This past week we had to formally punish our 8 year old child, a bit of a first in this family. The issue arose as part of adjusting to our new work and school schedules. This meant my daughter’s days were often extended, leading to potential melt-downs at day’s end. It also came about because of a basic single-mindedness on her part, where her whole life was focused on what she wanted and her living as if she never got her way.
Specifically, she wanted to spend every available moment with her friends next door. She would lose track of time, come home late and fall behind on her other chores and responsibilities. This created her own negative loop of increasing things she was supposed to do, but didn’t. The punishment, no television for a week, was meant to bring her focus back, to make her mindful of all the things her parents do for her, all the things we say YES to and allow her to do. And to keep track and compare all the times she would say NO to us or claim that she never got her way.
This all happened rather suddenly on a Sunday night before her school week began. I was dozing off on the couch as her bedtime was fast approaching. I woke up in the middle of an argument she was having with Mom, who was patiently pointing out the basic fact that it was at least 20 minutes past her bedtime, she still needed to brush her teeth, and she needed to go to bed because she had school tomorrow. “You’re not being fair” really didn’t seem to play a role in those facts, but somehow the TV remote got thrown, a tantrum started and the resulting punishment got put into effect. So far, I don’t think I described anything unusual to parents. But what happened the remainder of the week was unusual for me. I am still reflecting upon it as I write this piece.
The following morning, Monday, began like any typical Monday morning for the start of the week. My daughter was the first up–and early. Though I hadn’t slept much the night before, being the lightest sleeper, I was second up. Technically, I was asleep during the fight she had the night before, so I was not officially a keeper of the law set down by Mom. Often, my daughter would beg to watch TV in our basement while she ate her breakfast or ask to watch after eating before she had to do the rest of our regular morning routine of getting ready for school. But she didn’t mention any of that. Instead, she asked politely for help making her breakfast. Then she asked me what I wanted for breakfast and if she could prepare that for me.
Tuesday was much the same so that by the time we got to Wednesday morning, she felt like asking me, “Daddy, have I been very good this week?” To which I had to answer honestly, “Yes.”
My daughter never said to me, “I’m not allowed to watch TV because I am being punished. I am supposed to be well behaved to you and Mom and be more appreciative of everything you do for me.” She somehow managed to do her penance without guilt and to do it more as an expression of great joy from someone pleased to be and do good.
This year, the catechetical theme for Religious Education is “Teaching About God’s Forgiveness.” As with any other parish year, many will prepare for First Communion, and will do so by first preparing for First Reconciliation. This coming weekend out of the close to 100 Candidates preparing to celebrate Confirmation in our parish, about 15 of them are also celebrating First Communion. They too are taking a crash course on “Confession” as part of sacramental preparation. And of course we have all been told in varying degrees how we are supposed to be in a “state of grace” in order to receive the sacraments.
I have my reservations about explaining Reconciliation, inclusive of judgment and penance as part of sacramental preparation. Sure, forgiveness is healing. Reconciling is healing. But nobody particularly likes negative judgment or punishment, deserved or not. I fear that often Reconciliation is seen as the clerical doorway by which residual Catholic guilt often prevents many from coming to receive Communion or other sacraments on the way to Communion. And yet, my daughter, in her own way found the grace to express goodness out of all the bellowing and mean-spirited acts we had unfortunately foisted on each other during this hectic adjustment period. She was reconciling us for a better communion.
I remembered when she was a very young child and we were teaching her the basic building blocks of etiquette: Thank you…Please…I’m sorry. There are plenty of times to practice the first two in everyday circumstances. But I’m Sorry only gets to the heart of what matters–confessing, making amends, and reconciling–when it’s for real…when a real (or grave) matter is involved.
At her tender young age, she had still managed to go astray and there were times when she needed to be prompted to use the phrase, “I’m sorry” to make things right. But these are not magical words or mere moral code/commands that when input into social situations or exported from our mouths set the subroutines straight and untangle all the shorted circuits. It requires a deeper understanding and entry into the mystery of human imperfection and the touch of grace by which unconditional love can still take root. But at her very young age, she would begrudgingly say, “I’m sorry.” And when we would follow up with asking her, WHY are you sorry…she would draw a blank. She would sob and sob and simply say over and over again, “(because) I didn’t, I didn’t…” but would have no idea how to complete the sentence.
I often feel like those children or adults celebrating their First Confession also find themselves stuck in that vortex. It could be partly that as far as their relationship with God, they truly haven’t done anything so basically upsetting that it requires a deep apology. It could be that the words and rubrics of Reconciliation still seem like codes and scripted lines for which they are still just “getting the hang of it.”
But I hope they too have a moment in their own lives to experience what I experienced this past week: This great mystery of how someone like my young daughter could be so utterly off the mark for understanding how she goes astray and yet be so on target for intuitively understanding being good again and being part of making things right. To have taken the judgment and the penance not as a permanent mark against her but as the sign of conversion. To not be identified by the judgment or the penance, but rather to be touched by grace. After all, grace is “The work worked.” And we did name our daughter, Hannah, the Hebrew word for Grace.
Copyright 2014 Jay Cuasay