When you have been a priest for as long as I have, you start to notice patterns in people. When a parishioner approaches, I can already guess what they want to ask me by their body language or the way their eyes flicker to meet mine. It’s quite funny actually. Everyone thinks they’re unique, that somehow they’re different than everyone else.
Well let me tell you, after 38 years of hearing confessions, I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re all pretty much identical. If I have to listen to one more trembling voice confess to watching pornography, I just might lose my mind. I haven’t turned cynical in my old age, just weary. When you hear the same sins repeated over and over again, a thousand million times over, you begin to wonder if there’s any hope left for the human race. I guess that’s where faith kicks in.
Though now…now I’m not sure how much of that faith I still possess. You see, I don’t practice anymore. I’ve given up the collar. I witnessed something that has shaken me to this day and the shadow of its memory still haunts me.
It was the last confession I ever did.
I stifled a yawn, trying my best to remain awake as another sobbing parishioner left the confessional. The whole process had just become so mechanical to me that I barely even heard what was being whispered on the other side of the screen.
I adjusted the cushion under my rear, feeling the familiar ache that had only gotten worse as my years advanced. I checked my watch and saw I still had another twenty minutes to go. I closed my eyes and offered it up to the Lord, begging him to fill me with patience for these people.
I heard the familiar creak of wood on the other side of the screen as yet another sinner took their place. I ran a hand over my weary eyes and then spoke into the screen.
“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” I recited, making the sign of the cross.
A male voice whispered to me from the other side, “Forgive me Father for I have sinned. This is my first confession.”
I shifted the cushion beneath me, annoyed at the distraction, and tried my best to focus on the man, “Do not be afraid my son, tell the Lord what you have done.”
The man said nothing for a moment, his voice rasping behind the screen, “Father…I don’t think there’s any hope for me. I’ve done so much...”
I sat up a little straighter, “My son, there is no sin too great for God.”
The man struggled to keep his emotions in check, his voice straining, “I think I’ve broken every rule in the book. Murder…deception…lust…”
The mention of murder sent a cold icicle shooting up my back, “You killed someone?” I asked, voice hardening. This was a serious confession, one I had never heard before in all my years in the booth.
I could hear the man begin to fall apart, shame and grief washing his words in sorrow, “I’ve killed so many people…”
My heart was racing in my chest, “Who have you killed? When was this?”
The man sniffled, “It was a long time ago. I’ve been on the run for so long. I don’t know what to do anymore. My whole life is a lie, one big fake advertisement for something I’m not.”
I leaned into the screen, voice stern, “Have you thought about turning yourself into the police? Coming clean will surely ease the weight of your sins. I can hear it in your voice…you’re suffering.”
The man started crying, “You have no idea…”
I knew I had to be delicate here, “Son, the Lord’s love is endless, he can forgive you these transgressions if you show him how truly sorry you are.”
The man surprised me by barking a laugh, “His love is not endless.”
I swallowed, treading carefully, “I know it’s hard to understand, to accept, especially when you’re feeling so low. But hear me: nothing is too great for the Lord. His wisdom and love for you is deeper than the oceans, broader than the universe, and he wants you to know that, to feel that in your soul.”
The man was recovering and he snorted behind the screen, “You couldn’t be more wrong.”
Slightly frustrated, I pressed him, “What makes you say that?”
Suddenly, the man’s voice filled the entire booth, a deep rumble that shook me to the very core of my soul.
“Because I am your Lord.”
I blinked, my head spinning. This was new. Just what kind of person was I dealing with here? I suddenly realized that the mental state of this person could be seriously compromised.
After a moment, I decided to play along a little longer, “You’re…the Lord.”
“I can hear your doubt.”
I sniffed, “Well, forgive me if I’m a little cautious around someone who proclaims they’re the Son of God.”
“There is no Son of God,” the man said, irritated, “Just me. You guys made up all that Jesus bullshit. I had nothing to do with that.”
My mind was spinning as I tried to keep up, “Ok, so who are you really? And what are you doing in my confessional?”
