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First Reconciliation (a Poem)

a prayer for confession

An Act of Contrition

With a cynical heart,
I stand obediently in church,
Holding my young son’s hand,
In line with other adults whose hearts
May or may not be ensconced in the same shell of cynicism as mine.
It is late morning,
And the blinding sun bears down at a slant through tall clear windows
Illuminating the nave, the pews, these many children in a line,
And my crusty cynicism.

This is not the same church
In which I was raised.
The church of my childhood had stained glass windows—not clear—
Which threw green and crimson and fiery orange
Transgressions like lightning bolts bouncing crossways about the church.
The altar was draped and muted; our school uniforms were woolen and heavy;
The bulbous microphones were intermittently staticky and shrill.
The stolid candles were always lit but never, never melted.
Unchanging. Immutable.

And then there was The Dark Place.
That “forgive me Father for I have sinned” closet
That upright coffin of terrifying intimidation
Within which resided all those
Secret selfish sins,
That I was powerless to conquer
Being merely seven.

Merely seven, my young son,
Who holds my hand lightly
With nearly clean fingernails,
Is not riddled with debilitating apprehension
Is not dreading the loss of Heaven or the pains of hell.
No. He simply awaits his turn in line
For his Sacrament of First Reconciliation.

This is not the same church
In which I was raised.
This church has priests who sit openly in public, whispering gently to its penitents,
With airy organic cleanliness
With golden shafts of late morning light
With transparent reconciliation of its own cloaked past.

We move up in line.
My cynicism, progeny of 35 years of apprehension,
Begins to soften, to melt like candle wax.
I look around to witness these children
Confess their secret sweet sugary sins
To priests who merely nod, but never scowl.
I took candy from my brother. I disobeyed my father. I got in a fight with my sister.

We are second in line. We are first in line.
It is his turn. He releases my hand,
And without looking back (because he fears nothing!),
He steps up onto the altar and takes his seat in the metal chair.
Facing the priest, his back to me,
He signs himself, dutifully recites, “Bless me Father for I have sinned.”
And proceeds to have himself
A fine little chat, a fine little chat indeed.

I watch his feet, which do not touch the ground,
Swinging beneath the metal chair,
Utterly unconscious of the miracle of transubstantiation.

My son returns to me within minutes (not hours!)
And holds up his prize (a bookmark!)
And reports he must say three Hail Marys (only three!).

And so we kneel together in the church which is not the same church
In which I was raised.
After our requisite silence, I ask him the question I always dreaded being asked,
And which I firmly resolved, with the help of Thy grace, to avoid,
(But alas, I am playing the role which was handed down to me,
In which I am obligated to test with medieval ruthlessness the purity of my child’s soul)

I ask, “Do you feel any different?”

My son, my son, my beloved son
Of whom I am moderately pleased, most days,
Who, like this church, will surely outlive me
And whose children may still enter a wholly different church,

Shrugs. Pauses. Opens his mouth to speak. Stops. Begins again.
Says, “Yeah, I think so.” Pauses.
Says, “Like I can start over.” Smiles up at me.

Smiles up at me in the utterly clear
Utterly unstained
Utterly timeless
Late morning sun.

Oh my God
I am heartily sorry
For having ever doubted Thee.

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Eileen McKeagney is a wife, mother, Catholic high school English teacher, daughter, sister, and lifelong writer. She lives in San Juan Capistrano, CA with her husband, who hails from Co. Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, and their three children. As a literature teacher, she gets to teach love stories, each and every day. In her spare time, Eileen is a minivan chauffeur for her children, makes a mean jar of homemade preserves in the summertime, and occasionally writes poetry and prose. Read more of her original work and learn more about her here

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