One never knows what s/he might learn while standing in line waiting to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Regardless of how frequently I receive the Sacrament, there is always an air of tension both within my heart and in my exterior surroundings.
This tension, for me at least, stems from the anticipation of change. I have never adjusted well to change, though I – along with every other logical adult – know change occurs daily in ways both unnoticeable as well as in ways impossible-to-miss. Even so, my heart is always pulled between a past that is both comfortable and familiar and a destiny of being called to more, to grow and become.
This occasion was really no different at first: I stood in line, scanning the semi-dark sanctuary for a focal point – perhaps a statue or flicker of a candle – and then breathing a sigh of relief as I noticed the church was fairly vacant. (I don’t want to stand out and rather prefer a quiet, reflective moment to examine my conscience.)
As usual, I rehearsed my sins interiorly, praying that the Holy Spirit would shed light on the ways these sins have manifested themselves in my life since my last Confession, and then asking Our Lady to accompany me into the confessional, all the while experiencing that familiar tension rising as each minute passed.
But what was different this last time I made my Confession is that there were two elderly people standing right behind me, holding an entire conversation in loud whispers that echoed massively, due to the poor acoustics in the sanctuary. They both were familiar faces, as one would expect (our family having been parishioners for over six years) when attending various weekend Masses, church events, and courteously smiling and exchanging the sign of peace.
I waffled between curious eavesdropping and irritation; on the one hand, their superficial banter was a welcome reprieve from my rising interior tension, but I found it to be disruptive – not only to my own desire for silent reflection, but also to the few soon-to-be penitents scattered in the sanctuary. Besides, I was incapable of escaping their conversation, so I sighed a few times and shifted my weight, hoping to offer a nonverbal cue for them to cease talking.
It didn’t work.
So I chuckled to myself as I learned things – intimate things – about these two faces belonging to people who had formerly been strangers to me and now who, oddly, seemed to be more relevant to me in some way, despite our gaping age difference. There is a sense of camaraderie when one learns about another person, irrespective of what that information may be, and to a naturally inquisitive person such as myself, it invites further questions.
I’ve always wondered about everything, and the world invigorates my curiosity. Eager to learn, I want to acquire knowledge and devour it – or rather, savor it, relish it – because I love to learn. This is why the nagging and repetitive irritant, why? from 4-year-olds never seems to bother me; it’s because I myself am always asking why? when I learn something new. I always have. I find life to be a classroom, an endless opportunity for education. There is much to learn and absorb all around us – and within us. There’s a world we see, and an invisible and supernatural reality, and I have longed to revel in it all – the mysteries, the mysticism, the analyses, theories and philosophies.
So it was an obvious temptation for me to be smack in front of these two people, hard of hearing, who offered interesting tidbits about their lives and thus sidetracked me from the necessary remorseful self-examination I was avoiding.
I learned that the woman was named after a famous French saint, St. Germaine. I always found her name to be unique when I passed her photo in the parish directory, and more than once I recall wondering aloud, “Isn’t that a man’s name?” I never heard the name Germaine for a female, but the tale she told warmed my heart and satisfied the trite question. She said this in response to the man noting in error, “So your name is Geranium – like the flower?”
I couldn’t help but smile to myself. This was unlike any preparation for Confession I’d ever experienced before!
The woman herself chuckled and politely responded, “No, it’s Germaine, but my mother named me after the geranium flower. She loved geraniums.”
Hmm, so this begged the question, why didn’t she name you Geranium then? But as a mother myself, I see the wisdom in a namesake like a strong saint, especially if it evokes fond sentiments of a beloved flower or other memory. It seemed there was an entire story just in this woman’s very unique and seldom-heard name.
The man continued, though I sensed Germaine felt similarly to the way I did – wanting to reflect and prepare appropriately for the Sacrament. She always responded with courtesy and grace, however, much more than I would have if we were in different places in line.
“So during my drinking days as an Episcopalian…” The man behind Germaine trailed off, but I was taken aback. The fleeting thought that perhaps he, too, was feeling nervous while waiting in line for Reconciliation crossed my mind.
What? Having heard this information, I began to feel slightly uncomfortable, as if it was too much personal information for me to overhear; I cleared my throat again, praying with increased desperation that the person in the Confessional would hurry up so I could be removed from this awkward moment.
Looking in retrospect, I find this experience to be both a personal temptation (as a diversion from the necessity of examining my conscience) and a humorous excerpt of everyday life. Aren’t these the moments we tend to muse over time and time again – the segments of our otherwise normal existence that somehow draw us out of ourselves and remind us that it’s not about me, anyway?
Life isn’t about me; it’s about the other, be it God or my fellow neighbor. What matters most is our approach, perspective and intention; was mine altruistic or perhaps extending beyond the boundaries of curiosity into a nosiness or busy-body behavior? Waiting for Confession – and then reflecting upon the experience afterwards while doing my penance – was an ideal time for me to examine myself more honestly, with a clearer lens and with a dose of much-needed humility.
Now I smile and say a prayer for Germaine and the former-Episcopalian-now-Catholic when I think of that day, and the event reminds me that, while it’s perfectly healthy and even perhaps charitable when I truly care enough about others to desire to know more about them and their lives, I also need to be mindful of how far that curiosity should reach so that it does not turn into a sin of gossip or slander.
But I still can’t help but stop each day and ask myself – and God – why? There are so many ideologies and theories to be tested and known out there, in vast subjects of which I have never been aware or to which I’ve been exposed, but I have enough life experience to also realize that much of life is a mystery, and that’s okay.
God’s purpose and plan for me doesn’t include solving all of the world’s problems, because that is an impossible feat; when I ask God a question and He doesn’t answer me in a way I understand, I thank Him for the opportunity to grow in humility and fear of the Lord – the way in which I see myself as being so small while marveling at the wonder and magnificence of the One who created everything.
It reminds me of the beautiful quote from the beloved St. Therese Lisieux: “Everything is grace.” Yes, dear Little Flower, everything is grace, and how blessed life is!
What are some “aha” moments you’ve experienced in the ordinary, everyday occurrences of your own life?
Copyright 2014, Jeannie Ewing