Thursday, November 19, 2009
OBJECTIVE DIS-ORDER REVISITED, Part 2: EXAMINATION OF CONSCIENCE
I first learned for certain (but didn’t I already suspect?) that the furtive pleasure I was indulging in was an illicit act, a sin called “self-abuse”. There, in black and white, under “Sins Against the Sixth Commandment” in the pamphlet titled Examination of Conscience for Teenagers, was the proof. The pamphlets were given out in religion class at my Catholic school, but were never discussed in detail. What the pamphlet didn’t explain was why my fantasies were directed toward males. There was an underlying assumption that all teenage boys entertained only fantasies of girls. I read between the lines and concluded that though unspecified, my desires and my actions fell into this shameful category and were, in fact, more shameful and sinful than the ordinary kind of self abuse that other boys would indulge in while they thought about the basketball team’s cheerleaders.
On Saturday afternoons I would scrupulously “examine my conscience” before confessing so I could recite my list of sins, beginning with the most venial, and the number of times I had committed each. Sexual matters, which by their very nature were likely to fall into the category of serious sin, would dominate in the exercise of the ritual: impure thoughts, desires, and god-forbid, actions. Sex became the only real sin. Other transgressions were merely lead-ins, trivial fillers, and diversions to lessen the shock (for me or for the priest?) of the really bad stuff to come.
“Father, I lied to my brother three times; I think I ate cereal less than an hour before communion; I committed self abuse fourteen times; I had unkind thoughts once.” I know Father Severe always caught it even if he didn’t go back and drill me about it. It was humiliating to have to say this to an adult, to a man, to a priest, forheavensake.
Was I the only kid playing with himself in his room? Not likely. Was I the only boy who bought the whole sixth commandment sin-declension? Yeah. Probably. Was it true that the Catholic hetero-boys experienced so little conflict during their pubescence and adolescence that “self abuse” was not even in their vocabulary, let alone their Saturday confession? Of course, their fantasies and desires arose from an objective orderliness or normal functioning of the mind and body and so they were naturally inclined toward an intrinsic moral good. So, while they might masturbate to the same rhythm and with the same results, their fantasies affirmed their essential worth and goodness, while mine, and perhaps those of other scrupulous Catholic gay-boys, confirmed only our propensity for moral evil. Confession was the only option. But it was not at all a healthy option.
Feel the anticipation of waiting in the pew for the previous penitent to come out from one side or other of the confessional. Feel the anxiety as your turn approaches. As you enter the confessional, move the sound-dampening curtain aside and feel the heaviness and softness of the velvet against your arm. Feel the nausea in your gut, a combination of nervousness and fear, competing with a comforting sense of anonymity and mystery. Kneel in the dark confessional, heavy with the smell of stale incense, beeswax, and human contrition. This ancient ritual was full of contradictory sensual stimuli.
Hear silence but for the hum of an unintelligible voice reverberating from the chamber on the other side of the priest’s cubicle. Wonder if the unseen penitent’s sins were as bad as those you are about to confess. Father Severe sat in his own dark closet between you. Wait with determined discipline for him to slide open the panel to reveal his darkened sillouette through the grated window. Prepare to blurt out once again: “Bless me, father, for I have sinned.”
I masochistically and conscientiously subjected myself, week after week to this ritual. My entire existence, it seemed, centered on sinning and absolution, the ritual confession being the means from one to the other. I was a slate with chalk marks: mark, mark, mark, erase. I was unaware of the fact that others were not any less sinful, just less honest.
By the time I was sixteen I had become such a theologian that I was able to commit three mortal sins each time I masturbated. While the act itself was a most deadly sin, so to was the secret desire that preceded it; and, I was able to contort admonitions against it as creating the exact conditions for it to be a sin of disobedience: this type of disobedience was no venial (less serious, purgatory cleansing) sin, but a mortal sin in itself because the instruction was not to commit an act that was a mortal sin. I was not in the least confused about this. If I thought about it some more, I could add the sin of “scrupulosity” – that peculiarly Catholic Catch-22, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” sin that really messes up your mind. I’m not sure if we have Augustine or Thomas Aquinas to thank for that one.
