By Jin-yeong Yi
“Conscience is the inner voice that warns us that someone might be looking.”
—H. L. Mencken
“The Eye with which I see God is the same Eye with which God sees me”
I went to confession last month in preparation for Easter.
I was raised as a Roman Catholic and was confirmed as a Catholic in my teenage years, shortly before becoming an atheist. Technically, I am still a Catholic. Like Martin Scorsese once said, “I’m a lapsed Catholic. But I am Roman Catholic, there’s no way out of it.” In addition to my qualifications, I attend Mass every Sunday morning and recite the prayers, sing the hymns, exchange signs of peace, and receive the body and blood of Christ. I do it because I think it gives my devoutly Catholic parents some comfort to know that their son is keeping in touch with the Lord.
My mother had called me about the mass confessions that were to take place at her church, and at first I refused to go. (“I have no sins to confess.”) Attending Mass was one thing, but going to confession was a bit much. I’d already gone last year, and, though I didn’t believe in right and wrong, I’d felt guilty about it, because in a way I’d been betraying the priest’s trust by pretending to be a believer. However, I didn’t want my mother to feel that I was missing out on the opportunity to receive God’s forgiveness, so I ended up going. This was to be my second confession as an atheist. Since I didn’t believe in sin, I would, like last time, enumerate the things I wasn’t proud of.
After a fairly brief wait at church, I walked into the confession room. There I was once again face to face with the elderly Irish priest I’d met last year.
The following is a rough reconstruction of the conversation that took place:
“How long has it been since your last confession?” the priest asked.
“Three, four months, I think.”
He nodded, as if in approval. I wondered if he remembered who I was.
“So, do you have any sins to confess?”
“Well, yes; that’s what I’m here for.”
If I was going to go through with this, I wanted to at least be sincere about it. My strategy this time around was to make use of Christian language. Last time, I’d spoken in such a way that the priest might have wondered if I was a closet secular humanist.
“I don’t honor my father and mother as much as they deserve,” I began. The priest nodded knowingly as I spoke.
I proceeded to the next item on the short list I’d written up. “Gluttony—I often eat more than I need to. Sloth—I often procrastinate, and don’t make the best use of my time. Wrath—I often get angry at others even while knowing that they’re ultimately not responsible for what I blame them for. Envy—oh, this is a big problem for me.” There was a hint of something resembling enthusiasm in my voice, and part of the reason for that was that envy really was one of my biggest problems, if not the biggest one. “I often feel envy when I see that someone has something that I don’t have, and I feel jealousy when I see that someone has something that I do have.”
Thus ended my confession.
“How are you feeling right now?” inquired the priest.
“How am I feeling?”
“Are you feeling good, or bad?”
“Well, I guess you can say I feel kind of bad.” (Because I’d failed myself, because I wasn’t able to meet my own expectations.)
Then the priest asked, “If you could ask God for one thing, what would it be?”
The million dollar question. I was prepared this time, or so I’d thought. For a moment I couldn’t remember what it was I wanted to say. I fumbled for words before the answer clicked back into place.
“I want determination.”
For some reason the priest couldn’t understand, so I tried “passion.”
“I want to have passion for my goals,” I clarified.
“Does anything about what you’ve just said strike you?” asked the priest.
“Strike me?” I racked my brains to try to figure out what that could possibly be.
After a long pause, the priest supplied the answer I wasn’t able to find.
“It’s somewhat self-centered. What about other people? Don’t you think about what you can do for others?”
“Well, yes. I do help others…but not as much as I can,” I said.
The priest waited for me to elaborate.
“It’s kind of the opposite of a slippery slope,” I explained, struggling to find the words.
“Ah,” the priest said, appearing to have immediately grasped what it was I was clumsily trying to convey.
“I can do things for others, but there’s always something more I can do,” I continued. “There’s no limit. There’s always…more.”
I thought of the countless ambitions I had, the personal goals that I would not be able to achieve in two lifetimes.
“Complete self-sacrifice…is something I can never do,” I concluded.
The priest administered my penance: 5 Our Father’s and 3 Hail Mary’s. I started to get up from my chair when the priest started to speak again.
“When I was about your age, I wanted to be a pilot,” he said.
“An airplane pilot?” For some reason I’d felt the need to ask for clarification.
“Yes. But my eyesight wasn’t good enough. So I became a missionary. I worked in Korea, then Koreatown, and…here I am.”
Then the priest asked me to pray for him. Not sure I’d heard him correctly, I got him to repeat what he’d said. After crossing myself and exchanging words of thanks, I got up, left the room, and headed toward the parking lot. I was puzzled. Why did he want me to pray for him? It was as if he’d somehow felt humbled by something I’d said.
Either way, I’d agreed to pray for him. So on the drive home, I, a godless nihilist, prayed for a Catholic priest. As far as I was concerned, I was talking to no one but myself. I don’t quite remember what I “prayed” for; I think it was for the laws of physics to operate in ways that would be favorable to the priest. Since the laws of physics were blind and indifferent, all one could do was hope. I also did my penance, reciting the Our Father’s and Hail Mary’s over the roar of Incantation’s “Blasphemous Cremation.” Why did I do it? Because the priest was trusting that I would do it, and because I wanted to honor the agreement between us. God wasn’t watching me, but I was.
In the same way, the confession was ultimately not between me and God, or even between me and the priest, but between me and myself.