Father Don leans forward in his chair. The air of the confessional is quiet, cool, and light.
The small Polish priest is in all-black attire, save for the strip of white collar at his throat. He offers his hand to me. I take it in mine, soft. We briefly shake hands and I seat myself on the edge of the chair in front of him. I want to get in and out quickly.
“Hello, Father.” I smile at him, crossing my forearms and hands over my legs to hide how short my shorts are. He smiles warmly at me and kindly does not take notice of my gesture.
“Welcome. How long has it been since your last Confession?”
“Maybe a month or so, Father.”
“OK. Let’s pray that you make a good Confession.” He bends his head down, his soft hands folded at his knee. His muttering is nearly inaudible. I bend my head down, making up a prayer and finishing before him.
His gray-white hair is slicked back, smooth and clean, with a razor-straight part off to the right side. His frame is small, suggesting he has perhaps taken the Lenten practice of fasting too far. His shoulders and chest are the same size as the 11-year-old boys who tend to the candles and incense at Mass. There is something about him. Humility. In his face. In the quiet bend of his arms. In the slope of his shoulders and neck. My shoulders straighten in his presence. I tug my shirt down to thoroughly cover my somewhat exposed midriff. Then I begin.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”
I first came to him when I moved to the apartment on Crescent Street. I called my mom to tell her how close I was to St. Isidore’s, to its high spire shooting out of the highway only three streets away from my new home. I can walk there, I told her. I knew she would be pleased.
It’s an old church, one of the first in Grand Rapids. Its high cathedral ceilings and large stained glass windows brightly illuminate the life-sized Stations of the Cross circling the walls of the church. The inscriptions below them are in Polish. Most of the parish is Polish, and they read in their first language easily.
I cannot read the Polish, but I don’t need the Stations interpreted. The anguish in Christ’s face as the weight of the cross crushes his right shoulder to the ground, the agonized twist of his mouth as his knees dig into the dirt. He has fallen for the first time. No words are needed to explain this Station to me. I often sit before it as I prepare for Confession.
There is a light bulb next to the door of the confessional. I wait for it to turn green. Red means someone is in the middle of confessing. Green means Father is available. I kneel at the pew and watch for the green light. Today, I am ready to confess my sins.
“I’ve been too intimate with my boyfriend,” I will tell Father Don. It’s always the same thing. Only last time I wouldn’t confess it. Not that I wouldn’t confess it, because I said it out loud to him. But I wouldn’t feel bad about it.
“I don’t feel guilty about it, Father,” I admitted reluctantly.
Father stopped fiddling with the rosary beads in his softly pruned fingers. I could see dents where the chain connecting the beads had left their mark. He was silent, looking straight at me, waiting for me to change my mind. It wasn’t changing.
“What do I do if I don’t feel bad about it?”
“Well,” the beads began winding around his fingers again, “you accept that it isn’t the right thing to do whether you feel guilt for it or not.”
I thought about what he said. I wanted to do the right thing.
“I can’t confess it, Father. I don’t think it was wrong.”
It was a dead heat. Father Don looked at me. I looked at him. The beads were still.
“Then I can’t absolve you.”
I shrugged and put my chin in my hand, examining the carpet closely. I knew I couldn’t do it, so I stood up.
“OK then.” Father Don stood up too.
“Come back and talk to me anytime.” His voice was hopeful. His eyes were full.
“OK, I will. Thank you, Father.”
I walked out of the confessional that day, hoping I’d turned a new page. But I didn’t. It wasn’t long before I was back again with the same story. Only this time, I was ready to really confess.
“I’ve been too intimate with my boyfriend,” I tell Father Don. I am aware of how Victorian I sound. I wish I could use the word sex, but I think I’d die in the confessional if I did.
“OK, OK.” His eyes are on the carpet. His head bobs up and down slowly in understanding. He doesn’t hold last month against me. I think he’s relieved that I’m back.
He begins to speak slowly. “I visit the prison from time to time, you know. Priests are often called there,” he tells me by way of explanation. But I already know this. He told me this three weeks ago, and three weeks before that. I know this story so well I could recite it. Instead I nod.
His voice is quiet and slow. He is patient with his delivery. “For my security and for my safety, a guard is present and between the inmate and me is a table. You see, the table separates us so that nothing can happen to me. He cannot reach me across the table.”
