Bless Me, Father, for I Have Sinned: An Ash Wednesday Vision

Let’s just stick to “thou shalt not kill,” or we’ll be here all day. Your sermon on February 12, based in part on Matthew 5:21-37, reminded me that there are many kinds of murder that won’t ever qualify as plot lines on Law and Order. Anger, insult, calling my neighbor a fool–since I’m confessing, I must admit not only that I have committed these sins, but that I do so at least daily. I scream and gesture at those who cut me off on the highway. I share with glee the laughable mistakes of my students and gossip with disdain about their most egregious behavior. I seethe with anger because dishes are piled in the sink or the car is not parked under the carport. Because of the dailiness or even the hourliness of these offenses, I can’t possibly number them or even remember them in detail. Naming some of them here has, however, been an exercise in humility as I culled the list for parallelism and panache. (Yes, you’re right. That was pride in humble clothes.)

The next killing I intend to confess is, at least according to my metrics, the worst because the most senseless. I have admitted it only twice before–to two consecutive husbands, both times for selfish ends. But this is the real thing: mea maxima culpa. As I began to articulate the offense, I gradually realized that the episode actually resulted as a grievous extension of the first kind of murder. I hadn’t previously acknowledged, even to myself, that it arose from extreme hatred–of the husband and the two stepchildren who had turned my dream of marriage and family into a daily nightmare. Sadly, I cannot even remember what spawned the rage with which I was driving down the road in the neighborhood where we lived–some disobedience, some incident of favoring the children’s wishes over mine, some retreat to Grandma’s where the food was much better and there were no rules. I was driving with little skill a car with manual transmission, and downshifting was problematic for me. So when I saw the little Benji-looking dog scampering across the street, I raced the engine and ran over him. He was someone’s beloved pet and a cute, playful little mutt whose joie de vivre I cut short because of the vile rage inside me. Almost 40 years later, I can still hear the clunk-clunk of front and back tires and feel the double jolt.

My friend from Romania even accused me of killing her mother-in-law–well, of being an accomplice before the fact. And I suppose I was. My first bond with Marie was formed because we both blamed our husbands when other family members always seemed to come first. We sat in my car in front of a restaurant and shared the stories of stepchild and mother-in-law who received our husbands’ favor, and my immediate spark of recognition when she snarled “Oh, I HATE him!” cemented our conspiracy. So I enabled her in that hate as she enabled me in mine–through confidences shared over Scotch whisky long into the night, through weekend escapes to the beach, through long drives to her new job as a French teacher 150 miles from husband and son. I didn’t know those acts would ever be called murder, but I should have known they caused harm.

And yes, there is more. I woke up a few days ago and realized that the child I murdered would be 39 years old this spring. This is the only sin for which I have previously sought formal absolution through the liturgy known as Reconciliation of a Penitent:

Holy God, heavenly Father, you formed me from the dust in your image and likeness, and redeemed me from sin and death by the cross of your Son Jesus Christ.  Through the water of baptism you clothed me with the shining garment of his righteousness, and established me among your children in your kingdom.  But I have squandered the inheritance of your saints, and have wandered far in a land that is waste. Especially, I confess to you and to the Church that I aborted my only child late in the winter of 1977.

He (I have always thought of him as a he) was a robust baby, more than 12 weeks, so haste was essential. He had fingernails and toenails and a tickle response, I had learned as I pored over the fetal photos in A Child Is Born. Even after the procedure, parts of him–the clinical term is “products of conception”–stuck around, and I birthed them in the toilet days later. I am sure God forgave me when I confessed; that’s the bargain inherent in reconciliation as a “sure and certain means by which we receive that [inward and spiritual] grace.” But I have never felt quite shriven; I daydream often of my child’s progress through the life I took from him, mourning my barrenness while supporting freedom of choice at the ballot box.

There’s one more kind of murder. I remember the sage words of the priest at the end of Mary Gordon’s Final Payments; he told the protagonist that the slow death she was visiting on herself also violated the Fifth Commandment. So I understand that I am at least passively participating in my own extinction when I hide in the bedroom with computer and iPad–and the excuse of too many essays to grade–instead of taking in the surprising warmth of the sun on an afternoon in late February; when I postpone urgent medical procedures because scheduling them is just too much trouble; when I stay in my nightgown all day and watch reruns of  Criminal Minds on Netflix; when my cupboards rival those of Old Mother Hubbard, so dinner becomes ramen noodles or popcorn; when mail piles up on my desk, unopened, due dates and deadlines past because unknown; when I refuse to heed the exhortation of Deuteronomy 30:19 to choose life. Even if I call it depression, I know that surrendering to the noonday demon, acedia, is indeed consenting to–willing–my own slow death.

Yes, I realize I’m rambling. It’s just that I don’t have anyone else to talk to. I know you’re busy with the ashes and all.

What’s that you say?

Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live, has given power and commandment to his ministers to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins. He pardons and absolves all those who truly repent, and with sincere hearts believe his holy Gospel.

Therefore we beseech him to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do on this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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2 Responses to Bless Me, Father, for I Have Sinned: An Ash Wednesday Vision

  1. Christie Frandsen says:

    These words convicted me, moved me to tears, and brought me to my knees in gratitude for the mercy and grace of God and for a friend like you on this day and every day.

  2. Boz says:

    Christie, I am glad that my words touched you. It was difficult to write this post and even more difficult to publish it, but it has been coursing through my brain for many days now. I am always grateful for your example; if anyone has taught me the meaning of a holy and Christlike life, it is you.

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