I was raised Catholic, but don’t jump to any conclusions. Yes, my experience was frightening, but not in the way one might assume. It was a nun who scared the bejeezus out of me.
I was 11 years old and attended public school, but as a member of the local Catholic parish, I was required to attend “religious instruction” every Monday afternoon. (To this day, I’m not too fond of Mondays.)
The “instruction” in those days consisted of nuns forcing us to memorize answers to the questions in the Catechism (something we were too young to understand) while we sat for what seemed like hours confined to wooden desks (the kind that were attached to each other, with little inkwells and fancy wrought-iron scrollwork on the sides).
I was a good little Catholic. Most of the time I paid attention to what the nuns were saying. Some of the time I stared out the window, and occasionally I just wondered how the Catholic school kids could stand those weird little desks.
I wish I had spent more time staring out the window and less time listening to the nuns, because one thing a nun said had a traumatic effect on me. She was talking about sin, and the right way to go about Confession.
At Confession, we were supposed to walk into a tiny wooden space about the size of a closet, close the curtain behind us, kneel on a hard board, and wait until a faceless shadow appeared behind a sliding door. Pretty scary so far, right? Then we had to tell the faceless shadow (the priest) all of the “sins” we’d committed since our last Confession. Sin had been described to us as black marks on our pure white souls, marks that could only be erased by going to Confession.
We were taught that if we died with sins on our soul, we had to suffer before we could get into heaven. And God forbid we should die with a “mortal” sin on our soul. (Mortal sins were serious crimes, like murder, or coveting our neighbor’s wife, or swearing, and other shit like that.) If we’d done any one of those things and then had the misfortune to die without getting to Confession first, we were doomed to a fiery Hell. At least that’s what we were taught back then. We were taught those things beginning when we were only seven years old, the “age of reason” according to the Church.
It was bad enough having to go to Confession, and to be introduced to concepts of death and suffering at such a tender age, but forcing us to memorize and recite answers to God-questions like brain-dead parrots was unforgivable.
But the worst part, for me, was what one particular nun told us during religious “instruction” when I was 11 years old. She said that if we forgot to tell a sin during our Confession, it totally negated the whole Confession. We would get back ALL of the sins we’d confessed that day. They’d stick to our souls like glue until our next Confession. And then if we still forgot to confess the sin, we’d get all of THOSE sins back, too. In other words, if we made one tiny mistake during a Confession, it was almost guaranteed that we’d be going to Hell forever.
I was terrified. I convinced myself that I’d probably forgotten to tell one of my sins once, but because I’d forgotten it, there was no way I’d ever be able to confess it, and so I was going to Hell for sure.
Hell. Permanent, everlasting suffering of the worst kind. Eleven years old.
I didn’t know what to do. I held on to my fears and was afraid to share them with anyone. I started to worry about every little thing I did or did not do being a sin. For example, when my mother made a minor suggestion, not doing what she had suggested was a sin. When my teacher read chapters of “Tom Sawyer” aloud in class, I tried to shut out the words and think about something else because one of the characters said a swear word, and listening to it would be a sin.
I was extremely stressed, to say the least. One day I broke down in front of my parents. I just wasn’t able to hold it in anymore. Luckily, they realized I needed help. My mother took me to talk to the parish priest, Father O’Neill. I will never forget him.
He was big and round, with round glasses, black hair, and a kind face. I went into the room with Father O’Neill and told him what was troubling me. His reaction was to say this:
“None of this will matter in ten years.”
“At your next Confession, come to me. Say you’re the girl who is ‘scrupulous’. I’ll make sure that all your sins are forgiven.”
Trusting that he had some kind of magical pipeline to God, I did what he said, and immediately was cured of my fears. About two years later, perhaps I actually HAD reached the age of reason, and I decided that the Catholic church was not for me. I stopped going to church and didn’t feel an ounce of guilt.
Some people say that this obsessive worry about religion is a form of OCD or anxiety, while others feel it’s just a natural reaction to a traumatic event. In my case, I’m convinced it was a natural reaction to a series of frightening ideas presented to an impressionable child by a well-meaning but misguided adult.
I’m thankful to my parents for getting me help, and to Father O’Neill for figuring out a simple solution that worked for me. I know now that I was mistaken to believe that the only way to salvation was through him, but it was the band-aid that helped me heal.