The scent of fresh baked bread embraced me as I entered the lobby of the Abbey Church and it only furthered a sense of home for me. Not only was there immense comfort spiritually and a great feeling of peace in the surroundings alone, it was quite appetizing too. I know it’s said 'we do not live on bread alone', but if you ate this bread it may be a point up for debating!
Despite my feelings of inner comfort and peace, I too felt a bit imposturous. Although I am usually extremely extroverted and one who talks WAY too much, I felt silenced in the face of this place. Even the creaking of the floor made me feel like I was far too loud to be there. The bread store was closed, the porter’s door was too. I took notice of some clip boards on a table, there were two. One was designated for Confession, and the other for Spiritual direction.
The Confession sign-up sheet had the date written with a corresponding time and also listed the priest “on duty” for each day. All of them were strangers to me. I looked at the sheet and decided upon a 2:30 pm time slot on Monday. There was a priest’s name listed there, Fr. John Denburger. The last name had been crossed out and the name Bamberger had replaced it. In my immaturity and private thoughts I couldn’t help but think of hamburgers, and then the scene from The Pink Panther movie, where Steve Martin attempts to pronounce hamburger with his French accent humorously flooded my mind. If you haven’t seen the movie my apologies, but it is quite a funny moment. I was also fasting that day so perhaps my immaturity can be excused and blamed upon a moment of great temptation. Though, unbeknownst to me at that time I was about to confess to the “Big-Mac” of monks!!
I headed back to Bethlehem house and prepared to go to sleep awaiting my Confession with an anxious and joyful anticipation.
* * *
I was happy to have found a companion at the retreat house, his name was Patrick, and though mindful of our shared need for solitude and silence, our conversation somehow only furthered our experience of solitude and did not veer us from our personal paths sought that week. He agreed to walk with me to the Abbey for my Confession and said he would be in the Abbey Church praying during his time of waiting for me. I assured him that I had a confessed a week ago so this would be a “short one”. Was I ever wrong!
I entered the same lobby embraced by the beautiful scents of home. This time the Bread Store was open and there was more quiet activity around. The porter door was open, though no one was there. I did not know where to go for Confession, here was far different than home. No polished priest with a fresh black pressed shirt and Roman Collar, No red and green light, no line, just a check list and an empty wooden chair.
I caught notice of an elderly man perusing some books. He was disheveled, yet radiant. A little rugged and bearded, wearing tarnished clothes suitable for work. I remember looking at him and saying to myself “Gosh this guy looks like Padre Pio”, not that I have ever seen Padre Pio, but, I mean, based on the photos I have seen this guy could have indeed played him in a film or something.
Anyway, my Confession time had arrived and I had no clue what I was doing and did not want to bother anyone, I took a long shot and interrupted this man and his reading. “Excuse me sir, I’m looking for a Fr. John Bam-ber-ger, or something,” stumbling appropriately on every syllable of this lengthy name. “I signed up for a Confession and I'm not sure where I have to go to meet him."” He became a bit more engaged for a moment looking up from his thoughts with a bit of heightened curiosity saying “Oh, yes, that’s me!”. He shook my hand exchanging some formal yet extremely guarded pleasantry and led me behind the bread store to a small room with a window. The anticipation of a joyful confession was overtaken now by a bit of anxiousness. How could this small, old, working man monk priest make me feel so tiny?
I compensated for any discomfort by over talking before the Confession began. He was not having any of that. Though he was curious to know briefly about me and my reason for retreating, and what I was looking for, he too was rather quick to get things on track. "Now, now, your Confession." I looked up at him blankly. "Go ahead" he said invitingly....
At this point I was sweating. Arguably this room was quite hot, but suddenly it felt much smaller than it had when I first got in there. Fr. John gazed reflectively out the window to his left, his face filled with a peaceful intensity and his hands folded restfully. My thoughts raced. "How am I gonna tell this priest, who is like my Nonno's age all the horrible things I've done? Oh my God, he is going to have a heart attack or something when I talk about fornication! Breathe, Catherine, breathe, all of that was long ago, confessed, just give him a general idea of where you've come from, where God has brought you, why you're here, and the current sins and temptations... you can do this God is good" And just like that familiar words flooded my mouth. "Forgive me Father, for I have sinned"....
I began my litany of sins, eyes rather downcast, voice slightly softer than my jovial over talking. Fr. John remained quite stoic and collected. I would look at him from time to time, perhaps for a reaction of some sort, or for a disciplined dialogue, as any good father does.
Though I did not know this priest before me, I knew I could expect sound penance and well-grounded counsel. My anxiousness lifted throughout the length of litany. I was aware that I needed this honest shedding. Fr was patient with me, he had a way of making everything I said seem important and significant, but he was also collected and stern enough to not allow me to veer off from what really mattered.
At one point he interjected and said “Why would you ever do such a thing?” Such a simple question, yet it still remains with me. It was a moment that I was able to reflect upon my actions; even those not deemed mortal sins, with a greater sense of accountability. When I attempted to rationalize them to him or offer some sorry excuse, there was none.
“How many times did you do this, you know it is important to say that too…” I counted using my fingers, a custom I had acquired from my childhood, and clearly not gotten rid of, as if I was releasing each of those moments with the abrupt point of my shaky fingers into the mercy of God. Layer upon layer the onion was being peeled away.
“Sorry Father, I can’t remember”. I felt like this was my first Confession, It was very different than any of those I had made before. His counsel to me was direct and precise. Most of it profoundly communicated through the silence of his listening. Though extremely spiritually green and still a stumbling sinner, I was open. I knew I came to the right place where God had wanted me, 250km from home, in the middle of nowhere, spending my March Break with a bunch of praying monks.
“Make a good retreat now!” he said, and I exited the room, heading to the Abbey Church for my penance and then to find my walking companion.
My Confession was obviously much too long. No sign of Patrick and in a way that was important too. I needed to be alone with God, to digest Fr. John’s words. I paused before our Lady of The Genesee before departing the Abbey. It had grown to be my favourite spot on the Abbey grounds. I knelt and said nothing. I gazed up at the statute of Mother Mary engulfed in a feeling of consolation while simultaneously spiritually shaken.
I began walking back to Bethlehem through the grassy path. I could not get the Confession out of my mind, and Father’s words continued to linger.
I began to realize that the fluffy spa like feelings of a spiritual retreat were not meant to endure. If this was to be the place of reflection for greater clarity and honest discernment, then rightfully so some healing and a wrestling of wills was to be had.
It was time to be shaken. It was time to face the Cross.