My turn comes at last. I kneel in the sour darkness of the box, which smells of sweat and pullman curtain.
The little door slides back. There is Father Smith, close as close, cheek propped on three fingers, trying to keep awake. He’s cross-eyed from twelve hours of fire-watching. A hundred brushfires flicker across his retina. These days people, convinced of world-conspiracies against them, go out and set the woods afire to get even.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” I say and fall silent, forgetting everything.
“When was your last confession?” asks the priest patiently.
“Eleven years ago.”
Another groan escapes the priest. Again he peers at his watch. Must he listen to an eleven-year catalogue of dreary fornications and such? Well, he’ll do it.
“Father, I can make my confession in one sentence.”
“Good,” says the priest, cheering up.
“I do not recall the number of occasions, Father, but I accuse myself of drunkenness, lusts, envies, fornication, delight in the misfortunes of others, and loving myself better than God and other men.”
“I see,” says the priest, who surprises me by not looking surprised. Perhaps he’s just sleepy. “Do you have contrition and a firm purpose of amendment?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? You don’t feel sorry for your sins?”
“I don’t feel much of anything.”
“Let me understand you.”
“You have not lost your faith?”
“You believe in the Catholic faith as the Church proposes it?”
“And you believe that your sins will be forgiven here and now if you confess them, are sorry for them, and resolve to sin no more?”
“Yet you say you do not feel sorry.”
“That is correct.”
“You are aware of your sins, you confess them, but you are not sorry for them?”
“That is correct.”
“I couldn’t say.”
“For not being sorry.”
The priest sighs. “Will you pray that God will give you a true knowledge of your sins and a true contrition?”
“Yes, I’ll do that.”
“You are a doctor and it is your business to help people, not harm them.”
“That is true.”
“You are also a husband and father and it is your duty to love and cherish your family.”
“Yes, but that does not prevent me from desiring other women and even contriving plans to commit fornication and adultery.”
“Yes,” says the priest absently. “That’s the nature of the beast.” Damn, why doesn’t he wake up and pay attention?
“But you haven’t recently,” says the priest.
“Actually committed adultery and fornication.”
“No,” I say irritably. “But—”
“Hm. You know, Tom, maybe it’s not so much a question at our age of committing in the imagination these horrendous sins of the flesh as of worrying whether one still can. In the firetower on such occasions I find it useful to imagine the brushfires as the outer circle of hell, not too hot really, where these sad sins are punished, and my toes toasting in the flames. Along comes Our Lady who spies me and says: ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, you here? This is ridiculous.’”
Damn, where does he come off patronizing me with his stock priestly tricks—I can tell they’re his usual tricks because he reels ’em off without even listening. I can smell the seminary and whole libraries of books “for the layman” with little priest-jokes. How can he lump the two of us together, him a gray ghost of a cleric and me the spirit of the musical-erotic?
“For your drinking you might find it helpful, at least it is in my case, to cast your lot with other drunks. Then, knowing how much trouble you’re going to put your friends to if you take a drink, you’re less apt to—though it doesn’t always work.”
“Thank you,” I say coldly.
“Now let’s see.” He’s nodding again, drifting off into smoke and brushfires. “Very well. You’re sorry for your sins.”
“That’s too bad. Ah me. Well—” He steals a glance at his watch. “In any case, continue to pray for knowledge of your sins. God is good. He will give you what you ask. Ask for sorrow. Pray for me.”
“Meanwhile, forgive me but there are other things we must think about: like doing our jobs, you being a better doctor, I being a better priest, showing a bit of ordinary kindness to people, particularly our own families—unkindness to those close to us is such a pitiful thing—doing what we can for our poor unhappy country—things which, please forgive me, sometimes seem more important than dwelling on a few middle-aged daydreams.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry,” I say instantly, scalded.
“You’re sorry for your sins?”
“Yes. Ashamed rather.”
“That will do. Now say the act of contrition and for your penance I’m going to give you this.”
Through the little window he hands me two articles, an envelope containing ashes and a sackcloth, which is a kind of sleeveless sweater made of black burlap. John XXIV recently revived public penance, a practice of the early Church.
While he absolves me, I say an act of contrition and pull the sackcloth over my sports coat.
“Go in peace. I’ll offer my mass for you tonight.”
“Thank you,” I say, dumping the ashes in my hair.
After hearing confessions, the priest gets ready to say mass. The pious black seminarian, who looks like Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, who never entertained a dirty thought, assists him.
Some of the Protestants stay, including Leroy Ledbetter and Victor Charles and his wife.
There is a flick of eyes as people notice my sackcloth. Ellen’s cheek radiates complex rays of approval-disapproval. Approval that I will now “do right,” be a better husband, cultivate respectable patients, remain abstemious, etcetera. What she disapproves is not that I am doing public penance. No, what bothers her is an ancient Presbyterian mistrust of things, things getting mixed up in religion. The black sweater and the ashes scandalize her. Her eyelid lowers—she almost winks. What have these things, articles, to do with doing right? For she mistrusts the Old Church’s traffic in things, sacraments, articles, bread, wine, salt, oil, water, ashes. Watch out! You know what happened before when you Catholics mucked it up with all your things, medals, scapulars, candles, blood statues! when it came finally to crossing palms for indulgences. Watch out!
I will. We will.
Father Smith says mass. I eat Christ, drink his blood.
At the end the people say aloud a prayer confessing the sins of the Church and asking for the reunion of Christians and of the United States.
Outside the children of some love couples and my own little Thomas More, a rowdy but likable lot, shoot off firecrackers.
“Hurray for Jesus Christ!” they cry. “Hurrah for the United States!”
— Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins