Saturday, October 22, 2011
The Pardoner's Tale Redux
Yesterday I used a PowerPoint to introduce my high school juniors to Chaucer, a man who wrote during the Middle Ages about the hypocrisy he found within the Church. Among his portraits in The Canterbury Tales is The Pardoner, a man who preaches against greed and yet admits to tricking his penitents into buying fake relics. And yet, he is able to tell us a profoundly moral tale.
Question: Can an immoral person teach a moral story?
Fast forward 500-plus years to this morning, when I drove myself to a 19th century church near the New Jersey Turnpike. It's been so long since I've availed myself of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, that when I began I said: "Bless me Father for I have sinned. It's been...uh...at least seven months since my last confession."
My "pardoner," as far as I can intuit, is a devout, sweet, sincere pastor who takes his vows to heart and lives them out as best he can. But even if my pardoner were as debauched as the one Chaucer describes, that would be beside the point. Because it's God, our True Pardoner, who is forgiving my sins.
I haven't encountered a line for the confessional in years. But this morning, it took more than an hour to get my turn. I consider that a beautiful thing. I wish the lines for confession were as at least as long as the lines for the Eucharist, or the line of traffic I encounter on my commute to work.
I thought about that as I waited. Then I prayed. I squirmed. I grabbed a copy of the bulletin and read it every article and ad. I listened to more than five dozen attempts by a singing group rehearsing in the choir loft to get a wedding song right. They didn't. I heard a train pass, the big front door open, felt the breeze come in, heard someone on her cell phone talking a little too loudly in the church entrance. I heard cars honking. I uncharitably wondered why everyone ahead of me, including each of the three nuns in full habit, took 20 minutes for their confessions. Seriously ladies?
I looked at the church, designed and built by Irish immigrants in 1856. When I was a child, I used to imagine the folks whose names graced the plaques for stained glass windows, altars and baptismal fonts were perfect. They had to be upstanding men and women every moment of their lives.
I now know they were as sinful as I am, as deeply human as the rest of us waiting patiently and not so patiently in the confessional line, as flawed as the priest who listened to my sins and offered words of advice, prayer and penance and absolution, as out of tune as those singers in the choir loft who still were hitting the wrong notes as I left the confessional after 20 minutes and headed outside to the parking lot.
Answer: Yes, an immoral man can teach a moral story. Our earthly Pardoners might be messes. Come to think of it, they probably are. We all are. What we need to do is keep praying, asking forgiveness and understanding that we are all beggars in search of Beauty.