I was an altar boy in my youth (misspent in a very real sense). Cassocks, monstronces, sacristies; such were my domain. I did a good line in self-effacing crossing of the altar that would stand me in good stead in later life (pitching up late for seminars is much like mistiming one’s walk down the aisle; a well-timed and immaculately judged bow in the speaker’s direction, and all is forgiven). On the down side, the incense used to make me pass out and I could never remember the name of the thurim- no, thumbi- ah, here we go: “thurible”. You got to nab the dregs of the wine if you were quick, though (naughty, yes, but barely alcoholic in any case), and messing with the charcoal burner was always fun.
Still, this didn’t excuse me from various Catholic practices (no, not those – back then the rhythm method and premature withdrawal were but dance moves and euphemisms for giving up my latest musical instrument). No, things such as First Confession, First Communion and the like, laden with Significant Capitals. First Confession was a good ‘un; a breeding ground for a lifetime of guilt. Being our very First confession (designed to expurgate all those original sins prior to First Communion), it obviously had a lot riding on it. A conscientious 8-year-old, I set about recalling all my sins to date.
Go on; you try it.
Perhaps not having quite passed Piaget’s Concrete Operational Stage of cognitive development (at least, this was my reasoning at the time), I found myself drawing a blank. What had I done wrong, exactly? Not only originally sinless, in my mind I was pretty damn clean since birth. Certainly any harm I had caused was deserved, no? This in itself presented problems. Clearly, God wanted me to admit something, so my failure to think of even one thing was rather serious. Brains were wracked, abortive diaries were ransacked, fictions were considered. Assuming I couldn’t come up with anything concrete, how creative should I get, I wondered? Generic selfishness seemed too prosaic – unlikely to fool a priest of as many years’ experience as Father Louis. Conversely, I was unwilling to ‘fess up to having violated a nun – too lurid; too Tarantino for a suburban diocese’s consumption.
My ruminations continued until the dreaded day – until the head of the queue even, many of my peers having gone forth and proffered plausible misdeeds, to be rewarded with the first of many doses of all-too-temporary absolution. Now I’m sat on the priest’s knee (no giggling), and still I haven’t concocted anything. “Well, my child?” says the priest.
Valiantly I stab out at the last criticism I remember receiving at school. Tragically, nervousness takes over, and I botch it.
“I … I, er, I don’t share well with otters?”
To his credit, the priest doesn’t bat an eyelid. A slight roll of the eyes later, a weary, “is that all?” and clemency is mine. 8 years of otter molestation are forgiven, dismissed with a wave of whatever appendage the Trinity might be said to possess. Relief; blessed relief.
On the way home I remember kicking over a young playmate’s toy farmyard in a fit of livestock-poor pique a mere week previously. In an instant I advance to the fourth cognitive stage, and reason to myself that in a very real sense, we are all otters, therefore this transgression too has been forgiven.
I go forth, and do unto otters as I would have them do unto me.