First I told everyone to close their eyes. “How many of you have confessed at least once before?” One hand rose. “Twice?” The hand dropped.
This does not concern me. Third grade feels very, very young. But also there is so much potential and so much to potentially screw up. In third grade, my Sunday School teacher arranged for us all to line up and confess to Abouna one by one. I was not ready for it.
When the eyes all open, the gazes stay fixed on the ground. The only one of them looking me in the eye is the little boy who has raised his hand.
We talk about sacraments, about the sacredness of your time with Abouna, about how before-confession is scary but after-confession is liberating. Then discussion. The first question is “Why might someone be afraid to confess?” and the initial response is, unsurprisingly, silence. But then, bit by bit, the room fills with words so familiar they might have come from my own mouth before I had experienced the beauty of confession.
“What if Abouna thinks I’m a bad person? What if he yells at me?”
“There are things I don’t ever want to talk about.”
“What if Abouna tells someone? Even though he’s not supposed to?”
“I have secrets. Secrets even my mom and dad don’t know about.”
Oh, child. Don’t we all?
We don’t get very far in the discussions before the questions are turned back to me. “When was the last time you confessed?”
So I tell them a secret of my own.
As I mentioned earlier, I confessed for the first time when I was in third grade. I was miserable and afraid and confession didn’t involve much talking on my end until the abouna finally dismissed me almost hopelessly.
I was so afraid.
The next time I confessed was more than ten years later. This is what I tell them, to their dropped jaws. These kids aren’t even ten years old themselves.
“I know why,” one of them pipes up.
I doubt that. “Why?”
“Because you didn’t do anything wrong!”
“Definitely not,” I laugh. I don’t tell them any more, and the discussion turns back to them.
I don’t tell them what I am about to tell you. What I tell you in hopes that you too will remember how difficult confession is when you teach about it; and if it was not difficult for you, how difficult it is for others. I spent too long in paradoxical guilt — the guilt of not confessing for so long kept me afraid of ever confessing — until one abouna saw me drowning in a sea of self-destructive guilt and threw me a Life Saver.
My first college retreat, I asked Abouna if I could confess with him. I asked him this as he was leaving. Literally walking out the door. “Tomorrow,” he replied in a hurry, as I had mostly hoped. But then he paused and looked back at me. “Tonight,” he said instead. My heart dropped.
I sit across from Abouna silently. For nearly a quarter of an hour, I do not say a word . He is so, so patient, and not nearly as quiet as I am. In fact, he won’t stop talking. He says every variation of “God loves you so much.”
With all the courage I can muster, finally, finally, I confess. For almost an hour, I tell Abouna absolutely everything as he counsels me, advises me, and reminds me again and again of God’s love. He reads the absolution, and then Abouna looks me in the eye and says: “You are so pure.” Just like that, I have found a father of confession. Some things are the same after that, but some things are never the same. I still sin, but my relationship with God is forever changed as the guilt of a lifetime is lifted off my shoulders.
I had repented to Christ before, but I had never heard Him reply. Now I had: the words from Abouna’s lips might has well have come from God Himself for how much they changed me.
So when I taught about confession, I could not pretend it was something easy. I could not speak from years and years of experience because all I have are a few. And I did not want to shame them into confession. Our God is not a god of shame. He is the God of grace and of mercy.
One of the beautiful things my father of confession does is suggest books for me to read between confessions. In one of them I read this line that struck me to the core.
I am afraid to tell you who I am because if I tell you who I am, you may not like who I am. And it is all I have.
Confession is telling God who you are, but it is also telling a priest–a fellow human–who you are. And that is frightening indeed.
I’m still not sure I figured out how to teach about confession. At the end of the lesson we took a poll. “Who still thinks confession is too frightening to try?” I said.
Tentatively, all hands save one went up. Maybe it will take a few more years and a few better Sunday School teachers before they are ready.
Maybe that’s okay.