Sometimes it seemed that all I did during my adolescence was masturbate and go to confession. Going to school, doing homework, raking leaves, ice skating, talking on the phone, were incidental activities. My emotional and spiritual life revolved around my inability to be pure. No amount of will power was sufficient to keep my resolve to “sin no more” and I saw myself as tormented. If Sisyphus had his rock, I had my slate.
After Vatican II, giving up chocolate during Lent was considered inauthentic and juvenile, so I decided to go to daily Mass. This devotion might help make me stronger in my resolve, if not holy. Confession was available before or during the 7am mass throughout Lent and in order to receive communion, I would go almost daily to confession. “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I committed the sin of self-abuse in action, in disobedience, and in desire” oh, so many times. My obvious lack of repentance and willpower prompted Father Severe to scold me for returning day after day with the same sins. He ordered me to go to bed with rosary beads wrapped around my hands. (Maybe that’ll teach him.) That exercise only resulted in the inevitable.
Another time, Father Severe said to me, “You will have this temptation ‘till the day you die.” I’m not sure whether that was a warning or a curse. In any case it was frightening. It was discouraging. “So this will never end. There is no hope,” I thought subliminally.
There was no hope that this hell would end. I would successfully resist “temptation” for hours, even days, but would inevitably succumb, mostly willfully, just to end the ordeal. It came as a relief to finally “just do it” and be released from the endless, internal conflict. After the first sin on my clean slate, it was less tortuous: if I died before getting absolution, one act of self abuse would send me to the same hell as ten, it mattered little. It became a question of keeping count for Father Severe.
I kept going back to Father Severe for more. Once he gave me a whole Rosary for my penance. This consisted of five decades (ten beads each) of Hail-Marys with some Our-Fathers and Glory-Bees interspersed regularly with an Apostle’s Creed finale. He said I was obviously insincere and unrepentant, returning as I did, week after week with the same offenses. So this was a fitting penance.
That particular Saturday afternoon I was there at confession, in church with my parents. At approximately ten seconds per Hail Mary, and fifteen seconds for an Our Father, plus the other prayers, one could conceivably recite the Rosary in its entirety in 11.7 minutes. But without beads, one will inevitably lose track counting on fingers and have to repeat a few Hail Marys, just to be sure. And adding the Mysteries would require some thought. This would take too long. I couldn’t make my parents wait for me to recite a whole rosary in church. They got maybe three Hail Mary’s each, tops versus my fifty-three plus. They would be waiting. They would be upset. Even worse, they might ask questions I would not want to answer. Even though I hummed the prayers as fast as I could, each minute seemed an eternity. I had to finish the Rosary at home. There was no question in my mind but that I would tell Father Severe next week and hope that he would approve.
But he did not. Father Severe informed me that by not completing my penance before leaving the church, the sins whose forgiveness hinged on that penance remained un-absolved on my slate. And further, there was collateral damage: the holy communion I took on Sunday was a sacrilege and an additional mortal sin.
Did I dare consider then, how my honesty might, in fact, make me guilty of “scrupulosity” – that tricky sin that kept conscientious penitents perpetually sinful? I threw that one in once, just to prove that I was serious about my spiritual life. I’m not certain how Father Severe took it. There was little compassion in this sacrament for my sin. I was not transformed or blessed. I was not made spiritually strong. It did not impart fortitude. The sacrament was not efficacious. But I kept coming back for more, more guilt, more shame, more scolding, more penance. Confession was my only option.
To anyone not privy to my secret life of sin, I was just a “good boy”. Others could not have guessed that my adolescence was schizoid: I had a “normal”, public life with school, homework, friends, birthdays, movies, beaches and a surreal, secretive life of masturbation, guilt, loneliness, tears, prayers, and self-punishment. I don’t know how I was able to maintain outward sanity. I believed that more prayers and devotions, sincere confessions, penances and sacrifices would make the spiritual ordeal end. Mortification was in my vocabulary.
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