Private Eyes

The curtain pulls aside. The priest opens the Royal Doors of the iconostas, looks out into the nave then turns around to the sanctuary as the congregation stands, the choir singing. Mass has begun.

We have been attending this Ukrainian church since last fall, Olga reconnecting to her roots. I don’t understand a word, save for Amen. I recognize parts of the mass; the first reading, the gospel, the homily, the Lord’s prayer, communion. I follow Olga’s lead as she stands or kneels or sits, blessing myself from left-to-right at the beginning and end of the service, forgoing the countless right-to-left crossings in-between.

Otherwise I think and listen and watch.

Shortly after the first hymn and everyone has sat down, another priest emerges from the vestibule, crucifix in hand, planting himself in a chair perpendicular to a pew situated in a corner. He is ready to hear confession at the front of the church, to the left of the congregation in plain sight. I grew up with the sacrament of penance being conducted in a closed box, priest awaiting on one side, penitent entering the other, doors closed, dimly lit, separated by a screen, making the participants largely hidden from each other. My own experience has been minimal, partaking sparingly for a few years after grade eight at St. Robert’s when the class was confirmed together. I cannot remember the last time, and I am no longer clear of the steps and the words. 

The set up here at St. Nicholas attracts my attention. I notice the constant movement, wondering  if anyone else glances over regularly. People pay heed if only to determine when best to join the line. It is longer this week as the days close in on Orthodox Easter. Confessants want to be absolved before partaking in communion, watching the mass from the side of the church, waiting their turn. The devout family gathered in the pews to our right are regular. The father and teenage daughter have already headed for the queue. There are more parishioners today.  

Each one approaches in earnest, heads bowed, leaning in, whispering. Some longer, some shorter. The priest bends towards them, listening intently, nodding on occasion, looking away. Then with a slight turn toward the person, not making eye contact, he begins to speak with intention, explaining, using his hands for emphasis, ending with a blessing, more pronounced with the wooden cross in his hand. The person makes way for the next.

There is a young boy, 12 maybe, who finishes, gets up and heads back to his seat, a look of accomplishment on his face, twinkling eyes of mischievousness, one of those “I just got away with something” smiles. His looks are innocent so I am trying to imagine the content of his confession, trying to remember my sins at that age. It may have been gleefully egging on the fisticuffs which regularly broke out in the schoolyard, or the mocking cries of “caw, caw” to  Mr. Crow, the janitor, as he cleared the school roof of tennis balls, or standing by as the boys from the reformed school protested in Dutch for being harassed crossing the St. Robert’s property. I cannot recall if these were the source of my confessions, or if I described the thoughts in my head, or if I mentioned my sins of omission. I don’t know for what sin I would be asking forgiveness from the priest today.

A kerchiefed, old woman hobbles to the pew, hunched over in a dark, full length, woolen overcoat. She appears known to the priest because he stands with her approach, remaining there to hear her confession, saving her the difficulty of kneeling, the painfulness of raising herself up again. She is immediately followed by a long haired, young woman who bounces to the pew, fashionably oversized beige sweater atop a pleated short skirt revealing her long legs.

Men, women, teenagers in equal numbers. Old, older. Sunday best, modest dress, casual attire. It continues for the full length of the mass, one after another after another, stopping only to hear the gospel.

I don’t feel compelled to join the line. I think about my actions and inactions, my words and responses, my thoughts and judgements. I will share them with Olga later and reflect some more. I might pray.

Otherwise they are private, not to be poured out before the eyes of the church.

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