For months we’d been practising this pursuit of penitential perfection. First, we had to accept our inveterate sin: that there was an essential evilness to our existence. Then there were the lessons about how bad we were, but how good we’d become. About how Eve had led Adam astray, and that meant now we all felt like we had to wear clothes. Which was right, obviously. But, somehow extremely wrong back in Eden’s nature reserve. About how there was a dark birthmark within us, an inky smear despoiling our souls.
We’d talked about how Greek philosphers couldn’t get into Heaven. Or Buddhists. Or Gandhi. Or, oddly enough, ancient Hebrews. There’d been some bewildered whispering of the will-‘o’-the-wisp spirits of babies who, due to baptismal boycotting or basic bad luck, had to now mewl motherless in Limbo for eternity. We’d been awfully relieved we weren’t going to end up like them, all in agreement that Purgatory was a far better jail than Limbo’s oubliette.
Then there’d been talk about the ledger of disgrace we had to disclose to the priest. A liturgy of immoral immaturity. We could rattle it off like a shopping list: “me and my sister fight I don’t do what I’m told I talk back to my parents I could be a bit tidier I hate homework etc etc.” A deliverance from evil without punctuation or purpose, other than to be anointed with absolution. Like a solvent. Or a soap. Mrs. Williams said that after our First Confession, we’d all feel scrubbed clean. That there would be a lightness of life. Laundry flakes for the soul. A fresh linen start. Another chance to be better than we were. We’d be immaculate. I was quite looking forward to it.
I remember shuffling into the confessional box, bony knees aching from the crucifying pews outside. The pressure on the patellas was all part of it, we’d been severely assured. Forgiveness shouldn’t be comfortable, or even ergonomic. The church was dark and cold, even though it was the middle of the day. Shadows crowded its corners like the sins in our psyches. I mumbled my monotone misbehaviours through the portcullis to the priest, burbling the tongue-twister penitential prayer:
I bobbed my head so vigorously at the Messiah’s name I almost headbutted the grille. A huff from the crosshatch alcove, then one Our Father and ten Hail Marys. That felt a bit like I’d been particularly bad. When we had discussed the sentencing practices of priests and penance, we’d been led to believe that a Hail Mary was for a misdemeanour, and we shouldn’t really get more than three at our age. A Lord’s Prayer was reserved for next-level naughtiness.
Glumly I slouched out to the nave, disabled of my preconceptions of personal probity. Making my way through the glowering hardness of the glossed pews I reflected that soon, at least, I’d be a good boy. Resigned but relieved I knelt at the side altar, ganged up on by guttering devotional candles dripping hope. I said my prayers.
I waited there, kneeling far past the time required for a decade of the rosary. I waited and waited, eyes closed and hands squeezed. I waited whilst my schoolfriends shuffled and snuffled through their own restitutionary mutterings. I could hear the occasional murmur of bewilderment:
“Why’s he staying there? What’s wrong with him? What did he do that was so bad? Is he just looking for attention? Has he fallen asleep?”
I waited until it was time for everyone to go and then got back on the bus without a word. That was the moment I started to question. The singular stinging snowflake’s fall that would cause the eventual avalanche from Innocence to Experience.
For I didn’t feel any different. Not any cleaner at all. No inner transfiguration from profane to sanctified. Just the same boy anointed with disappointment. Only with wearier knees and dustier trousers.
Perhaps, I thought, it was my fault. Perhaps, I hadn’t done it right. Perhaps, I couldn’t be saved. Perhaps, I think, I didn’t need to be.
I am a singer based in Ireland who compulsively writes poems and short stories. I am originally from the South Wales Valleys, a land rich in history but not in money. Unbidden, my themes seem to crowd around fable, spirituality, religion, and the psyche. Last year, I set myself the challenge of writing a poem a day for a year. When I got to the end I annoyingly realised I'd missed April 12, so had to keep going. Before allowing myself to become a singer, I chopped away at law and lecturing for an eternity.