The Irvine Tartan • My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican
“I shall forgive their guilt and never more call their sin to mind.”
Jeremiah 31:34 (New Jerusalem Bible)
We stepped in off the sidewalk and found ourselves embraced by the darkness of the vestibule. My Dad led the way and pushed open the large wooden door that hung on oversized hinges. I climbed the steps and entered as his arm reached over me, holding the weight of the door back. The lights, dim in the afternoon light, did not disclose the handful of parishioners that sat and knelt in the familiar nave.
I had come for my first confession, and soon I’d be confirmed. My Dad had rehearsed the Catechism with me Sunday afternoons. He brought me to the church that had found space for us as a family. This afternoon he would say his confession; and so would I.
We entered our pew on the left – a short distance down the center aisle, I followed him. First, he genuflected and on rising, entered. I did as he did, dropping to one knee, my left hand holding the end of the pew helping me keep my balance. A bit nervous, I didn’t want to stumble. I slipped in beside him. Before kneeling in prayer, I looked around. I recall the backs of heads and the sides of faces. I noticed that some sat while others knelt. One here would finish a prayer, and exit their pew and the aisle and the nave in silence – almost floating across the nave floor. Then someone there would leave the church; and another would come out of the chancel and, turning to genuflect, enter a pew for prayer and quiet reflection before leaving. It was private time in private space. No one spoke or extended a greeting.
It was then that my Dad got up, and touching my shoulder, whispered into my ear, “I’ll be back in a few minutes. You wait here.” I sat and waited and watched. My Dad walked up the aisle, under the wooden Rood Screen and then in the distance, I saw Father Young. My priest was sitting just inside the altar rail, his back to the wall. My Dad went over and knelt beside him, at a prayer desk, just outside the rail. I watched with great interest, trying to see what was happening. I’d be next and I wanted to do this right. After all, this was a familiar pattern for my Dad over the years, but for me this was my first visit to have my confession heard.
My Dad was going to be forgiven; and I was going to be forgiven. I watched in awe.
Once my Dad returned and knelt beside me, he smiled and patting my knee whispered that I could go up now. Father Young was waiting for me. I pressed my pants with my nervous palms and stood. Reverencing the altar and the Sacrament, I walked up the aisle to the holy space I had approached on other occasions. The sweet smell of incense lingered in the atmosphere that gave me breath and life. I held my hands together, clasped. I dare not walk too quickly. But I dare not walk too slowly either. Pews slipped by as I advanced and the Rood towering overhead slipped over me. I was under the cross.
The assurance of forgiveness drew me closer and I grew excited with anticipation. I knew that my failings and shortcomings would be sponged away by Jesus’ promise on the cross. I turned and went to the desk.
I knelt beside my Father and looked into his face and welcoming countenance. He wore his stole and his hands were folded in his lap. A piece of paper was on the prayer desk and typed on the paper I found familiar words. “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son…” I said this familiar invocation as I traced the cross from forehead to chest, to shoulder to shoulder. “Father, I have sinned… ” I began to read and rehearsed my brokenness before my priest.
The list wasn’t very long. But that didn’t make the list easy. What would Father Young think of me? What would Jesus think of me?
Six months earlier I had had my sixth birthday. And a young boy can have a full life of sin and depravity by the age of six and a half years! I think that had Father Young allowed me to postpone this opportunity for me to seek forgiveness my list would have been much shorter. But at my age I had not an inkling of the hormonal changes that assault young boys (and girls) later in life. The lens of my youthful self examination was unsullied and allowed me to be frank. I had been envious. I had been jealous. I had been proud. I had been cruel. I had been disobedient. And I had been able to view all of these things through a much larger lens than the lens of maturing sexuality would allow later in life.
I finished my prayer and listened intently for the promise fulfilled in the covenant Jesus made on the cross. Father Young pronounced me forgiven! Absolved! A wonderful great weight lifted from slender shoulders – a greater weight than I had allowed – and I hear in Father Young’s voice his ability to forget and think no less of this child of God kneeling beside him who had been so weighed down and who now could stand, light-hearted and refreshed!
I have never forgotten that vocalized absolution and forgiveness. I have since listened for it and have often been disappointed at not hearing it. I have since listened for it in church and occasionally I have heard it there. But that isn’t where I have found it with any confidence or regularity. What I heard in the autumn of 1951 was not a formula, not a phrase that is vainly repeated. What I heard and what buoyed my step as I joined my Dad in his pew was the voice of love.
Jeremiah, I was to learn much later, heard that same voice. He spoke of it: “Within them I shall plant my Law, writing it on their hearts…,” God had lovingly said, “since I shall forgive their guilt and never more call their sin to mind.”