Dieter says I should do some of my posting for this blog in German. He says writing in a language in which I wasn’t wholly fluent would force me to be more direct. :”English lets you conceal yourself,” he says. “It gives you ways to build a warren with too many places to hide.” It sounded even less nice in German, especially the part about the rabbit burrows. “You need to be more confessional.”
I know what he meant, even if confession was the wrong word. He was talking about the kind of soul-baring that you do with a therapist who’s skilled enough to have helped you know when you’re lying to yourself. But Confession was just another part of the warren, a niche of objectivist moral accounting where you owe up to specific offenses and accept the prescribed penance but avoid dealing with more fundamentals questions of self and of the life we lead. The hard ones about authenticity and meaning, the ones that delve into the dread of freedom and the lightness of being.
On the contrary, there was always something comforting and easy in the all so familiar triptych of contritio, confessio and satisfactio. The ritual began as you stepped into the awaiting darkness of the confessional and waited on your knees for the sound of the wooden to slide open and reveal the faint outline of the priest behind the lattice grille. I liked this ritual, the template of disclosure into which the recitation of sins would be snugly slipped into, the predictable penances, the concluding Act of Contrition, with its song-like rhythm of trochees and anapaests: “… I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy Grace, to sin no more…”
From the day of my First Communion to the day we moved out of the city about five years later, I went to Confession every other week. The sins of a nine-year-old couldn’t have weighed that heavily on the soul to require such frequent trips to the confessional; it was more like preventive cleaning, sins were plaque on the soul, I remember thinking, the longer the time between visits, the harder it was to make a “good confession”—odds were, you’d forget a sin or two, a failing which could compromise, if not invalidate the absolution you received at the end.
Tallying up the sins I had committed during the weeks that had intervened since my previous confession was a challenge. This was my first formal foray into the realm of data gathering and I took to it immediately; my mother later told me that I liked counting and classifying things even as a very young boy. Some kids are born with a quantitative “bend”, kids who have an innate feel if not love for numbers and can more easily see patterns or identify anomalies in raw data, and I must have been one of them. For a while I even kept the equivalent of a small laboratory notebook in which I recorded the sins. Just to make sure I didn’t leave anything out. We had been drilled to make a full confession, and I took this directive for comprehensiveness quite seriously. The big ones – for a nine-year-old that is – were easy to remember because of their rarity and gravity. But it was impossible to remember how often I fought with my brother, because it seemed I was always fighting with him.
This recording of transgressions soon proved to be a rather boring experiment. I was like a bird watcher in a rookery of terns. Dozens and dozens of observations, but all of the same sin. Oh, there was an occasional example of filial disobedience, and the rare appearance of taking the Lord’s name in vain, which is the sin we used when we swore, which wasn’t really swearing but using foul language, which in my case was nothing more than “jerkoff”. I’d no sooner shout out “Goddamn” or “fuck” then I would steal a pack of bubble-gum baseball cards, as my friend Mike Murgatroyd, In fact I never learned to swear, maybe because my father never did, and it wasn’t until I was in university that I said fuck myself. It still doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s easier to do in German. Maybe because Germans curse more with shit than fuck.
As I got older I began to feel that my confessions were unsubstantial and decided to add a new one and, through a process of elimination by which wife-coveting, false gods and murder fell by the wayside, arrived at “impure thoughts”. I regretted it immediately. Not just because it was disingenuous. But because here, for the very first time, after countless times in Confession, the priest broke rank and actually asked me a question. “What kind of impure thoughts?” I didn’t know how to answer. I couldn’t admit I was making it up, that would have branded me as a heretic or heathen, someone who would so easily mock the sacrament of Penance. But I hadn’t really had any impure thoughts, or at least none that was aware of at the moment. If I had thought carefully about it, I would have remembered getting an erection lying on the living room floor watching Michael Nesbitt in the Monkeys, though even if I had recalled the scene, I wouldn’t have confessed it. I instinctively suspected that this Michael Nesbitt thing—it had also happened once, ok, more than once, with a Life-magazine spread of Jimi Hendrix—would be testing the limits. So, confronted with a priest who just wouldn’t take silence for an answer, I made up something about fantasizing about slipping off a girl’s bra and looking at her breasts. I had heard schoolmates raving about girls’ breasts, so it seemed plausible. But it must have been pretty lame as impure thoughts go, because I think I only got an extra Hail Mary as penance that time around.
