Before confession, I sit outside Father Freed's door and shiver through bouts of anxiety as I wait. Terrified of revealing my heart, I begin to resist. Am I buying all this religious stuff lock, stock, and flaming heart? People on this retreat even believe in the literal location of a heaven and hell. They believe your guardian angel leads you to the only empty parking place in a parking lot. And they believe the closer you get to God, the more hotly the devil pursues you. Father Slavko says that Satan's biggest triumph is getting people to believe he doesn't exist.
I try to remember when it was, exactly, that I switched to the devil's camp and lost God and decide there was no single moment, that it happened more like a shifting of the San Andreas Fault. I remember that in the summer after the sixth grade, the summer I got my period, I busted into the new junior high school under construction, shouting the song from Popeye, "Da da dadada da dada... I broke windows, slit open bags of cement, tossed the powder in the air, and tap-danced in it. I threw nails everywhere. I didn't know why I was doing this. But I did know that I was being bad, and it was fun. When I saw the story in the paper, how "vandals" had broken into the school, and that "juvenile delinquents" were suspected, it was official.
By high school, I was standing in front of the mirror, entertaining myself with the ugly faces I could make and fantasizing that the devil was looking out through my eyes. I daydreamed that I was a devil sitting on girls shoulders, tempting them to tell that lie, spread that gossip, steal those earrings, fuck that boy.
When I got pregnant, I believed I'd received God's punishment and that he'd betrayed and abandoned me, even though I hadn't really believed in him since I'd learned about evolution in the seventh grade, and I hadn't really believed in the devil, either. Or did I believe? Because whenever the world got scary, I still cried, "Please, dear God..." But after I got pregnant at seventeen, I denounced God, the devil, religion, forever. All of it. Lock, stock, and flaming heart.
And here I am, three decades later, about to confess everything and beg forgiveness.
A mountain of toilet paper rolls is piled in a corner of the storage room where I sit across from Father Freed on a folding chair to make my confession. The room smells like a sewer, because sewage has backed up into the bathroom next door.
"Forgive me, Father for I have sinned," I say. "It has been thirty-five years since my last confession." I giggle. Father Freed smiles kindly and waits. I burst into tears. "I feel like I'm going crazy. All these people talking about suffering. Talking about Christ's salty blood dripping into his wounds. It's sick. They get off on it. They think suffering is good. Suffering is part of life, but they look for it, indulge in it to be more holy or something... it's sick. I never asked Christ to die for my sins. I never asked him to be crucified. I don't even like him. He's a whiner. He says, "Look at me, I suffered for your sins. You should be grateful, but what do you do? Sin, sin, sin." I feel love for Mary. I really do. But this Christ martyr and his damned suffering—I'm sick of it. I spent my whole life trying not to feel guilty. I'm crippled with guilt. Why would I want to be a Catholic and make it worse? I shouldn't even be here. I can't stand this. I'm going crazy. I feel awful.
"Christ does not want you to suffer."
"But these people..."
"This group is particularly zealous."
"Not all Catholics are like that?"
"No." He smiles.
"You're not? You don't think you should wear a hair shirt or climb the mountain barefoot or be grateful that the sewage backed up into your bathroom so you can offer it up to God?"
"No. As a matter of fact, there is sewage backing up into my room, and I've requested a transfer."
"Really?" I laugh.
"Honest to God. Now, is there anything troubling you?"
"I had an abortion. I had to. I can't even say I wouldn't do it again, and I'd never take away another woman's right to choose. Maybe if I'd had faith, like Mary, I wouldn't have had that abortion. I might have believed everything would work out for the better. But I didn't have faith. And I still can't imagine my life if I'd had that child. I was wild. I had sex indiscriminately for many years. I didn't even enjoy it. It was the times. I was making a political point. Probably I was looking for love and couldn't even admit it. I have gossiped cruelly. I have hated. I am critical and judgmental. I don't like people I don't even know. It makes me feel shitty. I don't want to do it. I really do want to look with the eyes of love. To love as God loves, like Father Slavko says. But I'm mean. I make fun. That's what I do. That's who I am. I've always been like that. Or at least since I was twelve. That's really when I stopped believing in God. Do you think I'm possessed by the devil?"
"I do not."
"How do you know?"
"You are not as bad as you think."
"I'm selfish. I have said no to love. I was the worst mother. I never once put my son's needs before mine. I lived with three different men. Disasters. I always did what I needed to do for me, never what was best for my son. I always felt guilty, which made me depressed, which made me resentful. I used to say, 'I'm like an older sister, and you're like my younger brother.' I'm like one of those cats who abandons her litter. I never wanted to be a mother. Not even when I was a kid. I hated baby dolls. I had postnatal depression till my son left for college. And my son suffers for it. He feels like he wasn't loved. I damaged him. He's depressed and angry.'
"Do you speak of these things?"
"Kind of. A little."
"Have you asked for his forgiveness?"
"I'm not sure."
"It would be good if you could encourage him to speak, to acknowledge his pain."
"I would like you to pray to the Blessed Mother for help. Ask her to help you to be close with your son, to help you mother."
"I do all the time. I think that's why I'm so attracted to her. Because I want to learn to be a mother. That and because I want a mother for myself. I want to learn how to trust, to stop taking every step expecting a pitfall."
"I'd also like you to pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Do you know who she is?
"Of course, I lived in Mexico."
"I have a special devotion to Guadalupe. My church is called the Virgin of Guadalupe. She's the saint of the unborn. She has two tassels on her dress. That's the symbol for the unborn. Pray to her to help you heal from your abortion. You need to forgive yourself. God forgives you. He loves you exactly the way you are... not the way you think you should be."
"Thank you, Father."
"I would also like you to go to the chapel and sit with Jesus."
"I have adoration tonight. For an hour." I nearly shouted in my panic. "I haven't done it yet."
"Good. I want you to go to adoration and not pray prayers. I want you to just sit there and tell Jesus exactly what you told me. Confess everything and tell him exactly how you feel about him. Then just sit, and listen."
The adoration room looks like a room in a community center that's been donated to shelter people during a flood. There are twenty people on their knees praying, lying in their sleeping bags in corners, or sitting cross-legged with blankets wrapped around them, staring at the monstrance containing the body of Christ. This has been going on the whole time, and I'd no idea.
Since I began doing Mary research, I've read many times that Mary is the intermediary between her son and us. She brings us to her son. That is her role and her job. She is the conduit between the human and the divine. She was human herself but gave birth to God. It is through her that Jesus has his humanity. And by continually giving birth to faith, she continues to give birth to her son.
I promised Father Freed to talk to Jesus, and I want to do it for Mary. He is her son, and she would like this. So I sit there and I repeat in my mind what I said to Father Freed, which takes much less than an hour. So while I'm sitting there, I ask Mary to help me understand why I should love her son and help me give up my prejudices against him for being a man, and all that manhood conveys: judge and ruler, oppressor of women, testosterone driven, boss and superior.
I close my eyes and picture Mary taking both my hands and pulling me to stand. She leads me to her son, who takes my hand, and I stand between them, one hand in Mary's and one hand in Jesus'.
I do not think this is a true adoration. But it is a beginning.