The man exhaled, “I just told you who I am. And I’m here to make peace before I die…or whatever happens to me afterwards…I don’t really know how I die…I never thought about it before.”
I decided it was time to start steering the ship back on course, “When a soul dies in the good graces of God, it gets sent to Heaven.”
The man laughed, “No, no, no, you’re wrong, you’re all wrong.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked feeling anger begin to stir in my chest.
The man’s voice dropped low, “Heaven is fucking gone.”
I cocked an eyebrow, the seriousness in his voice giving me pause, “What do you mean, gone?” His tone remained the same, a low rumble, “It got wiped out a long time ago. There’s nothing left.”
For reasons unexplainable, I began to feel uneasy, a sinking dread that was just beginning to form in my stomach.
“How is that possible? God is almighty, the Devil can never best him,” I said.
The man slammed his hand against the wall, causing me to jump, “There IS NO DEVIL. There never was! I don’t know WHERE you people got that, but it wasn’t from me. There is just myself and Heaven. No angels, no saints, nothing. I created a place for YOU and I created a place for ME. Then I sat around and watched my creations, all from the comfort of my home. My Heaven. Every once in a while I’d poke my finger in and stir up some shit. Cause a disaster or something, just to see how you’d react.”
“If Heaven is gone…where do our souls go when we die?” I asked.
“I have no idea!” The man said, “I don’t even know if you HAVE a soul! I certainly didn’t give you one. Why would I? I made you so I could have something to DO. When you die, three more people take your place and I watch the circus go round and round. I have to say, I’m impressed with the human race. You all have really come a long way. I never dreamed you’d create such wonders.”
Something outside the booth, in the sanctuary, crashed, but I ignored it, the man drawing all my attention.
“Why…why are you here?” I repeated, mind blanking at the absurdity of what I was hearing. The man’s voice turned quiet, an edge of unease now, “Because I’m going to die soon. I can’t hide down here much longer. They know where I am. They’re getting so close.”
The man collected himself before whispering, “The Old Horns.”
I could hear the shuffling of feet echoing outside the booth as people began to leave, probably annoyed at the long confessional, but I didn’t care.
Something about this man held me…and terrified me.
“I’m not following,” I said, a worm of unease snaking up my stomach into my chest, “I thought you said there was just you and us. I thought you said the devil didn’t exist?”
“He doesn’t,” the man hissed, “This is something else entirely. I have no idea what they are or where they came from.”
The logical part of me begged to end this conversation, but I couldn’t let it go. “What do they want with you? The Old Horns?”
Fear entered the man’s voice, “I don’t know. They just showed up in Heaven one day, taking me completely by surprise .They destroyed everything. Their power and wrath was more furious than anything I have ever seen before. I had no choice, I ran.”
“You ran…and came to Earth?” I asked.
“I had to!” he said, “Where else is there to go? I don’t KNOW anywhere else but your world and mine! I have no clue where these entities came from or how they found me. But there’s no stopping them…they’ll be here soon…I can’t hide forever.”
I exhaled, trying to collect my thoughts, “Ok, so say hypothetically this is all true…why would you come here? To confession? If you’re God, what do you need to apologize for?”
The man was silent for a moment, and then said softly, “Isn’t this what you’re supposed to do before you die? Truth be told, I have no idea what will happen to me when they catch up. But I’m scared. I’m really, really scared. I’ve done a lot of bad things…and…and this just seemed like the right thing to do,” he trailed off miserably. “I’m not the all loving, wonderful God humanity thinks I am. I’ve done things to you people that sicken me. I don’t know why I did them, but I did. You can look back on history and probably pick out the events I had a hand in. They’re pretty obvious. You know how people always say, ‘Why would God let that happen?’…..well, it’s because I’m an asshole. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all the shit I’ve made you people go through. You didn’t deserve it. I kept pushing the envelope and you Christians never lost faith in me. You would find ways to make sense of it all, always giving me the glory. Shit, I’m so sorry…”
I didn’t say anything, the weight of his words collapsing in on me like the walls of a cave, trapping me in their conviction. How could I believe any of this? It was nonsense…and yet…
Another crash echoed in the sanctuary and this time, I took notice because it filled the silence.