I nod again and twist the ring on my index finger around and around. I want to look as humble as he looks.
“That’s how it should be with your boyfriend. Do not be alone with him. And always keep a table’s length between the two of you.” Father Don rolls his eyes slightly at his own words. It’s an effort to let me know that he realizes how silly I find this. “Then nothing can happen.”
We exchange grins. We know I am an adult woman, and we both know how his advice sounds. But he wants me to follow it anyway. His eyes seem to beg just try it. I promise it will work! I nod appreciatively. This time I will do just as he says. I want him to believe it.
“Anything else?” he asks. I continue with my Confession.
Father Don perches in the chair of the confessional waiting for me. It’s been a month since I saw him last. His head is bent down to his chest when I walk in. I wonder if I have to wake him.
“Father?” I call out timidly. His head shoots up from his chest. He comes to life and smiles full at me.
“Hello! Come. Have a seat. Welcome.” His voice is still soft. Still warm. Still full of humility. I hope he recognizes me this time. His smile suggests he does.
I begin. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been about a month since my last Confession.”
I explain to him how it is with men. How it isn’t working. How I want to get married. How far my boyfriend is from being ready. Father nods. The light streaming through the windows falls between us. I watch a ballet of dust in silence.
“Uh-huh, uh-huh. I see. My sister is a nun, but she did date before. Do you know what she always tells me?”
I do. I know because Father Don has already told me what she always tells him. I don’t know how to answer him. Do I lie and play dumb? In the confessional? Or do I tell Father that he’s already told me his celibate sister’s dating advice? I hesitate, my mouth slightly open. I tug at the hem of my skirt. It rides up past my knees if I don’t watch it.
“Have I already told you about this?” There is a light in his eyes. A band of recognition.
“Uh . . . I think so.” My skirt lays over my knees now. I look straight ahead at him.
“Oh, oh . . . so you know. But it bears retelling. She says, ‘A woman chases a man until he catches her.’ ”
This is one of Father’s favorite things to say. You can tell. His eyes gleam. I know he loves how clever this phrase is. I want to think it’s clever too.
“That’s good,” I say, smiling at its cleverness.
“When she stops chasing him, he catches her,” he repeats, jabbing the air at every syllable for emphasis. “So you need to let go. Let him catch you.” He smiles his shy smile.
It’s impossible for me to not like him. Even if he sent me away without absolution before. Even if he never remembers me. Maybe he does remember. I come in every month with the same stories, the same sins. I keep falling the same way. Aren’t we both just telling the same stories?
My penance is to sit in front of the altar. To contemplate God. On God’s will for me. I silently slip into a pew two rows back from the altar. The air smells like Murphy’s Oil Soap and incense.
The Polish Stations surround me. They are enormous. Bigger than life-size. Jesus falls for the second time. Jesus falls for the third time. I let my knees rest on the cool kneeler. The cushion exhales as it adjusts to my weight. I brush the seat of my skirt to make sure it isn’t riding up again.
I hear a click from the back of church. In the cavernous quiet, it echoes. I hear a swishing, a padding of feet getting closer, moving swiftly. I do not turn around because this is church. I run my fingernails through the grooves in the wood of the pew and look up just in time to see Father Don. He nods to me as he passes by, careful not to interrupt my prayer.
I’m supposed to be praying; that’s part of my penance, part of my “supposed tos.” There are so many “supposed tos” here, and I am constantly failing, constantly falling. The Stations of the Cross dominate even this large cathedral. The enormity of them circles the interior of the church like a narrative too big for any of us to follow. But I can try. I mean to try.
Ahead of me, Father Don is tiny and he moves quickly, rearranging items on the altar, a book here, a candle stand there. Maybe I am not supposed to be watching him; maybe he is a distraction from my contemplation of God. But it doesn’t feel like it. The magic of perspective makes him even smaller than he is, like a hummingbird darting around the altar, feeding it, guarding it, bringing it to life. He is dwarfed by the falling figures, but his movement makes them disappear. When he is done, he bends his middle toward the tabernacle and darts off to a side room where his priestly garments and priestly life await him.
I smile at him though he doesn’t see me, and then I fold my hands around my face to pray. I can smell the spicy scent of the pews in them and it is a comfort. Enough of a comfort, at least, until my next visit.