From: David Worrell

March 11, 1996

"The God of Fear"

By Susan Crain

I was just 7 years old when the priests and nuns of my grammar school decided for me that it was time to go one on one with God. Father Murphy started coming to our classroom once a week in order to properly prepare us for our first confessions. "You can't keep secrets from the Lord!" he said, an Irish fire blazing on his cheeks and forehead, and in a voice so loud we shriveled like prunes in our chairs. "He knows our sins, so don't try to keep anything back from Him."

At home I sat with pen and paper to make my list and went through the ten commandments one by one, desperately searching for a sin so great and so difficult to confess that it would explain what I felt was a completely irrational terror of stepping into that confessional. But I could find none, and the prospect of admitting to God that I had not eaten my green beans at the dinner table just didn't seem enough to warrant what soon became an all-consuming fear. I couldn't sleep or concentrate on my schoolwork, and my mother took to taking my temperature every day after I came home from school and huddled fetally in my bed.

You can pick her out from across the church if you look carefully. She's the shortest child in the whole second grade, made even shorter now by the manner in which she is sitting: scrunched down as if she wished she could melt and vanish into the wooden pews. She rises and stands rigidly as one of the Sisters waves her row over to stand in front of the confessional. Her knee socks fall down around the ankles of her scrawny legs. She is frozen. It takes a rough push from the girl behind her to force her to walk again. She is the fourth child in the line, then the third, second and first. She pretends to be reassured by the fact that each child in front of her comes out of the confessional looking much the same as when they went in, some of them in fact even smiling (with relief, she imagines.) But she is not reassured. On the contrary, she is very sure now that when she steps into the confessional she will begin to fall. Down, down, down into a deep, dark pit whose walls are covered with an unknown slime-like substance, down into a laughter of hot terror. She will fall down into Hell, because she can't think of any real sins to confess, but she is certain that she has committed them. God knows her sins, but she does not.

She stands there shaking with her hand on the doorknob for too long. The Sister's eyebrows crease in disapproval and the little girl gathers all she has into opening that door and bursting into the little room like a shot. But the space is no bigger than a closet and she goes head first into the opposing wall, falling back on her rear end. Her hands touch the icy marble floor and she whispers a small thanks that it is there. Already she is aware of the lump that is forming above her left eye, but she raises herself slowly and finds the kneeler with her fingers. The priest next door pulls aside the curtain and she starts in a pitifully squeaky voice: "Bless me Father for I have sinned." She thinks frantically in an attempt to create a sin worthy of all that she has suffered. "I - I - I don't eat my dinner sometimes even when my Mother says that some people are starving. And, and - I said the word 'damn' to my brother." The priest is quiet for a moment and then asks her if she is truly sorry for these sins, and she says that she is. He tells her to say three Hail Marys and three Our Fathers and then blesses her. She knows she is free to go, but she cannot move because she can't believe that is it over. "You may go now and say your prayers," the priest says. She leaves the confessional and returns to her seat. A heavy fog of incense drifts around her and she gets up and runs to the small dank room where baptisms are done and vomits all over the floor. When she is done she glances up, trying to catch her breath, sees the crucified feet of Jesus and screams.

When I got home that day after my first confession, I had a mild stomach ache. It soon escalated into a pain not unlike a knife being thrust into and out of my insides, a pain so great I could not keep from screaming. My Mother rushed me to the emergency room, where the doctors could find nothing physically wrong with me. This happened every single time I was required to go to confession for the rest of second grade. After it stopped, I found that my fear had been replaced with anger and bitterness. I didn't love God anymore, if I ever had, and I didn't care, an attitude which has remained with me into adulthood. I think now that after that year I had come to believe that any entity which produced so negative a response in me was not worthy of my respect. It took a few more years for me to realize the inanity of having to "create" a sin: in not being aware of any way in which I had broken the ten commandments, I was forced to break one of them with my lie about swearing.

Although I espouse atheism now, it is for reasons far removed from this event in my young life. And I cannot very well remain angry at a being in whose existence I do not believe. I do retain a very bitter attitude toward those who I feel were at fault, however: the clergy members who so confused and frightened me and the Catholic church in general. While it may be well and good for people to have an outlet in admitting their wrong-doings to a priest, I still don't believe that 7-year-olds should be forced into a practice which condemns them as guilty before they've even lived long enough to do anything that would be considered deviant.

As I try to explain rationally to my own 8-year-old why one should not cheat or lie or steal, the thought of her standing outside the confessional waiting to admit the evils of her ways to the omniscient Almighty becomes laughable, if not absurd. Does using fear as a deterrent really produce rational human beings who behave in positive ways? Or does it only produce anger and bitterness and eventually result in the behavior it was intended to prevent in the first place? My daughter lives in fear only of things like being grounded or having certain priveleges taken away, but she does not have to fear me or the mysterious retributions of some all-knowing punisher in the heavens, nor do I think she should be required to. It turns out she's a pretty well-behaved kid regardless.

After her third confession, and after her third visit to the emergency room with the knives in her stomach, her Mother left her alone in the car so that she could speak to the doctor alone. The knives had abated and she sat with quiet tears on her cheeks, the smell of incense still in her clothes. She had found more to say at her last two confessions, and she hadn't had to lie those times. She had been unable to concentrate on homework and was able to confess what Sister Mary called the sin of procrastination, as well as the evils of fighting with her little brother and sneaking a Hershey's Kiss before dinner. As she looked out of the car window, big drops of rain began to fall here and there against it. She whispered to herself, "Damn." Once, and then again, and again. Waves of anger came up in her as they had never before done in her short life, until finally she was screaming: "Damn! Damn damn damn damn damn damn damn!"