I remember walking home from grade school with my sister and brother on the day that my class had started discussion of the Sacrament of First Confession, and Proper Respect and Reverence for the Sacrament by Which Our Souls are Cleansed. It had been a day of capital letters like that, and stern and severe expectations, and I was sore afraid and weary.
Once home, I performed the usual rituals of eating everything I could get my hands on before my many brothers did, and wrestling with one brother, and threatening assault and mayhem on the youngest for sheer entertainment, before our sister, who would later become a nun in a monastery, told us, not for the first time either, that if we did not stop threatening the youngest she would snap our fingers like twigs, which she was fully capable of doing, being one of those wiry, strong young women with a jab like you wouldn’t believe. Then it was time for dinner.
After dinner I did my homework, and then I set to the particular project assigned to us by Sister Marie for that night: Choose one older sister or brother who has been cleansed by the Sacrament of First Confession, and open discussion of the implications of same for you, writing at least one page of notes on your conversation, which will be reviewed tomorrow in class, and for this assignment there are no excuses on this green earth that will get you out of it, not hungry dogs nor the deaths of remote aunts, not bad weather nor awful illness. If you are not in class tomorrow with your assignment in hand, written in such a manner that I can actually read it, you will not proceed with Preparation for the Sacrament of First Confession, and God help the boy or girl in my class who does not so proceed. It would be better that you were saddled by a millstone and thrown into the stormy sea.
My sister being busy thrashing a brother, I approached my oldest brother, who not only had survived the Sacrament of First Confession, but had been Confirmed in Christ, and was now in Catholic high school, and doing so well academically that there was a chance—a whisper of a chance to be sure, but oh how alluring that whisper was—that he might, if all went well and prayers were answered and our father robbed a series of banks, be accepted by, and subsequently enroll at, the University of Notre Dame, where the Madonna lived when She came to America.
My oldest brother, usually not especially helpful with homework assignments, given that he had to study a thousand hours a day to have a chance at Notre Dame, was this evening for some reason in a cheerful mood, and he readily assented to assist me in this demanding task. He suggested, with as much solicitous kindness as I can ever remember from those years, that he propose some lines of inquiry, and I take careful notes, so that as I prepared for the Sacrament of First Confession I would have a running head start on the kind of sins that the priest was looking for, and not waste anyone’s time in the box, time being a precious thing, of course.
This seemed sensible to me, and anyway I was so much younger than him and I so worshipped the ground he walked on that, if he had suggested I sew a skunk costume and sing Perry Como songs backwards in confession, I would have leapt at the idea, so I got my notebook and prepared to take down, as meticulously as possible, his suggestions.
Start by being honest about lust, he said. Write that down. Admit lustful intentions right away. Then go to theft and battery. The priest will still be rattled by your opening move and he won’t be quite as horrified by the sins that ride on the brilliantine coattails of lust. Are you writing this down? Brilliantine—I’ll spell it for you. Then stall with the traditional dishonoring of your mother and father, which God knows is true. Then slip in lust again; you’ll have lulled him for a moment with the cliché. Choose a girl you have a humiliating crush on and say how you daydream about her full and delicious lips, not unlike a perfectly ripe pear, and just as inviting to bite. Write that down.
But I don’t have a crush, I said. What’s a crush?
Never mind, he said. Now here I suggest you throw a haymaker. Make his life interesting. The poor man, inundated by the simple sins of children for hours at a time. Give him something to remember. Tell him you punched a cardinal in the nose once and not by accident. You can’t remember which cardinal, but you got your feet set and really nailed the guy, small as you are, and you would do it again in a heartbeat.
Don’t go into detail, it’ll just confuse him, and for God’s sake don’t lie and say something like the cardinal was at our house for dinner. It’s a mistake to lie in confession, because the priest is a wily old goat and he remembers everything. He’s trained. Whereas you are not trained and he will catch you in a conundrum and you’ll have to go to prison and Mom will be mad. Conundrum—it’s spelled like it sounds. Sound it out slowly. This is your homework, not mine.
By now I had almost a whole page of notes, and my brother leaned back and thought for a moment about how to end it exactly right. I don’t think I had ever been so grateful to him as I was that moment; for him to take a few precious moments out of his own homework time to help me, when I didn’t have a mosquito’s chance in winter of being accepted or enrolling at the University of Notre Dame, was just amazing to me.
You’ll only have a minute or two left by this point, said my brother, leaning in companionably and checking my handwriting. I’d go back to lust, just to get him off balance again, and then end with something out of left field. Tell him, as quietly as possible—lower your voice, you know, and deepen it a little, like you are really ashamed and embarrassed—that you have decided to be a Lutheran. Leave the word hanging there luridly in the air, you know what I mean?
Then say your Act of Contrition as fast as you possibly can and get out of there before he can stick his head out of the box and see who you are. Understand? If he sees you, it’s prison for sure, and Mom will be mad.
This completed my page perfectly, and I marveled at how he knew exactly when to stop helping me with my homework. He went back to his own homework for Catholic high school, and I made a clean copy of the notes he had given me, making sure that every word was written as clearly as I could possibly write. Then I wrote Jesus Mary Joseph on the top of my paper, and signed my name, and put the assignment carefully in my binder, and went to bed.
I don’t think I ever looked forward to school more than I did that night, for I knew full well that I had completed the assignment in a way that no boy before me ever had, and that Sister Marie would find a paper filled with marvels on her desk in the morning, and very probably neither she nor I would ever forget the instant when she looked up, with her shining young face prettier than Julie Andrews or any other saint who ever was, and found me sitting in the fifth seat in the first row, beaming.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine.