It was last December when I read the post that kicked off this exploration of mercy. This post, specifically, in which Rory Cooney suggests that we have a bad habit of substituting confession for actual mercy. I thought, “Wait…there’s more to mercy than confession?”
Then I thought, “Maybe I’d better dig into this a little more deeply.”
And here we are. For three months, I’ve deliberately avoided the subject of forgiveness and reconciliation, because I want to get to the heart of what makes “mercy” something we live, not something we do twice a year at a communal penance service.
But Julianna had her second confession a week ago, and I realized I do have something to share about this most familiar aspect of mercy.
Julianna approached her first confession, last November, with the same unbelievable, adorable excitement she approaches everything. But we haven’t gone since. So a week ago I said, “Christian, we’ve got a free day. Let’s all go over to confession this afternoon.”
And only then did it occur to me that Julianna was going to need some serious review. I admit I groaned inside. You just can’t comprehend what a chore it is to teach Julianna anything at all. Plus, Saturday afternoon confession is the real deal, not the tweaked-for-time-management communal penance form they use for First Reconciliation.
And then, of course, there’s the examination of conscience.
I have an allergy to “helping” my kids identify their sins for confession. It seems to me to void the whole thing. How can repentance be authentic if it’s directed from the outside?
And yet I couldn’t think of any way around it. I could just imagine Julianna doing that adorable side-to-side walk into the confessional and regaling Father with stories about how they didn’t have a fire drill or how Sophia the First finds a big giant baby.
So early that afternoon, we sprawled across my bed and talked through the sacrament. I tried to guide her through an examination of conscience without telling her things outright. But to do that, I had to direct her toward the sins I’d seen her commit. So I started thinking about it, and after a blank couple of moments, the truth smacked me in the back of the head:
This girl doesn’t sin.
Yes, all right, she and Michael occasionally fight over a baby doll.
And yes, she’s manipulative and self-centered—the manipulation and self-absorption of young childhood, which isn’t exactly confession material. It’s not a sin until you’re doing it with intent, which she isn’t.
Besides, you can’t think of her conflicts with the world without being reminded of a dozen times she’s tried to comfort someone else who’s upset.
I tucked that little moment of awe in a corner of my heart and went on with the process. And an hour later, on the way to church, I was reviewing the procedure with her again…because that’s what it takes with Julianna…and Christian turned toward me with a bemused look on his face. “You know what?” he said. “It just occurred to me. She doesn’t really…sin!”
As parents, we’re painfully aware of our children’s failings—because we’re constantly correcting them, and all too often because they so closely mirror our own.
I’ve spent so much time focused on alphabetization and reading comprehension and addition/subtraction, it never occurred to me that I truly was living in the presence of something amazing.
Among the Down syndrome community, the fastest way to evoke an eye roll is to tell a family member that their kids are “angels.” Our kids are not perfect. They can be stubborn and manipulative, and exceptionally resistant to learning the skills that allow human beings to live in harmony with each other.
But it occurs to me that perhaps we are too close to our struggles to recognize the gift of mental and emotional simplicity for what it is. It’s hard for a mama who got straight As without really trying to deal with a kid who can’t—not struggles to, can’t—draw the simplest connections between academic concept and reality. It’s hard for a mama who has spent so much time and energy trying to bring the faith down to a practical level to accept the fact that one of her children is never going to “get” the connection.
And yet for the past nine years, Julianna has been quietly living out a much simpler form of mercy, right under my nose. And I never even realized it.
I now realize that I need to spend as much time watching and learning from my child as I do trying to teach her. Because she does “get” it. She “gets” it on a level so fundamental that it went right past me. And in the end, her approach to mercy might well be the one I most need to learn.