Recently on a Saturday afternoon, in preparation for Advent, I trudged to Confession at a nearby church. Usually the priest is in one of the old confessionals by the side, but the church is undergoing renovation, the pews have been removed and replaced by plastic chairs, and it took me awhile to realize that Father, in full view of the early birds for 5:00 Mass, the workmen hauling extension cords to hook up the Christmas lights, and the practicing choir, was up front with a purple stole around his shoulders and a kneeler beside him.
I like this priest a lot, though I don’t even know his name. He doesn’t speak English very well, in light of which he always stumbles through the Gospel reading and never gives a homily (I’ve only ever heard him say daily Mass). But he has a face that’s full of a life deeply experienced: full of compassion, full of suffering, full of joy.
Confession is very simple with him. You say your thing, he absolves you. Today was no different. He was scrolling through his cell phone when I approached but at once put it down, bestowed upon me a fatherly smile, listened to my confession, and as penance, gave me two Our Fathers. “Meditate on them,” he added.
Beforehand, I’d happened to run into a friend who had also come for Confession. That’s a rare occurrence for me in greater LA—to run into a friend at church, period; never mind one who’s come for Confession—and to see him lifted my heart. We chatted for a bit, wished each other well, exchanged Advent blessings. We didn’t tell each other what we had to confess. We didn’t do our penance, then meet up for coffee. We knelt before Father, one by one, and went our separate ways.
This is the kind of thing that if you’re looking for a Church that’s a social club, a fellowship, or an “experience,” can seem very thin. But membership in the Mystical Body of Christ does not depend on our feelings; it depends on our orientation of heart; on where we bring and put our bodies. To be a Catholic is to enter into a relationship with Christ that is at once intimate beyond imagining and entirely anonymous, hidden, and private.
The Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor once observed: “I went to St. Mary’s as it was right around the corner and I could get there practically every morning. I went there three years and never knew a soul in that congregation or any of the priests, but it was not necessary. As soon as I went in the door I was at home.”
“To expect too much,” she wrote elsewhere, “is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.”
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, in the midst of her own struggles and privations, and with her mother’s heart, understood the point perfectly: “Make your careful preparation of the purest heart you can bring to him,” she wrote, “that it may appear to him like a bright little Star at the bottom of a fountain.”
This, from a woman who lost a fortune, watched a husband and two of her children die, converted to Catholicism against the staunch opposition of her family, founded a religious order, struggled financially for much of the rest of her life, and died at 46 at least partly from exhaustion.
For my own part, if I trudged alone to Confession and a distracted, lackluster priest (not that my priest was) looked up from his smart phone, barely listened, and gave me two Our Fathers every time I went for the rest of my days, that would be fine. That would be brilliant. That would be the gift of my life.
Meditating after my Confession, in fact, I saw for the first time ever that the phrase “in heaven” occurs twice in the Lord’s Prayer: “On earth”—a tangible place that will someday disappear; “in heaven”—not a place, but a state of being.
We do not come to Mass to have a social, an aesthetic, or even a spiritual experience (though sometimes we do, and that’s beautiful); we come to beg for mercy.
We come to stand in back of the church, beat our breasts, and realize that it is a complete and utter miracle that we are allowed even to be in the same room with the Alpha and the Omega, the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings; the Great Physician, the Great Priest, the Savior of the World, our One, our Only, Friend.
That is why it doesn’t matter whether we have any friends at church, whether we know the priest’s name, whether he even speaks our language. We might long for those things, but in the end all that matters is that we be counted “worthy to stand in your presence and minister to you,” as one Eucharistic prayer runs
All that matters is that we come, in fear, in trembling, in as much purity of heart as we can muster. It matters especially now, during Advent.
Because the whole world is preparing for the birth of a baby.
HEATHER KING is an essayist, memoirist, blogger, speaker and Catholic convert. She has authored numerous books, among them Holy Desperation; Parched; Redeemed; Shirt of Flame; Poor Baby; and Stumble: Virtue, Vice and the Space Between. She contributes a monthly column to Magnificat, and writes a weekly column on arts and culture for Angelus News. Heather lives in Los Angeles and blogs at www.Heather-King.com.