Friday, May 04, 2007

Bless Me Father, for I Have Sinned...

I won't bore you with how dazed I am that it's May already. Enough to say that May is one of my favourite months. For many reasons. Not least of which is that I was born in this merry month, just nine months after my parents' wedding! Of course I don't exactly remember being born. Too bad we're so totally oblivious when the most momentous things are happening to us.

The first May memory that comes to my mind is of changing from our navy, winter school uniform to a summer one of sky blue, with a white collar and pretty buttons. Such "incredible lightness of being" that summer uniform induced in me! It symbolised the unfolding of life. Gaunt, grey winter was behind us. New leaves were unfurling on the trees. Fresh green things were poking shyly but determinedly, up from the ground. Daffodils, narcissus, crocus, tulips.... The very air trembled with possibility.

I made my First Communion in May of 1954. A memory etched in my brain is of walking to church that day with my parents. My little brother is not in this memory. Maybe a neighbour was taking care of him. And even though my mother was only five weeks from giving birth to my sister, I don't remember her as pregnant that day. Not that the word "pregnant" was even in my six year old vocabulary. Maybe the memory is so clear because, for once, I had my parents' undivided attention.

I was wearing my white communion dress, which my mother had made. In photos I see a scrubbed and shining freckled face, topped by mother-primped, wavy hair. My expression betrays my embarrassment at being all dolled up, like a dog's dinner. Because, did I mention? The dress was only the half of it. I was also wearing a veil! And white, gauzy gloves, and shiny white shoes that didn't have brown laces in them. And I was clutching a bunch of lily of the valley. The parents were dolled up too, in their Sunday best, and the birds were singing. I don't remember if it had just rained, but the memory has a just-washed, sunshiny feel to it.

The rest of the day is lost in the mists. More than the ritual of First Communion, I remember the preparations of the preceding week, and the twittering of the nuns as they coached us for our First Confession. Because, without the cleansing effects of confession, those nuns were not letting us and our dingy, smudgy, six-year old souls anywhere near the altar. We practiced until those little souls were weary.

Sister[acting in loco priestus-don't bother to check my Latin, I made it up]:
"In nomine patris, et fili, et spiritus sanctus. Bless you my child."

Us[each in our turn]:"Bless me Father, for I have sinned, this is my first confession,gulp."

The holy nuns [and I use the term loosely], had drilled the Ten Commandments into us. Before going into the confession box, to whisper in the dark to the priest about our dreadful shortcomings, we were supposed to examine our consciences. This ritual to be repeated every week for the rest of our days. Nit picking, I'd call it today, since at that tender age

-we weren't much given to swearing;

-we knew nothing about false gods;

-our mothers saw to it that we kept holy the Sabbath day;

-and also took care of 'honour thy father and thy mother'.

Because, whatever about my dad, my mother stood for no nonsense. If you didn't "honour" her [as in - do what you were told], you'd feel the sting of the wooden spoon across the backs of your legs as you fled.

There was little or no chance of any of us committing murder, much as we might like to dispatch a pesky sibling here or there.

As for adultery, all we knew was it had something to do with adults. Logically enough.

Stealing was one evil we experienced first hand.
Stealee:"Sister, she stole my pencil!"
Stealer:"No I didn't, Sister. She's lying!"

Which brought us to fibbing, one sin we were intimately acquainted with.

The ninth commandment,in the list Noah,oops! I mean, Moses, allegedly brought down from the mountain, was up there with adultery. Not only were we not concerned, on the playground at recess, with coveting our neighbour's wife. We didn't even think we'd be concerned with it as adults, since most of us didn't expect to ever have wives.

Number ten was less mysterious. Coveting our neighbours' goods was as natural to us as breathing.

But...given the menu of possibilities, it's no wonder we turned to nit-picking, as our first confession turned into our second, our second into our third and so on, for the rest of our lives [the nuns assured us.] Every Saturday you'd hope it would slip your mother's mind. But every Saturday she'd remember, and send you off to the church on your bicycle, to do the weekly spiritual laundry. Lest you lose the run of yourself. No groaning or malingering allowed.

"Bless me Father for I have sinned.It's been a week since my last confession. I rolled my eyes when my mother said I had to go to bed so early [I made sure she didn't see me...]
And Father, I couldn't help myself, I pinched my little brother. And lied when my mother asked me what I'd done to him. Because Father, she sqeezes oranges to make juice for him, and it smells so lovely, but she never gives me any. And my dad said I had to put threepence in my piggybank, and I could spend the other threepence. But Father, you can't get anything for threepence, so I spent the whole sixpence on sweets. And when my dad asked me if I'd put half my pocket money in my piggybank, I told him I did. For these sins I am heartily sorry Father."

It was all very well if you got one of the nicer priests. But you never knew who was lurking behind the door to the confessional,until your nose was five inches from his ear, and it was too late to run. So you waited, quaking, on your knees in the dark, for the little window to slide open, signalling your turn to spill the beans. Some of the priests were gruff old codgers. Scary enough to make a small girl wet her knickers. And wonder, in her shame, if that was also a sin?

