January 12, 2010

Penance...for Real

Ruth Harrigan is an attorney and disability rights activist who blogs at WHEELIE cATHOLIC. A published poet, her poems, essays, and short stories appear on A Different Light. Now retired from competitive wheelchair tennis, Ruth provides sports commentary on Twitter as @rampracer with the hashtag #wsports.

I enjoy praying with the Virtual Abbey and retweeting prayers to my followers, some of whom join in. But when penitential prayers pop up on the screen, I recall my early encounters with penitential prayer, which had nothing to do with true penance.

Back in the third grade at Corpus Christi Elementary, we were marched to confession every Friday. As a nine-year-old, my life wasn't very exciting nor, did it seem, were my usual schoolgirl sins such as tardiness, talking in class or not doing homework. I kept thinking there had to be more to this penance thing. If Fr. Connolly was going to make me pray the entire Rosary, it might as well be for more than forgetting to wear the right color socks.

So I pulled out the family Bible. I went directly to Moses, the man with the top ten list of sins. I scribbled down all the sins I could find. At my next confession, I proudly told the priest that I had committed adultery the week before.

“Adultery?” Fr. Connolly asked. “Do you know what that is?”

I knew it started with an “A,” so it was at the top of my list. The silence from behind the dreaded window made me think I probably should have started with something I knew about, like stealing cookies. There was a commotion outside the confessional and then, I was suddenly being ushered back to a pew by an exasperated nun. “Just say some Hail Mary's,” she said.

I went home and asked my Irish grandmother what adultery was. My grandmother, who had been a flapper during the Roaring 20s, was always game to answer risqué questions. She thought for a few minutes. "Adultery is when your husband acts like a jerk," she said. That wasn't exactly helpful, although it did explain why Fr. Connolly seemed so surprised.

Five years later, when I was class valedictorian, Fr. Connolly decided it was best that we skip the customary graduation speech that year.

It took me a few more years–and much more growing up–before I realized the gift of penitential prayer, which is its invitation to be closer to my Creator. As it is written in Matthew, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, NIV).

Now I know that rest from my own sins and shortcomings is exactly what I need to find spiritual peace.


Brenda Finkle said...

I'm sitting here grinning at my computer...."class valedictorian... Fr. Connolly thought it best to skip the customary speech." ha ha ha. Thinking if you had given the speech they'd all have walked out with things to ponder - and someone would have had to resusicate Fr Connolly. It's what makes our community a vibrant one - those that seek to understand help those that are not as far along the same path. Thank you for a wonderful post and reminder. Brenda

Wheelie Catholic said...

What a wonderful definition of community! I'm discovering what a positive group of people are at the Virtual Abbey as I get to know everyone better and it is definitely a vibrant community.