HOLY WEEK: The fourth in Humane Pursuit’s annual Holy Week series. By Bart Price.
In all you do, remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin.1 Lenten words nudging me in the quiet, candlelit church. I’m waiting in line to confess sins committed when I had forgotten Sirach’s sage advice.
Plato also advised it, a couple centuries earlier: our present life ought to be a meditation upon death. The Christian monks and saints of old advised it too, or if they didn’t, they lived it. And Jesus was the perfect embodiment of it. The end of life ever before him, his ultimate goal on Earth was to die. But to die well it was necessary to live well, and for him, that meant submitting to the cross daily.
This week is a busy one for sins-confessing, as we approach the liturgical Day of Resurrection. I’m here in line because I had momentarily forgotten my mortality, believing I was invincible – an error of youth, it’s said, yet really it’s an error of all times. It’s how sin always starts. And, once it starts, how easy it is to go with the drift of things, to follow the way of the flesh, the way of the world, rather than the way of Truth.
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things … 2
But then there’s John Burroughs, the naturalist and poet who, near the end of his life, seems to boast about how he successfully went with the current, somehow avoiding treason to the heart: I have done what I most wanted to do in the world, what I was probably best fitted to do, not as the result of deliberate planning or calculation, but by simply going with the current, that is, following my natural bent, and refusing to run after false gods.3 How did you avoid the false gods to follow your soul’s deepest desire, Mr. Burroughs, pantheist that you were, with no power but yourself to call upon? Should I chalk that up to the mysterious workings of grace, or to natural virtue? Even natural virtue breaks down over an entire lifetime without supernatural aid.
I lift my eyes to the nearly life-size crucifix behind the altar. Lord, forgive me. Jesus’ suffering arms stretch along the wooden beam, as if embracing all people of the world, giving them his mercy and power to overcome sin.
I see the line inch closer to the moment of truth – my truth. It’s true that those who did the most for the present world thought most of the next. Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in.’ Aim at earth and you get neither.4 It’s the same as Sirach said, but with a different spin.
It’s a kind of penance, this waiting in line, though a small price to pay for the gift of unconditional mercy. I really deserve to stand in line and wait ten – no, twenty – hours for such a gift. Even longer. A sudden feeling of mercy toward others, toward those who have trespassed against me as well as the greatest of sinners, wells up in my heart. How easy it is to obtain Jesus’ forgiveness, and how slow I often am to want to empathize with and forgive others.
I am eager to unburden myself of my sin, built up over time. Like tartar on teeth, the more time passes, the more entrenched it becomes. It cannot be removed by my own doing. Only a doctor can remove it – the Divine Physician, whose yoke is easy and burden is light. But I lapse again the longer I wait. This time it’s not a lapse into fleeting delight,
but a lapse of faith,
a crisis of belief
in this great gift of unconditional mercy. Do I deserve forgiveness, even after seventy times seven times? It can’t be this easy – sin is more serious than that. Just confessing my sins and all is forgiven?
Yet, deep down, contrary to what the Amherst poet says, I know Hope is not the thing with feathers. It’s the man with thorns, the man of sorrows, the man of infinite humility, despised and rejected and acquainted with deepest grief. Without him, I am like the poor prisoners in Reading Gaol:
We were as men who through a fen
Of filthy darkness grope:
We did not dare to breathe a prayer,
Or give our anguish scope:
Something was dead in each of us,
And what was dead was Hope…. 5
My reason struggles to hold to the fact – at least I think it’s a fact – that Hope still lives in me, even just a little. I am next in line to enter the confessional. I dread to enter, yet I cannot wait: I long to prepare my heart for the gift of Easter. All I can do is hope that my only Hope will grant me full pardon this time. Palms sweaty, I struggle to hold fast to faith. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? 6
The door swings slowly open. Light radiates from the confessional, flooding the dark hardwood floor. There’s no turning back. I step forward
and abandon myself
to the Physician’s
2 Reluctance, Robert Frost
3 The Last Harvest, John Burroughs
4 Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis
5 The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde
6 The Gospel According to Matthew
Bart Price lives in St. Augustine, Florida, with his wife, Angie. A Six Sigma Black Belt, he works in the Six Sigma department of a financial firm. His most recent articles and essays have appeared in Ethika Politika, the John Jay Institute’s The Statesman, and the National Catholic Register. He has published a poetry book entitled The Wild Woods Edge and creates and sells what he calls Photo Poems, combining his original poetry and photography on 8×10 mats. All his art can be found at www.bartprice.com.