Tuesday, September 14, 1999

The Belly of a Whale

First published in the Umatuna, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Agana, Guam, November 14, 1999.

I stayed away from the Sacrament of Penance for 20 years. Somewhere in the 70's I had picked up the teaching that confession was only for serious sin. And thanks to Vatican II (or so it seemed) very few people, if any, actually had serious sin. As a matter of fact there were so few serious sins being committed by the mid-70's that confessionals were closed or torn out altogether. What a relief to a young guy in his early twenties who was looking to rationalize his hormone-driven behavior.
Like others of my generation, I was further aided in distancing myself from any consciousness of sin by the fact that I didn't hear about it anymore, at least not personal sin. Sin was now the domain of society in general. The social sins of injustice, homelessness, world hunger, poverty, & war were the topics in vogue from pulpit, podium & pen.
Wow, this was great, man. No reminder of personal sin, no confessionals, no confessors (visible anyway), no confession. What a relief. No guilt. It was a new world and I was a new "man" . (Note: obviously not the new man Paul had in mind). Boy, I'm sure glad they got together on that Vatican II deal. Of course, Vatican II, the real Vatican II, had nothing to with this new consciousness or a multitude of other aberrations committed in its name.
Our generation forsook confessionals for college cafeterias and campus ministry centers where we sat in comfortable chairs and flailed against the evils of America and capitalism. Instead of saying "3 Hail Mary's, 3 Our Father's, and 3 Glory Be's" we waived anti-nuke signs, walked in "Tortilla Marathons", and marched for peace and justice in El Salvador. 
And the Enemy smiled. For all the while, our bodies and souls were being torn asunder by the personal sin we no longer thought was there. How much easier now was his work on my soul. For the road to hell is....
I was an easy mark to be sure, the kind Satan instructs his minions to look for.  I was the leader of the much-applauded Sunday night folk group. I taught Marriage and Morality to Catholic high school seniors. I was head of the University Campus Ministry and much sought after youth group leader. I wrote weekly articles for the college paper defending the faith. 
How softly and comfortably the "great seducer" of Revelation 12:9 slips one into hell, the very fires of which he disguises as flames of  fervor for our imagined just cause. If I had just been a regular slothful sinner I might have been easier to save. 
Fulton Sheen once said that not going to confession is like walking around with a dirty diaper. Is it any wonder that many of us are sick of ourselves? But I had not come to this recognition yet. I mistook the stench in my soul for the social sewers I was taught to condemn. (Oh, how clever is the evil one.) So for years I continued on my merry way, on my own private road to hell, all the while whistling "Be Not Afraid" and "Here I Am, Lord". 
I can't put my finger on any actual moment where the Holy Spirit turned the light on. But once baptized, the "Hound of Heaven" never really leaves you alone, and even amidst the swirling sea of stupidity in which I was happily drowning, the Lord somehow rescued me from myself.
It would be easier to recount the story if it had been a whale or something, but nothing so dramatic.  I'm not sure how I found myself on my knees in a dark confessional once more. I do know though that it was not Jesus who pushed me in, but His Mother who carried me in. After all, there was this problem with the diaper. 
There were no spiritual gushings, no beating of the breast, no dramatic mea culpas or tearful resolutions, just "I confess to almighty God and to you, Father, that I have sinned. My last confession was 20 years ago..." and the deep knowledge that I was right where God wanted me.
And here is a good place to thank Sr. Paul, the Benedictine nun who drilled the confessional formula into my head in the second grade. I believe she's in heaven now and probably had something to do with me remembering what to say when the time came so many years later. And I also want to thank that priest on the other side of the confessional screen who did not know that he had been waiting 20 years for me.
To be continued......
Tim Rohr
November 14, 1999

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