If you happened to have your wits about you, and a keen sense of hearing, you could entertain yourself, as you waited in the darkened cubicle, by straining to hear the muffled exchange between the priest and the penitent at the other side of the box. That was a two-edged sword though. You wouldn't want anyone eavesdropping as you confessed your sins, and then noising the news abroad......

Some of the older priests were hard of hearing, and would sometimes ask you to repeat what you'd said. Or, even worse, to "speak up my child." With a little luck you'd get off with a couple of "Hail Marys" for your penance, and stumble out, with eyes downcast and cheeks burning, hoping that no one had overheard, or if they had, that there would be no snickering as you fumbled your way into a pew and joined your hands piusly. And rattled off the Act of Contrition and your penance, with unseemly haste, so you could make your escape and go out into the sunlight to sin again.

It's been many May moons since I was last inside a confessional. For which I may possibly burn in hell, unless the nuns themselves were fibbing. But I haven't thrown the baby out with the bathwater. I believe in God. I still pray. I'd never have survived five teenagers without an unshakeable faith in the Man Above. And His Holy Mother. And all the angels and saints. I'm probably as familiar to them as a bad ha'penny.

"Oh," says St. Peter to Jesus, "it's just your woman in Florida. She's on her knees again, wondering if we could possibly help her out with her latest crisis. She's very persistent Sir. What shall I tell her this time?"

And they always come through for me.

I'm surprised every year at how quickly the year rushes to May. And it reaffirms my faith in the universe when I see new leaves unfurling on the trees, and fresh green things poking up from the ground, and I know that God's in His heaven and all's right with the world. For now.


Liz said...

Oh Molly, Molly. You've sent the nuns spinning in their graves... even I, the sacrilegious one, know that Noah was the boat guy and it was your man Moses carrying the 10 commandments down from the mountain.

Molly said...

Oh--you really got me on that one! What are you? The bible politzei? And was that the only comment you could think of?? I'm off to atone for my sins by doing a little judicious editing...

riseoutofme said...

Ah, the First Holy Communion and the granny, aunties and uncles furtively slipping the half crowns into my hot little fist....

I obviously am not as holy as you.

As for the confession debacle ....

My sins were ALWAYS a work of fiction.

Maybe I am holier than you?!

meggie said...

Molly I just know I would have HATED to be a Catholic!
I am so glad I dont have religion. We have postcards from our Great Grandmother, urging our Grandfather to go to mass! He never did.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

What a lovely and delightful post! I enjoyed every word of it.

As a child, I was so envious of The Catholics. They had everything going for them, the little "bridal" dresses for First Communion, the gorgeous stained glass windows, and all the pageantry.

For years, I was a make believe Catholic. I went to Confession and skipped school for Saints' Days. And it was good. Until the Ash Wednesday I met my mother on the street with ashes on my forehead. And then it was bad.

I really loved this post.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Have a very happy birthday month!

sMC said...

Oh Molly, I loved this post. Happy Birthday for the whole month...and I love the hot line to St Peter, don't we all have one? aubirdwoman

Diana said...

Great story, Molly! I really envied my Catholic friends when they made first Communion--those lovely, lovely white shoes. Who knew about the rest! *s*

Tanya Brown said...

Happy Birthday!

Thank you for this warm and amusing post, which is surely worthy of publication in print as well.

debi said...

This is the first time I have dropped in here. I love it. Your story makes me think of Frank McCourt. I can hear your lovely accent as I read. I will come back and read more.

Little Miss Moi said...

Dear molly. Boy am I glad I was inducted into catholicism post vatican II - don't have to worry about quite so much pomp and circumstance and wondering if I'm responding to the right latin or not. Can't tell you the last time I went to confession - in Australia, it became very popular to confess en masse in mass.

mjd said...

Oh Molly,
Time to go to work shortly so I have not finished reading this intriguing post. I shall return after work. Thank you for my award; I have been thinking about my response. I will post about the award later in the week after the silly prom business is over. Take care.

mjd said...

Oh Molly,
This is such a lovely post. You really do have wonderful knack for writing. You could (should) write a book about your childhood memories. The way that you look at childhood memories through adult eyes paints a complete picture for your readers.

Tracey Petersen said...

Our seasons are the opposite of yours, so you are describing that lovely September feeling. The one where you wake up in the morning and leap from your bed because the air feels beautiful against your sin - oops skin.

I hope that your birthday month is a happy one!

Lukey Barlow said...

Oh, Molly! You have me in absolute stitches! I went through similar rituals, but they never seemed quite so funny as when I read your words. Honestly! I have just called Cecil, so I could read it to him over the phone, but he wasn't home. Oh well. I just felt I must share the laughter. Thanks for sharing your talent with us all.