The best part was the absolution. I remember coming out of church afterwards and feeling so cleansed, so light, I once wished that a truck would run me over so that I ‘d go straight to heaven. I realized immediately that in wishing for my death I had just committed a sin more grievous that any I had just confessed a few minutes ago and had darkened my soul more blackly than even missing Mass would have. For the next two weeks I was especially careful crossing the streets and didn’t even play stickball for fear that I would be run over. God, I knew from the Old Testament, could be a daunting practical joker.
I was skimming through the database of Anglo-Saxon Penitentials that Allen Frantzen has kindly put on the web (an excellent example, by the way, of the use of technology for textual analysis). It provides a fascinating insight into life in 11th century England. It is a society that, putting aside such inconveniences as the absence of dentists and antibiotics, is one I would not want to live in, even in the light of the intellectual reassurance that the unquestioned, all-encompassing medieval Weltanschauung may have provided.
It was a world of disease and superstition, where a woman would “set her child on a roof or in an oven for the cure of a certain sickness” (penance: fast for 7 years), or “mix a man’s seed in her food and then eat it so she be more agreeable to the male” (fast for three winters), a world of man-eating swine (“swine who drink man’s blood may be eaten” [but] “if they tear dead men it is not permitted that they are to be eaten before a year has passed) and the ubiquity of vermin (“whoever gives to another drink in which there is a drowned mouse or a weasel: if he is a layman he is to fast 3 days; if a monk he is to sing 300 hundred psalms.”)
It’s no wonder that many found solace in drink. The religious orders must have been particularly prone: “If a monk vomit because of drunkenness, he is to fast 30 days”, says one provision, and: “Whoever spills his chalice during Mass is to fast for 30 days.” Sobriety was more than a virtue; how many a drunken monk must have been abducted for the authors of the Penitentials to see it fit to include the following: “if a layman carries off a monk from a monastery by stealth, he is to enter a monastery and serve God or submit himself to human servitude.”
As you might imagine, many of the tariffs of sins and penances have to do with killing and sex. You can guess which incurred the harsher punishment. “the male who (fornicates) with another male in an irrational way, if he is 20 years old, so that he practiced a shameful and evil thing, he is to desist and confess and fast 15 years;” whereas the penitent who “… strikes down another to death in anger and with secrecy, he is to fast 4 years.” There were gradations of damnability in sex between men. Interfemoral sex carried the lightest penance of three 40-day fasting periods in the year. Age was a mitigating factor: “boys who fornicate between themselves, it is judged that they are whipped,” but a forty year old would need to fast for the rest of his life. Oral sex topped the list: “who ejaculates seed into the mouth, that is the worst evil.” The guide doesn’t even give a penance for that.
Granted much has changed in the Church in the last 10 centuries, but sex between men is still in the 21st century equivalent of the Penitentials. Penance isn’t a decade of fasting but a deprivation arguably worse: self-imposed chastity, the surrendering of one of the most wondrous, life-affirming celebratory acts of human existence. There’s even an apostolate of the Catholic Church (perversely called “Courage”) to “assist men and women with same-sex attractions in living chaste lives; it uses a 12-step program that begins with the admission—or confession—that “we [are] powerless over homosexuality and our lives [have] become unmanageable.”
I stopped going to Confession when I was about 11. It was more of a coincidence, a result of our moving out to the suburbs and my going to public school, than a matter of choice. It was also about the time my Jimi Hendrix hard-ons led to something much more amazing, something that I knew I’d never confess, if only because it felt too good to be wrong.
One of the stranger tariffs goes: “If a man sleeping in church pours forth his seed, he is to rise and sing the psalter.” I spilled mine awake and wanted to sing.
Jauchzet, frohlocket! Auf preiset die Tage,
Rühmet, was heute der Höchste getan!
For you, Dieter.
Image: Giacomo Balla, Numeri innamorati, 1924