness of self. It is powerful.
For one, there is something that feels countercultural about sitting still and being quiet for forty-five minutes. We are rarely encouraged to slow down and reflect on our lives. And it is amazing to me how much the tough, too cool for school teenagers adore confession. One of my ninth grade students usually comes to class very tired and disheveled. She is a hockey star with multiple tough older brothers who is rough around the edges in the most endearing way possible. Totally out of character, she found me after our time in the theatre, grabbed my shoulders, literally lit up and expelled, “I love confession! I feel so good now!” I walked out with another ninth grade boy with the most monotone, deep voice I have ever heard come out of a fourteen year old. Without my prying, he simply offered, “Wow Ms. Roscher. That was great. I bet I will be sin free now for about twenty minutes.”
In the middle of one of the sessions, I had a student come sit with me in the back. He shared, “I am not really sure about this priest thing. I mean, I believe in God, but my mom is not Catholic, so this all seems a bit odd to me. Do I have to go up there?” I reassured him that he did not need absolution from a priest to be forgiven by God, and then he proceeded to talk to me about what has been heavy on his heart. It took me a minute after he went back to his seat to fully realize that he had approached me to offer him the sacrament of reconciliation. Although I do not have that specific power according to the church, our conversation was precious, and I do believe something real happened. There is nothing like building enough trust with students that they feel safe with you.
This year during the sacrament, I was struggling with an odd cold. Daily the symptoms would change. On reconciliation day, my eyes stung and watered for twenty-four hours straight. Multiple times during the day, a sweet student would gently approach me to offer comfort, asking if I was ok. I would smile as I realized they thought I was crying, possibly in a deep confessional moment with my God. Even though the tears were a consequence of my body fighting germs, they worked as an invitation. And each time a student would come sit with me and check in, flipping the normal power roles of teacher and student, a very sacred moment would pass between us. Although I was not saying sorry for anything, they still offered me a gift of love.
God is present all the time. God is everywhere. But I do believe there are intensifications of that presence. It is good now and again to work to dissolve barriers that stand between us and the divine. Take away the desks, the lights and the lecture, and we may, just for a moment, be reminded that God is indeed alive and well in each of us. We are granted a glimpse of the wholeness that is to come.
Yet even in this thin space, I do not go up. I watch my young students one by one, be brave enough to go claim their forgiveness. Not yet guarded, not yet bitter, ok with their brokenness, ready to start fresh. They amaze me. There is something so vulnerable and precious about a fourteen-year old student strutting across the stage to ask for forgiveness. But I cannot do it. In my three years at the school, I have never gone up. Why am I confessing to cyberspace what I am unable to admit to a priest? I want so badly to be able to articulate my limits and get healing doused on me. But my heart is hardened. I do not want healing from a priest. Going up, in some way, feels like admitting my inferiority as a woman. So I stay seated, stubborn, struggling, unabsolved in the eyes of the Church.