I’m what they call a “fallen away” Catholic, and I have been for years. Some prefer the term “lapsed”; the more smart-alecky like “recovering.” But “fallen away” describes it accurately for me.
I don’t miss it much. Only the candles on the table on the altar, the votive candles in the transcept where they have the statue of the Virgin or a saint, sitting or kneeling alone praying in the low light of the church after Mass, the creak of the wooden pews, holy water glimmering in the silver bowls where you dip your fingers and perform the sign of the cross when you go in or out of the church, sunlight through high windows set high in the wall, the crisp cloth of the vestments my brother and I wore when we served together as altar boys, the weight of the bells in my hand that I had to be sure to ring at the right moment in the Mass, the feel of the communion wafer melting on my tongue (or, even better, the texture of real communion bread), the alcohol bite of red communion wine on my tongue, the familiar rhythm of the words in the vernacular Mass: call and response, call and response (the first poetry I ever heard, which made me a writer), my mother and the other mothers with their veils and rosaries, and always the sweet, heavy smell of incense floating from the censer that clanked as the priest swung it from its chain. I don’t miss much at all.
Except the forgiveness. I dreaded penance, also known as “confession.” On Saturday afternoons, I would get to church early to sit in the pew and wait my turn. The priest sat, invisible, in the wooden box in the middle of the confessional, flanked by two other wooden boxes where the penitents entered, knelt, waiting for the small door at face level to slide open to reveal a screen filtering the brownish-orange light coming from the priest’s box. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”
I didn’t fear god’s judgment, but I did fear the priest’s. I knew he would absolve me, but what would he make of my unclean thoughts, my swearing, my disobeying my mother, my lying, my fighting with my siblings? But in the end, it was worth enduring that fear. In the end, it didn’t matter, when he gave me so many Our Father’s or Hail Mary’s or Rosaries or Acts of Contrition to recite, or told me to pray to do better next week. Because at the end, there was always the “Te Absolvo”: I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And I was new again. There was a place where the dirty, ugly bits of me could still be accepted, could still be loved. Where whatever I might have done, I was still okay.
Of course, as I got older, I realized that it wasn’t that simple. Some things the Church couldn’t, or wouldn’t forgive, things that I came to believe were okay: being gay, using birth control, feeling called to the priesthood even if you were a woman, questioning the wisdom of the Pope. The list got longer, or maybe I just became aware of how long it had always been. I could still get my absolution, but that wasn’t enough anymore. So I gave the incense, the words, absolution, forgiveness up.
For many other Christians, for many people of other religions, and for many with no religion, this probably seems unnecessary. They don’t believe in sin, or they believe that adhering to a religion automatically conveys forgiveness for wrongdoing, or they believe that confession and forgiveness are games we play with ourselves to evade moral responsibility, or they just believe that none of it matters.
But I miss it. I miss the cleanness of it, the sense that I get to start new. Sometimes I could so use a new start. Sometimes I miss that forgiveness and the sound of the words that convey it.