Many of life’s most vital lessons come out of the blue. Conversely, few of them seem to come as a result of focused effort. When I try to apprehend them deliberately, it is as though God says, “That’s my job,” and then, accordingly, nothing happens. I can’t count the number of mysteries that have resisted solving until I ceased to gnaw at them with my human faculties. I suspect that organized human effort somehow precludes the vital elements of surprise and divine impetus that are necessary for perspective-shaking discovery.
One of these impromptu epiphanies happened to me in 1997 when I walked into a Catholic church in downtown Anchorage. Although I am incontrovertibly a Protestant, I was going through such spiritual turmoil that I resolved to reach in a brand-new direction for answers, not as a change of denomination but as a momentary break from routine.
It took a great deal of spiritual unrest to get me to stop and examine my life, since everything else was clicking for me at that time. In many ways, that bundle of years in the 1990s were the best of my life. That summer in particular, I had just swimmingly wrapped up my fourth semester of school and begun a summer job waiting tables at a local restaurant called Mesa Grill. College had turned out to be more exciting than I could have imagined. The whole experience was completely beyond my frame of reference, both socially and intellectually. I feasted on knowledge like a dog attacks a plate of rib-eyes. At the same time, I had more lucrative work than I could take advantage of. I never had to break a sweat to find a job, and I was in the marvelous position of enjoying all my labors. School was a welcome break from work; work was a pleasant break from school. I went at all of it with unprecedented energy and motivation.
However, I had forgotten how much I needed Jesus at the center of my life. My Christian beliefs were perfectly intact, having been well settled for some time. But because I had neglected my spiritual needs, God had been pushed into the periphery of my life. Unfortunately, the idea of a self-directed life hadn’t yet lost its speculative luster for me. I really thought I had acquired enough wisdom and discipline to avoid disaster by cherry-picking my virtues ― and my sins. And it seemed to be working; I excelled in school and kept my personal affairs in strict order.
My insides, however, were another matter. I knew well the holy standard God requires and was shamefully aware of my failure to attain it. Whenever a spiritual advisor reminded me that Christ had died for my sins, I took scant comfort. I thought perhaps Christ had died for the sins I was overpowered by, but those I deliberately indulged were another matter. There were things in my life I had repented of a thousand times to no avail. I wondered if my failure was proof that I hadn’t really been changed by the Spirit of God. At the same time, I felt a powerful calling to get things sorted out and keep going after Jesus.
That was how I ended up at the Holy Family Cathedral on a mild, sunny Anchorage afternoon. I made the decision to go almost offhandedly, thinking that perhaps the sacrament of confession, done in the strict, solemn Catholic style, might help me deal more decisively with my sins.
I arrived, pulled open one of the huge doors and walked into the cathedral. There were 10 or 12 others in the huge sanctuary, many sitting in the pews, others kneeling under the great crucifix at the front. The space was as quiet as if the cathedral had been empty. I was struck by the reverence in the air. To the right of the crucifix was a large slanted table with a hundred votive candles on it. Several of them were lit, the tiny flames shimmering in the dim sanctuary.
I sat for a moment in one of the pews and prayed briefly. Then I watched the front of the sanctuary in order to zero in on the confessional. Sure enough, after a few minutes I saw a middle-aged woman emerge from behind a mahogany door off to the side. She genuflected in the direction of the altar, then made her way past me toward the door.
No one was approaching the confessional. It was now or never. I got up, walked toward the heavy wooden door, pulled it open and went in. The room was about twice the size of an airplane bathroom with enough light to make out a padded seat and a large black screen, behind which, I knew, was a priest waiting to take my confession. The seat was placed so that the visitor, when seated, faced the wall rather than the screen, which was to his left.
I settled into the seat.
“Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,” the priest said. His voice was serene and remarkably clear in spite of the screen between us. Of course, this is one of the wonderful by-products of silence: soft sounds ring in quiet places. It’s like having a cat’s ears.
“Thank you,” I said, and then paused. Now what? The priest was silent. Strangely, I felt no pressure to move quickly.
“I’m not a Catholic,” I said finally, “I’m here because I’m going through spiritual turmoil and want to make a formal confession.”
“You are welcome here,” he said. His tone of voice hadn’t changed at all. “You may begin whenever you’re ready.” Then he was silent again.
I collected my thoughts, took a breath and began. I did not hold back. Now that I had made the decision to talk about what was bothering me, I found that my sorrows were pouring out in a deluge.
I won’t go into specifics here. There is nothing new under the sun, and all sins are variants of the one affliction each of us has: the persistent desire to go our own way in spite of the good we know we ought to do. This I confessed to the strange man without reservation, knowing there was the possibility he might secretly shrink back in revulsion.
“I’ve had so many chances and blown them in pursuit of my sin,” I said. “Even after knowing the futility of it! God has helped me up so many times, and I keep going back to this. I’m afraid I’ve gone against God’s counsel and my own conscience so often that now I can’t do anything else. I think I may have ground the gears off. Now, when I try to do something different, the wheel turns ineffectually, like a tire in the mud.”
The priest did not shrink back. To the contrary, I sensed him moving a bit closer to the screen.
“God has not abandoned you to your sin, nor is he angry with you,” the priest said. His voice was gentle. I could hear the soft fire of compassion in it. “Never despair of his love and mercy!”
There was more, but these are the words I remember. They still ring in my ears to this day. I have had occasion to reflect that this act of confession had the effect of opening some inner door so that God could place something there, way deep inside me, where he had not been able to reach before.
After I had said my piece, the priest prayed for me, referring to me in his prayer to God as “your servant.” The ecumenical spirit in those two little words didn’t immediately settle on me.
But there was another aspect to this, something sacred about the trip I made to the cathedral that day. I had never been in a Catholic church before, much less even imagined going into a confessional. There is fresh power in novelty; somehow God can move our hearts more effectively in the midst of brand-new experiences, which this most certainly was. Once I had set it in motion, God moved. When I opened myself up ruthlessly to the stranger behind the screen, God comforted me and introduced a new principle: unconditional forgiveness. It was as if God was saying, You have been proceeding on the belief that the most important thing is for you to get the sin out of your life. But it’s not. The most important thing is for you to include me in your life, no matter what else is going on. Not only do I understand why you persist in your sin, I will never run out of forgiveness for you. The most important thing is for you to continue calling out to me.
And so I have, although God has had to come back around to rally me many times. He never seems to get tired of doing it, as though each failure on my part is a new opportunity for God to display his patience and compassion.
“…I don’t need your sacrifices…What I want from you is your sincere thanks; I want to fulfill my promises to you. I want you to trust me in your times of trouble so I can rescue you, and you can give me glory.” Psalm 50: 13-15, TLB