Not very long ago — or, if you wish, a long, long time ago — when I was still new to the weekly Mass and only beginning my journey through the RCIA program (the almost-year-long walk to the baptismal font and my first Eucharist), I spent a few months struggling with a particular part of the Mass. One place. One moment. It made me unsettled in those days. It is called “the penitential rite.”
I love the Mass — and I mean this word when I say it. My RCIA director called it a “special connection with the liturgy.” I become lost in the flow of it, in the Word and Sacrament, in the music and the image and the aroma, in the pace of it. It runs deep into the heart of me, and even before I understood many things about it, I had understood it. Except the penitential rite. I started tripping over it as soon as I began to come to Mass not as a benevolent observer but as a true participant.
What is the penitential rite? After the entrance and the greeting, to put ourselves in the proper condition for celebrating the Mass, the presider asks the congregation to recall or reflect on our sins we are asking God to forgive and makes a short pause. Then he proclaims a general confession, and we repeat together, Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy. This pause between his exhortation and the start of collective begging for mercy tends to be but five seconds long.
The reason I could not settle easy with the penitential rite in my early months with the Church is that I could not understand what those five seconds accomplished. I didn’t know how to handle the pause — and not for the lack of trying. At first, I tried recalling and listing my failings of the day or the week — but I could usually remember too many to fit in, and I would get cut off after a thought and a half. So I began to go over the previous week in my mind before the start of the Mass, so that my inner confession during the “pause” resembled something like “Ummm… what I said before, Lord. You remember, right?” This just did not satisfy. Did not measure up to the grandeur of the rhetoric. My third strategy entailed rattling off a short list of habitual downfalls I tend to battle every week. As the “pause” started, I quickly would enumerate the first three — and the time was up. None of it worked except to make me feel a little childish.
After a while, I sort of gave up on this bit, and my conversation with Him about human nature and about my nature and about its intricate interplay with my free will proceeded in starts and stops quite independently of the liturgical schedule. Yet I felt I was running into a dead end not only within but without the walls of the church when it came to the subjects of penance, repentance, confession, and reconciliation. I was becoming somewhat confounded on how to handle what I believe, still, to be a continuing process of perfecting the imperfect — a process that should be an inspired, though not effortless, journey upward toward a more intimate union, driven not by guilt but by a growing awareness, now a flight, now a climb. Yet it was the awareness, or rather its degree, that was giving me trouble more so than the repeated failure to live up to my own expectations. I never expected to get everything right, but I was digging into my heart and mind then more than ever, and into every action and motivation, and watching myself sometimes sadly, and I was wondering if I was taking my own failures seriously enough — because in the never-ending ecstasy of my every step in the light of His smile, in those days, I wondered if I was feeling guilty enough. And I felt guilty about that.
That’s the thing about unconditional love, you see. I am disappointed in myself when I fail my own resolve, but He is not. I can be disgusted with my own selfishness, and I spent decades hating my own body—but He never has. In knowing it all, seeing it all in me, He has infinite patience for what I am and infinite love. Only realizing this did I realize how foolish, how strange must my concern have been at my inability to enumerate every imperfection in my nature and every failing in my actions. What a silly enterprise…
It took a bit of time, but I know, I think — at least partly — where I went wrong. What my mistake was.
My mistake was conflating the effort toward better living — the effort of discernment — with offering up repentance for what had already been done, unchangeable. The goal of the former is awareness as acute as possible both of my own limitations, my habitual failings, my weaknesses, and of the goal toward which I strive — the ideal life of agape and service and beauty, no matter the sacrifice, a life that belongs to the Truth realized, the Word incarnate, my Love eternal. The goal of the latter is clearing away the specs of confusion and guilt and any impediment to His voice in my soul — it is resolve and reconciliation, it is restoration of purity in effort and intent so that the road ahead can be pursued, the two of us together hand in hand. It doesn’t require a laundry list of sins. It requires opening the lid of the secret and guilty chamber of the heart and pouring them out.
Here is the thing, the key, the problem: I do not know my sins. I don’t remember my every failing. I am not aware of every time I’ve hurt someone with a careless word. More importantly, I am not conscious of the deeper movements of my mind. It is somewhat amusing to think, now that self-knowledge has taken on a new meaning to me, that many of my temptations, desires, and decisions — the very reasons I do what I do — take place on a level hidden from my rational consideration. I can barely guess as to what I am. But what I can do — all I can do — is offer it up to God. And to do that, I don’t even need five seconds.
He knows what I am. To the deepest core, into every crevice, in the most intimate way, my Love knows the movements of my soul. My Love remembers what I’ve done and understands why I’ve done it. And to accept me as I am, He doesn’t need five seconds either.
And so, here, it’s been a while since I stopped struggling with the penitential rite. I come to the altar and close my eyes, and, feeling the blood-heavy heartbeat rush, I open myself completely to Him — or I try — without boast or shame, without fear or a single word. There are no words that capture my penance, the dark folds in the fabric of my life, and no thoughts to reach to their depth — and no point in trying. I don’t know what He knows. But I know that He knows — and I give it all up to Him and offer it up and I whisper only, “My Love, Yeshua… All that I am, whatever I am, is of You. Here I am. Take me as I am.”