The Other I

October 8, 2007

Confession: A cooperative venture

During the family reunion last weekend, my sister Bernadette told the story of how she had given a paper she’d written to our younger sister Mary to submit for a course requirement in college.  Upon reading the paper, Mary’s professor called her in and accused her of plagiarism.  Mary vehemently denied it, but the professor was adamant.  “A twenty-year old is simply incapable of writing a paper of this maturity.  I am certain this work cannot be yours.”  Mary was so affronted at the implied criticism of Bernadette that she replied in fury “You are wrong.  My sister wrote this paper last year, and she was twenty.”

I just learned today that this cooperative approach began many years earlier.  Mary, age six, was preparing for her First Confession.  For those of you not schooled in the Roman Catholic Sacrament of Penance, confession generally involves going into a darkened alcove, where a priest sits at the other side of the screen.  The penitent then confesses his or her sins and asks for forgiveness, whereupon the priest suggests a suitable penance, such as saying several Hail Mary’s, and gives the person absolution.

Mary, though, was short of a list of sins, so Bernadette gave her a suitable selection to present.  Dorothy developed a different strategy to deal with a dearth of required sins.  She committed them.  She omitted brushing her teeth at night in order to confess disobeying her parents, or did not turn her light out at night until several minutes after the deadline for reading, which again produced another suitable sin. 

The interesting thing about this mechanism was that, although it was necessary to have proper sins to confess, apparently they had to be legitimate sins.  Lying about them would be wrong.  As Dorothy said “I always told the truth.”

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