Be Praised, my Lord, for those who grant pardon for love of thee…
The world is full of people longing for pardon.
Hundreds of visitors milled about beneath the watchful gaze of the granite saints, under the great dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Cameras flashed and tourists pointed, and some folks even prayed. I stepped into a small wooden closet, a confessional, in the eastern wing of the ancient cathedral. The sign outside the booth said that confessions could be heard in Italian and English at this one.
Having spent most of my life as a non-Catholic Christian, the practice of confession was one that, since my conversion to the Catholic Church, was still a bit awkward for me. But I knew my sin, and I knew I needed this. It hung over me like a dark cloud, raining shame down upon me, sometimes in a gloomy shower, sometimes in a hurricane of guilt. They come without warning, these storms, and the best a man can do is take shelter or be torn to pieces by the relentless winds. And the world is full of people who’ve been torn to pieces.
I took a breath, and began my quiet confession. “Bless me, father, for I have sinned….”
I have always had a tender place in my heart for winos, and hopeless drunks. They are men caught stranded and alone in a perpetual hurricane. In my mind I can see three winos in the midst of the tempest, four drunks in the middle of a storm.
n my mind some moments that will remain with me for a long time to come.
He was drunk again. It was a summer day, in that last California summer before my year of exile. It hurt me deeply to see him like this, because this was not the man he was anymore. Grace and friendship and the Spirit had long been at work, but it seemed they were working their way into the frightening places, the places in his heart and soul that shamed him most. So here he was, weeping and pathetic as he was the first day I met him, wallowing in the remorse that had sent him to drink so many years ago. Anger and tears poured out of him, and like a cornered animal, he fought in his fear to keep us away.
He was drunk again. It was a warm spring day, a year and a half into my year of exile. He didn’t like the apartment he was staying in; he said they did crack there. He didn’t do crack. But where else can a man go if he wants to be free to drink? We were parked outside the apartment, and he sat in the passenger’s seat of my borrowed car. I put my hand on his shoulder, as his tears fell perfectly onto the seatbelt strap. “I’m just upset,” he said. “I’m just upset.”
He was drunk again. It was a cool autumn night in California, two years before my year of exile. I held his hand on the small kitchen table. “Everybody’s been so nice to me,” he said. “I don’t know why everyone’s been so nice to me.” He loved people deeply. He poured much love into the people around him, but kept it from the one person he had deemed unworthy of receiving it: himself. “I don’t know why everyone’s been so nice to me.”
I was drunk again. It was a late night, less than a year before my year of exile. I told myself it was just to help me get to sleep, and I wasn’t very drunk, and I’d always had trouble sleeping. But of course it was more than that, even if I couldn’t admit it. If I could fall asleep more quickly, I would have less time to lay there and think of my regrets. I’d failed in my relationships. I’d betrayed my closest friends for the sake of my own disfunction, even while working and praying with them every day . And all while living as a missionary. Of course, I told myself, this was in the past, and I’d accepted forgiveness. Maybe everyone else had forgiven me, but I’d never left the shame of my failures very far behind. Sometimes they felt as close as the dark of my room.
The past is a thing that somehow gets away with disobeying the laws of time and space: The past is always present. Oh, the good things, the sweet and lovely things, stay in their place in the greys far behind you, and take on the shape of mist-covered mountains. But the bad things, the broken and shameful things, they move with you. They follow at your feet like a sick dog, tripping you up and sending you facedown in the dirt. That, of course, is when the storm breaks, and the rain comes, and that sick dog becomes your closest friend.
He was weeping again. He lay on his back that night, staring at the curtain of the sky, and the night seemed to press upon him with the weight of a thousand sins. Brother Leo slept on the ground not far from him, and Francis did his best to stifle the groans that rose from his throat. The wretchedness of his heart seemed to cut through his chest like a knife. When the world acclaims you as a living saint, the weight of your failings becomes unbearable, and you find yourself beating your breast all the harder for living such a lie.
The morning brought no relief, when Brother Leo arose to begin their morning prayers.
“Brother Leo,” he said quietly, “we have no breviary for our matins, so I want to pray, and I want you to repeat something to me exactly as I tell you. And please, don’t change a word.”
Leo, unsettled but ever obedient, agreed.
“I will say this: ‘Francis, you have done so much evil, committed so many sins, that you’re only worthy of hell.’ And you, Brother Leo, will answer like this: ‘It is very true that you are worthy of the nethermost hell.’”
