Penance, confession & candles
Easter is strange for a lapsed Catholic.
Today is not about Jay, because it is Easter today. And it would be nice to talk to you about something Not Jay.
Easter is weird as a lapsed Catholic. I’m an Easter Baby, born during the Easter Vigil. I’m the youngest of four. As I was born, my dad was intoning the Litany of Saints to the hundreds and hundreds of parishioners in our low 1960s church, its green beams too numerous to count (I tried, most Sundays). So me and Easter go way back.
The spectre of a three hour long Easter vigil was always a bit much after mass on Maundy Thursday (washing of the feet), Good Friday (when Christ died), and confession on Saturday day after going to the shops, kicking my feet as I waited outside the priest’s rooms to confess to Fr. Bill that I swore about my brothers, that I lied to my mum and how much I hate helping with the washing up.
Fr. Bill smiles, taps his pipe and stuffs in more tobacco. The lines in his face are deep and his eyes are kind. He knows my family well and I love being in his rooms for confession, rather than the little white boxes upstairs with the lights glowing for ‘do not enter - someone is confessing their dirty little habits to Father’.
The navy of his fine-knit golf jumper strobes a little against the black stuff shirt and dog-collar that digs into his soft skin. His eyes smile. He asks me to please think about my words more, to help my mum with the washing up and to go up to the church and say 5 Hail Maries and 5 Glory Bes and to try to be a better little girl. Fr Bill absolves me of my sins, and now is time to make my penance.
Walk up the murderously sharp stairs from the gloom of their downstairs apartments up to the strange quiet of the afternoon church. Heave the porch doors to the fug of incense baked into the thin brown carpet and cinder block, unrendered walls. A quiet dark space with tiny horizontal windows to catch dust motes and incense blooms as they hit the blonde-wood pews.
I am here to do my penance. I have to do my penance. I know I should kneel and cross myself as I enter, I should face the side-chapel where excess consecrated hosts are homed, but I always feel like a pillock, so I half kneel and make the sign of the cross hurriedly, a strange webbed gesture around my chest.
Usually we sit by the organ, near my dad who leads the traditional choir. But it is not Mass, and so I, outrageously, find another spot. Slide into a pew on the long side of the church.
The kneelers are the chalk blue of every school portrait background and institutional padded chair. Puffed and stuffed, the piped edging is stiff. I don’t like kneeling up on my knees, I feel like a meerkat peering over the battlements. So I kneel low, cross myself again and the words come with the ease of a lifetime’s learning.
And I can hear the words now, as I type: ‘Glory Be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall, world without end. Amen’. But, in my mind, I hear it as 500, 600 people in unison. I hear the quiet echo and the certainty of knowing what to say next, what you will do next (kneel, probably), and what is expected of you.
Part of me misses this. Easter Day without 40 days of actually depriving yourself of something. Of having to go to a school Ash Wednesday service and work out how to get the smear of oiled ashes off your forehead without leaving evidence on your navy jumper. Of sitting through assemblies about sacrifice and Sunday Mass that lengthens every week as you near Easter. Or the sheer mind-numbing boredom of your Easter holidays having 2, 3 hour Masses.
Of singing ‘Where you there when they nailed him to a tree? … Oh sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble’ and your eyes fill with tears as your voice carries the cadence your chest aches and your head drops.
Of the strangeness of being stood in the carpark where your mum parks for Saturday chores and you go to M&S, but now you’re holding the thin white candles that the Brownies prepared, a shred of silver foil nudging into your fingers ‘Hold it STILL’ but you can’t because still is not something you’re good at, so even with the wide disk of white card shielding your skin from drips of wax you’re about to set your school coat on fire.
Of processing into church, steadily, and everyone’s faces are lit by soft candlelight. The normal, ugly rectangle warmed. The anticipation: it is here. He is Here.
That the Paschal Candle is lit and studded with the Alpha and the Omega. That my dad will be singing and that tomorrow we will have lamb and my mum’s stunning, home made Easter egg filled with her orange ice-cream and orange sorbet. And there will be no Mass because we have Done Mass for DAYS and we can eat chocolate and drink Schloer and Jesus is Risen.
But I know now that, if I went to a confession that I know I do not need, I would be shunned. And though I do not believe, as Ira Glass once said, in a Big Dad in the Sky - and as a brother said, one who is so brittle that he needs rules following with such precision that any aberration means you’re out of the club - it’s still hard to remember that you’re out of the club that once guided and bound the whole rhythm of your life.
So Easter wreaths and Easter without church is a strange one to me. A chocolate day. A day. I will see my parents and drop my kids with their dad. I will come home and tomorrow I’ll work. I’ll enjoy my kids enjoying the tradition of a Easter Egg hunt (though without the killer eggs I wanted to buy them…). I don’t have a big ‘summing up Making My Own Traditions’ resolution. Some things don’t have that rhetorical simplicity. We don’t always need answers - knowing you have a stone in your shoe means you can take it out. Sometimes that’s enough.
Sorry about last week. All A Bit Much.
More good stuff:
Covid Help for London’s Food Insecure Families: donate here
Postsecret: a Sunday morning heaven
In Control - a sadly essential guide to helping change the narrative around coercive control
I’ve gone back into a deep dive to Mad Men. My children are coping with my Don Draper crush well.