Irish Short Story Month: The First Confession by Frank O’Connor

I am not Catholic.
I’ve often attended Catholic services and longed for the cathedrals of stained glass, the ancient prayers and liturgy, the solemn dress of the priest.
But, I belong to a Protestant church with my husband in which the sanctuary is now called an auditorium, the time honored chants are replaced with drums and instruments, the stained glass windows are only cement blocks.
I think I would like many of the traditions found in a Catholic church, even though I’ve heard people who were raised in one sound very scornful of rituals such as the Holy Days of Obligation, the first Communion, and Confession. So I come to this story by Frank O’Connor rather unaware of how confession is supposed to work.
I found myself laughing at the poor boy’s trial in learning the process for himself. In five printed pages our narrator takes us through the whole experience, of hearing about hell and being dared to taste it by “holding one finger-only one finger!-in a little candle flame for five minutes.” Not one child in the school would take the old woman’s promise to deliver a half-crown to anyone who would submit to this experience, and “at the end of the lesson she put it back in her purse. It was a great disappointment; a religious woman like that, you wouldn’t think she’d bother about a thing like a half -crown.”
When he makes his first confession, he is completely baffled once he is inside the chapel. “I knew then I was lost, given up to eternal justice. The door with the coloured-glass panels swung shut behind me, the sunlight went out and gave place to deep shadow, and the wind whistled outside so that the silence within seemed to crackle like ice under my feet.”
His confusion and fear become worse when he finds himself within the confessional with his pious sister waiting outside. “With the fear of damnation in my soul I went in, and the confessional door closed of itself behind me. It was pitch-dark and I couldn’t see priest or anything else. Then I really began to be frightened. In the darkness it was a matter between God and me, and He had all the odds. He knew what my intentions were before I even started; I had no chance. All I had ever been told about confession got mixed up in my mind, and I knelt to one wall and said: “Bless me, father, for I have sinned; this is my first confession.” I waited for a few minutes, but nothing happened so I tried it on the other wall. Nothing happened there either. He had me spotted all right.”
What follows in this story, is an account of the whole experience through the eyes of  a young Irish boy who discovers in the process that perhaps he is not as sinful as he first suspected. It is a charming story, for Catholics and Protestants alike, for any one who has been a child and subjected to the tyranny of adults. The refreshment of a compassionate priest must be like the Balm of Gilead.
Thank you, lovely Jillian, who asked me on Saturday if I’d read The First Confession by Frank O’Connor. I had not, and so she sent me a link to the work, which is a perfect choice for March and Mel’s Irish Short Story Month.
“In his 63 years, Frank O’Connor produced an impressive amount of work…but it’s his short stories that guarantee his immortality. They are encapsulated universes. While most modern stories focus on a single moment, Frank O’Connor’s generally sum up the patterns of whole lives ….Each [story] is, in its own way, shattering.” — Anne Tyler, Chicago Sunday Times
“Walter Benjamin says in his essay on Leskov that people think of a storyteller as someone who has come from afar. O’Connor’s best stories put the same thought into our heads; how far, in some imaginative sense, he has to travel to achieve such wisdom and to accomplish it with such Flair.” — Denis Donoghue, New York Times Book Review
“In almost all the stories in this excellently balanced collection O’Connor’s people explode from the page. The nice are here and the nasty: the gentle, the generous, the mean, the absurd, those rich in dignity, those without a shred of it….Without adornment, he simply tells the truth.” — William Trevor, Washington Post Book World
Read the story online here.
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9 thoughts on “Irish Short Story Month: The First Confession by Frank O’Connor”

  1. I was raised Catholic. We did all those things, but it was with love and not fear (I am so thankful for the Church I was raised in!)… now in my Catholic Church, there are no more confessionals, no more stained glass, and confession is only expected once a year. Plus our archbishop may also absolve the whole congregation. The times, they are a changing.

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  2. I'd love to read this — I was raised Catholic, too, and confession always felt more scary than good for the soul! But I love, love, love the part about the candle. 🙂

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  3. There's something so powerful in a short story. I haven't often chosen to read this genre because I like 'getting into' a novel. But, for a person with Short Attention Span Theater such as I've possessed this spring, short stories are perfect. I'll come look for your review.

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  4. I'm so glad to hear that your experience was one of love. My husband was (is) most unhappy with his upbringing, but I almost think he's thrown the baby out with the bath water. At least we are dedicated Christians trying to serve Him every day.

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  5. I was also raised Catholic and recall my first confession like it was yesterday. It was dark, scary and mysterious!! Not like when my son (now 19) made his first confession out in the open, face to face with the priest. This books sounds like one I would enjoy. Thank you for the post!

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  6. I remember I read this short story years ago in a class–it really is delightful! I have a soft spot for stories featuring kindly priests.

    I'm practicing Catholic, but in a liberal congregation…so yes stained glass windows, no to organ music. I think there's a wide, wide range within Catholicism…or as I like to tell people, it's a very big tent!

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