As a writer, I often wish there was some magic pill I could take that would instantly transform me into Flannery O’Connor. I’ll look at a page I’ve written, think it’s genius, read it again an hour later, delete the whole thing, and start over.
Supposedly, all writers suffer this inferiority complex, and logic and experience tell me that no one becomes great at what they do overnight. But the impulse to think otherwise is really strong. It tells me that what I write needs to be perfect the first time round and that any failure is an omen I won’t “make it” as a writer.
Two years ago, when I was first thinking about converting to Catholicism, I viewed faith a little like a ‘magic writer pill.’ I thought the sacraments would transform me in a way that Calvinism and charisma had not.
The sacrament that first got me considering Catholicism was confession, or “reconciliation.” I was eating pizza and discussing religion with a Catholic friend, and after I made some insensitive comment about the pointlessness of confession, my friend quoted John 20:23. Apparently, Jesus once said to his apostles, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” How could I have missed this?
As an evangelical, I believed that to be absolved from my sins, all I had to do was tell Jesus I was sorry, ask for forgiveness, move on, and repeat when necessary. But it was never as simple as that. There were sins that, no matter how many times I confessed them in my prayers, I didn’t stop committing. Confessing in front of friends, which I tried a number of times, didn’t help much, either. There were a few moments which seemed like breakthroughs, for instance, that time at camp when we threw links of paper chains representing sin at the foot of a wooden cross. At first, it appeared successful. But the cycle would soon start over, and I’d fall back into old habits.
When I began studying the Catholic faith two summers ago, I was struck by how tangible everything was. The sacraments, the saints, the rosary – I realized that this wasn’t idolatry after all. These were tokens to help believers taste and see Christ, and I hungered for this kind of solid grace. I wanted to be a part of this faith, as old and rich as a bottle of wine, vintage 1 AD.
The day came for my confession. I was unbelievably nervous, but ready. Maybe this act would be the religious experience I wanted. Maybe receiving absolution would at last bring me peace and would once and for all free me from my guilt.
I opened the door to a small room. A priest was sitting there in a metal chair, facing the wall. There was no screen to separate us, and my stomach tightened into an even tinier knot. It took a few minutes for my confession to come bubbling out, but I told him everything – my sin, my shame, how distant I felt from God. The priest patiently listened. Then, he spoke about grace. He told me that the love of God is what really mattered.
A few minutes later, it was over; I closed the door behind me, spotless as a sacrificial lamb. But I didn’t feel so different. I was expecting the world to be brighter, my heart to be freer, the weight that had been pressing down on my shoulders to be gone. But I felt more or less the same as before. I was relieved, to be sure, but mainly that the priest was kind, and that the confession was over and done with. I’d hoped that partaking in the sacraments would change everything; it was disappointing to find I was the same messy person.
This was all about a year ago. And then, quite recently, I realized that God had been at the dirty work of sanctification all along. Last month, I managed to forgive someone. It was someone who’d hurt me, someone (like my writing, the sacraments, and a host of other things) through whom I’d tried to define myself.
I realize now that when I let go of my anger, it wasn’t just the other person I was making peace with. It was myself. It was relinquishing the idea that I’ll never be good, talented, or beautiful enough to make my life exactly what I want it to be. It was the unpleasant truth that there is no magic pill, that a lifetime of failure and faith is the only option. Solid grace is not some mountaintop experience that centers on the self – it’s living for others, forgiving them when they hurt you, and accepting God’s forgiveness when you hurt them.
And I was able to do this because of Christ, whom I’d met in the form of that priest. This was Christ, whom I’d received in my palms and dissolved on my tongue mere days before, at work in me. This was the sign of the cross over my chest, saying that despite my protests, I really am free.
Rebekah Mays is a Barnard College graduate originally from Austin, Texas. She currently works and writes in Prague, Czech Republic. You can find more of her writing on her blog The Prague BLOG or follow her on Twitter @smallbeks.
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Image #1 via Cmacauley
Image #2 via Tilemahos Efthimiadis
Image #3 via fakesalt