For me, it was the Confessional. The very word still evokes an image in my mind, with attached feelings otherwise reserved for thoughts of the gallows, and the electric chair. Mysterious things happened in that booth, invisible, other-worldly things. It was like a haunted house, only smaller, and with no place to run. More like a haunted broom closet. Or a coffin with extra head-room.
The Confessional itself was made of dark wood and had intricate carvings and thick purple drapes. It was impossible to mistake it for a place of casual conversation. Matters of eternal life were handled in there. And that’s what caused my heart to stop beating for seconds at a time. It was that grim gravity. (Like the bronze bust of Jesus hanging on the wall over my bed. I didn’t even know it was Jesus. I’d glance up and there was this scowling face looking back at me. A head mounted on the wall. A head wearing a crown of thorns. A head without a body. All reasons enough to be scowling, but of course I assumed it was something I’d done.)
The booth was about eight feet long and had three doors. The center section was where the priest sat. On either side were the penitents’ compartments. A single line of confessors fed both sides, with the priest alternating between the two by sliding open and closed a little cloth-covered panel. That way, there was no wasted time, reducing the chances that someone would die on the spot with Mortal Sin still on their soul. Inside the booth, there was a place to kneel, a place to sit, and a light bulb down near the floor in one corner. Because of the confined space, shadows were big, and moved fast and with holy drama. When the priest was talking to the person on the other side, you could hear his muffled words. I could never make out what he was saying, but he sounded close, as though his voice were coming from somewhere around my head. The other person seemed to be miles away, their responses soft and tentative.
I was in the second grade when we made our First Confession. We were seven years old. That may seem young, but this was back in the Middle Ages, when most people were married at ten and dead by twenty-five. By the time you reached seven, you were expected to know right from wrong, understand the consequences of your actions, and be prepared to burn in hell for them. And we had to know the Apostle’s Creed — in Latin — which was the worst part of all. I had trouble remembering my own telephone number. There was little chance I would ever be able to memorize a long, bewildering prayer, especially in a foreign language in which every word sounded like every other word. We were also required to recite the Hail Mary every single day, to beseech the Virgin Mother to pray for us “…now and at the hour of our death.” It was a daily reminder that a time was coming, a specific hour already recorded in God’s appointment book, when we would die. I was affected by speech as much as by anything else, and so even the word beseech seems to have lodged itself in another one of those dark and scary places in my mind. Beseech isn’t part of my everyday vocabulary. I might use it if I were about to be thrown from a cliff or set on fire. But in all other situations, I would just ask politely.
Sins weren’t limited to the acts we committed. According to The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism, “Actual sin is any willful thought, desire, word, action, or omission forbidden by the law of God.” That covered a lot of territory. When I told my younger brother to shut up, that was a sin. When he bit me in the leg and I punched him for it, that was also a sin. But even when I just thought about telling him to shut up — not daring to say the words because the last time he bit my leg, he broke the skin and drew blood — even that put a stain on my soul. Going to Confession on a regular basis, then, was intended to remove those stains, to cleanse the soul and freshen it up, because you just never knew when the hour of your death would arrive.
Adding to the haunted atmosphere was the constant presence of God as the Trinity. The Father and the Son were no problem, but that third one, the Holy Ghost, struck fear in me like nothing ever had — nothing except Doctor Stern, the creepy dentist who claimed that the existence of pain was a myth and who often made me wish I could drown myself by pressing my face into his spit sink. If karma is real and includes a system based on any justice at all, Doctor Stern has since left this Earth and returned as a test dummy in a stun gun factory. More than a few of my adolescent sins involved my dentist, the vivid image of some part of his body being pierced, punctured, or drilled, and me offering him a few kindly words of preparation: “Now you’re going to feel a little pressure. A slight pinch. But only a big baby would think it hurts.”
Confessions were held at the back of the church on Saturday mornings. I was careful to list the precise number of times I’d committed each sin, adding another thirty percent on top, just to cover my spotty memory. Even if I’d forgotten some of my sins, I knew God would not, so I gave exact figures, as though I were reporting on the inventory at a hardware store: “I talked back to my parents eleven times, I didn’t eat my vegetables six times, I forgot to say my prayers three times…”
And then, there was the bra commercial.
We had a television in our classroom. It was a big black & white set that sat atop a rolling stand. We’d watch whenever there was a newsworthy event happening, such as a rocket launch or the Pope’s visit to New York. When it was too cold or wet to go to the playground, we’d watch cartoons or some unbelievably dull science show. Our teacher would get two or three boys to haul out the whole setup, push it into the left front corner of the classroom, twist it into position, and plug in and connect any necessary wires. Then she’d give us the warning:
“I have to be out of the room for a few minutes. I expect you to stay in your seats and be quiet. I’ll be right down the hall and if I hear a sound, the television gets put away. Is that understood?”
We’d reply in sing-song unison. “Yes, Sis-ter.”
But somehow, no matter what time it was when that television got turned on, within minutes we’d find ourselves watching a commercial for the Playtex “Cross Your Heart Bra.” It never failed to evoke a circus of whoops and comments. I would look down at my desk, mortified. I didn’t dare make eye contact with anyone, because if I did I’d have to express some reaction to the fact that we were looking at a woman in her underwear, a nearly-naked lady positioned halfway between the American flag we had just pledged our allegiance to and the crucifix we had just promised our souls to. I didn’t understand the comments. This whole bra business was just another mystery in my baffled little mind, and the commercial was always the longest thirty seconds of the day. And I was sure that if I watched, the Holy Ghost would know. (This part of the Trinity was represented by a white dove, a seemingly benign entity but one with the power to send me to eternal damnation.) I kept my eyes down and tried to make sense of it all, but as usual, I was confused. “Cross your heart” was something we’d say as an oath, a guarantee that someone was telling the truth.
“Your Dad’s gonna let us light firecrackers in the backyard on the Fourth of July?”
“Yeah. That’s what he said.”
“Cross your heart and hope to die?”
That was the clincher. You had to cross your heart and hope to die. I said it at least once a week, although I had no idea what it meant. What was the point of promising something that would end your life? I didn’t know, but I said it anyway. But this bra thing. What did it have to do with crossing your heart? And it promised to lift and separate something. “You’re suddenly shapelier!” What in the world did that mean? I was sure I would never find out, and had a feeling I wasn’t supposed to. However, the damage was already done. I had thought about watching, and the Holy Ghost was no doubt aware of it. My first Confession was coming up that week, and for me, it was already a matter of everlasting life or death.