When I mentioned to my law practice that I was thinking about converting to my husband's religion, I got all kinds of weird advice. My secretary was concerned the fasting during Ash Wednesday would ruin my health. A paralegal was concerned that I could never learn Thai Chi. Yet the strangest conversation occurred at 2:30 AM during a convention in Toledo when one of my closest attorney friends tried to convince me that a priest should never be an intermediary between me & Jesus. The fact that she was a former Methodist who was about to embrace the Baha'i faith made the discussion all the more surreal. Since she was no longer embracing Jesus at all, I couldn't figure out why it was so important to her that I remain a Protestant. I guess the biases against the sacrament of confession are deeply ingrained.
I am happy to report that despite my social awkwardness that makes any public encounter with a priest or religious almost physically painful, my experiences with Confession have been nothing short of extraordinary. This sacrament has been a saving grace. I've grown more from my moments in the confessional that in any other act of faith.
For example, I ran to Saturday confession four days before my scheduled c-section with baby Maria. I entered the church in a hysterical state. All the fears that I'd have for nine months (after the miscarriage of our last baby) became crystallized in that weekend. I panic before any type of surgery. (My little sister likes to recall how I created an oral will before the removal of my wisdom teeth). As God wills it, I need to deliver each of my children through a c-section. I also live in a time where c-sections are highly controversial (health nuts think women are getting to many c-section, doctors think no women should have more than three- so I should just get my tubes tied, etc.) I happened to have one doctor during my ob rotation who started quoting to me "maternal morbidity rates" after I expressed the desire to have more children. So between the medical non-advice, and the fact that my daughter's 38 week sonogram still hadn't cleared her heart, I went to confession truly a mess.
I chose to do "old confession style" where you kneel in the dark to talk to the priest. I cheery-picked the priest, and avoided the one who always gives out light penance. I started talking to one of our Irish visiting priests and broke down in tears after a few words.
I can't remember how I phrased it exactly, but I was convinced that my lack of faith in a safe delivery was a serious sin. God had given me this baby. Yet I was totally unwilling to face the stress of delivering her. And this stress was also causing me to be thoroughly rotten to my other two kids, my husband and my mother.
I've never had a priest interrupt me in the middle of confession, but this one did. He set me straight on what was a sin, and what wasn't. He told me that my doctor had no business setting an arbitrary limit on the number of kids I was to have. I told me that everything was going to be fine in my delivery. He told me to have peace with my family.
Then he did something even more extraordinary. He asked what hospital I was delivering at. When I told him that it was a local Catholic hospital. He told me to go to Mass the morning of the delivery and to ask to receive the sacrament of the sick.
I did, and my time in the hospital chapel was amazing. Maria was due on May 31, so my husband and I attended the Feast of the Visitation Mass. All these hospital workers prayed for me and the baby in my jutting stomach. The sacrament of the sick gave me so much peace. When we reported for delivery, my surgeon started freaking out that I had severe anemia. They brought up the 3rd c-section argument again and wanted to suddenly switch me to a vaginal birth. The staff delayed Jon the in the waiting area, so he missed most of the surgery prep. When Jon finally got to the operating room, he was shocked at how calm I was.
I was shaking when I left my husband. Once I entered the room, however, a wave of peace hit me. The wave was as tangible as a wave on the seashore. I knew that all of these people had been praying for me to be strong in this moment. I knew my priest at confession, who was representing Jesus, had assured me that my surgery was going to go fine. Another priest had reminded me that all my suffering was unified with the suffering of Christ. For each measure of discomfort, the smelly oxygen tubes in my nose, the way my limp feet jiggled after the epidural- everything was done solely so that my daughter could have a safer entrance into the world.
When my husband came into the room to hold my hand, we didn't talk about all the wonderful things that we were going to do with the baby. We didn't talk about climbing the Adirondacks with her in the backpack or watching her figure out how to float in Lake Michigan. We held held hands under the blue tarp as if it was a tent which shielded us from the concerns of the world. We talked about God, and Christ's cross and what a gift it was to be here in this holy place, waiting for the birth of our fourth child.
When my surgery was done, my doctor was shocked. The hospital staff surgeon had showed her a new technique. As a result of his talent, I'd lost less blood than if I'd had a conventional delivery. She just kept saying, "we had two pints of blood on hand for you, but you didn't need anything!" I wasn't surprised, and I didn't say anything.
Confession is important- in ways we can never predict. I never would have figured out to attend a hospital Mass & assertively ask for the sacrament of the sick without attending Confession. There's a duality we face as Christians. Jesus gives us hard tasks. Yet he also strives to make our burdens light. Confession is the means that Jesus helps us conform more closely to his holy footprints.