I remember my Baltimore Catechism as though it is stored somewhere at the base of my spinal cord. The little blue-and-white book, the cold Sunday mornings in church with the heater turned way down, the smell of the woodwork, the warm sun spilling through stained glass and onto my shoes, my dress, my face.
Never was the expansive spirit of my faith clearer. I already knew God was everywhere, in everything, through and about everything. That comes with childhood. But, sitting there, I realized God knew and loved me.
I'm a product of one of those enormous Catholic families that are both wonderful and crazy at the same time. When you messed up — when you sinned — there was no time to worry about things like self-esteem. Just get to confession. Get some penance to do.
I found my own way to deal with this. I grew up, got married, matured emotionally and, for a while, felt relieved to believe that the odd sense of shame I was carrying around was all my Church's fault. After all, said all the psychologists, if they hadn't forced me into the confessional in the first grade, I'd never have developed such low self-esteem.
That theory worked until I began raising children of my own.
Once, my daughter and a friend named Sarah returned from a birthday party, their pockets stuffed with plastic jewelry. The first-graders told me they'd won the treasures in a game, then headed to my child's room. It wasn't long before a fight broke out.
“I'm going home if I can't have that diamond,” I heard Sarah declare. I went in to investigate and discovered that the object of contention was a white lump of polyethylene. Sarah stormed past, stating her case all the way. “She stole it, Mrs. Baxter,” she said. “She only won three jewels — she stole all the rest!”
The door slammed. After a moment of charged silence, my daughter burst into tears. “Sarah's right, Mommy. I'm a thief!” she cried. “I'm a robber!” She dissolved into her shame, burying her face under her covers.
I didn't know what to say. All her life I'd been so careful never to shame her, always to encourage her self-esteem. My husband and I had never mentioned the word “sin” around our house, and we had been careful to make sure she'd never, ever feel guilt. So where was this outburst coming from?
I crawled into her bed, took my wailing child in my arms and prayed this experience would not scar her for life. I whispered: “Did you take something that didn't belong to you?”
“Yes!” she cried. “What am I going to do, Mom?”
She was hysterical. I was mute. Here was my 6-year-old, feeling true contrition. And because I'd never mentioned sin, she hadn't a clue what to do with it — and I was at a loss as to how to console her.
Suddenly those painted God-colors came back to me, and the voice of that beautiful Sister of Mercy echoed across the lost years: “When you fail to do what is right, God knows your heart. If you ask his forgiveness, he not only forgives, but he completely forgets.”
How could this be? Other Catholic leaders had told me she wasn't capable of feeling compunction on her own, that guilt was an emotion given to kids by their screwed-up parents. Children aren't born with a theology of sin; we hand it to them. Right?
I prayed with my 6-year-old. Her sorrow was a sign, I told her, that she was not a thief, but a wonderful little girl who is loved by her Father in heaven with all his heart. I shared the good news: The Lamb of God erases our errors as though they never existed, if we are wise enough to ask him.
After a moment, I asked her what she thought God was telling her to do. Here is what she said: “God wants me to take these jewels back to Jenny and tell her I'm sorry and that I want to still be her friend.”
This she did, the very next morning. Jenny responded by telling her to keep the jewels. In fact, she gave her another handful and invited her over for some leftover birthday cake.
My child became more interested in the sacrament of penance. When we couldn't hold her back any longer, she received her first penance.
“Mommy, I'm all brand-new!” she said later.
Experience has shown me that the catechism has had it right all along: A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give us grace. For children and adults alike, true self-esteem doesn't come from pretending that right and wrong are arbitrary concepts imposed on us by impersonal institutions. It comes from admitting that all humans are bound to God's truth. Each one of us is imperfect and bound to mess up — but, through Jesus, God has provided us with a means of starting over. Time and time again.
Isn't it funny how, to the popular culture, the sacrament of reconciliation is an occasion of shame — a “guilt trip” in today's parlance. Yet it turns out that it's the exact opposite. Confession is nothing less than an opportunity for redemption.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” When those words finally pass through our lips, it is because we've goofed up again, and need very much to contemplate the great miracle of Christianity: Our capacity to sin doesn't exceed God's capacity to forgive us.
Susan Baxter is an award-winning writer based in Creede, Colorado.