“Oh no,” I heard the man whisper, fear stirring his voice.
“What’s wrong?” I asked quietly.
I heard the shuffle of a curtain and then the creak of wood, “They’re here.”
I swallowed hard, “Who?”
“The Old Horns.”
Something dropped into the pit of my stomach, and I was suddenly very on edge. I leaned forward, one hand resting on curtain in front of me.
“Don’t open it. Do NOT look at them,” The man hissed.
“Why?” I whispered, my voice unsteady now.
“Just…DON’T,” he said urgently, “My time here is done. I’m at the end of my road. Stay in your booth until you hear silence again. It will be safe then.”
“This is insane,” I whispered, “There’s nothing out there.”
The man leaned into the screen, his voice earnest, “I know I have no right to ask you of this…but please…have faith in me one last time.”
My hand remained frozen, my sweaty fingers plastered to the curtain. I was paralyzed, torn between the madness of his story and the horrific sinking feeling I felt in my chest.
“Please,” the man begged now, “Absolve me of my sins and I’ll leave you all alone, forever.”
Voice shaking, mind spinning, I released the curtain and turned to the screen. Something moved outside the booth, a scraping sound across the marble floors.
I made the sign of the cross, voice trembling, “I absolve you of your sins, go in peace.”
The man exhaled heavily, relief filling him, “Thank you Father. Thank you.”
Suddenly, a noise blasted through the church, so loud I had to cover my ears, my heart leaping into my throat.
It was the blast of a low horn, a long single note that rattled me to the bone.
As the sound faded, a drop of sweat ran down my face. What in the hell…
“It’s time,” the man said.
“Wait!” I cried, pressing my face against the screen, “Don’t go out there. Please!”
The man’s voice softened, “Maybe this is how it was supposed to be. I never sent someone to die on a cross for your sins. But I do love you. I love all of you. And I can’t thank you enough for keeping me company all these years. You truly are an incredible people. God bless, Father.”
And then I heard the curtain rustle as he stepped out into the sanctuary. His footsteps echoed away from me and I slammed my hands over my ears again as another horn sounded. My breath blew sour across my tongue and I sat panting, waiting, sweat rolling down my spine. I heard the man speaking to something, but I couldn’t understand him, his voice muffled. My hands clenched my pants, and every part of me screamed to look.
But I resisted, teeth grinding together as I squeezed my eyes shut.
I began to count in my head, desperately needing to focus on something.
Another ear splitting horn sounded off, the low note so loud I heard the confessional booth creak against the blast.
I opened my eyes. I had just felt something change, something in the air. A shift in energy, a draining of something that was no longer there.
I sat panting for a few moments longer and then let out a long breath, releasing the tension I had been holding inside of me.
Cautiously, I reached out and grasped the curtain in front of me. I stood, my old bones sighing, and dragged a shaking hand across my brow.
I opened the curtain.
And the sanctuary stood empty.
Not long after that, I gave up the cloth. I just couldn’t do it anymore. Something about that day shook me to the very essence of my being. I’ve discussed the event with a couple other priests and they just don’t understand.
I don’t blame them. When I recite my story, it sounds like the ramblings of a mad man. Who would alter their life so drastically based on one interaction? Especially considering the circumstances.
But I have, and I don’t regret it. Something about prayer just feels so empty now.
I don’t know what’s going to happen when I die. In truth, no one does.
But what I do know…is what I felt that day inside the confessional. That was real. When I strip away everything else, all the questions, and oddities…that twist in my gut is what remains. I can’t explain what I witnessed. I can’t rationalize the bizarre sounds I heard. I can’t reenact the conviction I heard in that man’s voice.
But it was there and it was real.
And that…is what I have put my faith into.