So Francis began with his self-accusation. “Francis,” he told himself, “you’ve done so much evil, committed so many sins, that you are only worthy of hell.”
But a strange thing happened when Brother Leo meant to answer as he was instructed. All that came out was this: “God will work so much good through you that you will certainly go to heaven.”
“No, no, no!” said Francis. “Don’t say that. When I say, ‘Francis, you have committed so many crimes against God that you are only worthy to be cursed by him,’ you will say, ‘Yes indeed! You will be counted among the cursed!’ Understand?”
“Yes, my Father,” said Leo.
And Francis began again, with many tears and great sadness. “O Lord of heaven and earth, I’ve done so much wrong, I’ve committed so much iniquity, I deserve only to be cursed by thee!”
And Brother Leo said, “O Brother Francis, among all the blessed, the Lord will cause you to be especially blessed.”
“No, no, no!” cried Francis. “Why do you answer me like that?! I command you under holy obedience to say as I tell you. I want you to say, ‘You aren’t worthy of finding mercy’. Got it?”
“Yes, my Father,” said Leo.
And Francis began a third time, with many tears and great sadness. “O wicked Brother Francis, do you really think God will have mercy on you? You who have sinned so much against the Father of mercies that you’re not even worthy of finding mercy?” And his weeping rose to the morning sky.
And Brother Leo said, “God the Father, whose mercy is infinitely greater than your sin, will show you great mercy and grant you many graces.”
“NO, NO, NO!!” cried Francis, exasperated. “How can you presume against holy obedience? Why won’t you answer me as I’ve told you??”
Brother Leo choked a little as he spoke. “God knows, Father Francis, that I resolved in my heart to answer you each time just as you told me! But the Lord made me to speak as it pleased him!” Tears now flowed freely from Leo’s eyes as he pressed on more boldly. “And not only will he have mercy on you, but you’ll receive from him beautiful graces, and he will raise you up and glorify you to all eternity! For he that humbles himself shall be exalted, and I can’t say otherwise, because it’s God that speaks by my lips!”
Francis was silent. His tears glistened in the rising sun, and the morning’s new mercies dried them.
“Alright,” he said quietly. “Alright. Then I suppose there’s nothing left to do but sing.”
The world is full of people longing for pardon. Francis knew this longing, and he knew that he was unworthy of such grace. He also knew the sweetness, that graceful weightlessness, of pardon and forgiveness. In one of his letters, he wrote of this sweetness:
By this I wish to know if you love God, and me His servant and your servant: that there be no brother in the world who has sinned, no matter how great his sin may be, who after he has seen your face shall ever go away without your mercy…. And even if he does not seek mercy, ask him if he would like to receive it.
He was eating again. It’s a year and a half into my year in exile, and I’m looking at a photo my friend emailed to me. It’s his birthday in this picture, and he’s working on a pile of chicken wings at the Golden Corral. Friends surround him, and I miss him. But at least he’s wearing the t-shirt I sent. I long to see him again, to embrace him. I know he still fights, quite hard sometimes, against grace and pardon, I know he’s afraid, but he’s losing.
He was drunk again. I saw him today, a year and a half into my year of exile, his head lolling into his lap, a cigarette nearly forgotten and dangling precariously from his fingers. I said a prayer, and reminded myself of the persistence of hope. Grace is still telling his story, and it’s not finished yet.
He was singing again. I listened from 2600 miles away, a year and three months into my year of exile. Tears came to my eyes. He stood before his church, telling his story of grace and forgiveness, laughing, and singing a song of the mercy of God. The Father was telling him just what he was worth. He had been very nice to him.
I’m confessing again. The shame of my failures pours out in stammering words. The priest listens carefully, and as he offers the words of absolution, tears roll down my cheeks and into my beard. I’ve gotten a little better at this confession thing since that day in Rome. That little confession, so many months ago in the little wooden shack in St. Peter’s Basilica, was good practice.
Speaking of which, I really liked that one. The priest, who I’m sure had heard about a hundred confessions already that day, spoke the words of absolution in a thick Italian accent. “May God give you uh-pardon and uh-peace,” he said, “and I absolve uh-you from uh-your sins in-a-the name ofuh the Father, and ofuh the Son, and ofuh the Holy Spirit. And… uh-bye-bye.”
“Bye-bye,” I said, smiling. I chuckled to myself, for God the Father, whose mercy is infinitely greater than my sin, had shown me great mercy and granted me many graces.