During the summer of 2008, I went on a two-week mission trip to Brazil. We went to Matto Grosso State, on the southern outskirts of the Amazon, in order to do a construction project for a mission school. Dozens of species of ants crawled through the reddish hillside dirt as we worked, and in the morning we were treated to wild parrots and toucans flying overhead.
One day, towards the end of the trip, one of the workers accidentally kicked a piece of concrete off of the second-story scaffolding. I felt a sudden whack on my head and reflexively bent over. I removed my hand from my head, only to see blood squirting a good distance in front me. “I should probably sit down…”
A crowd of concerned on-lookers quickly gathered around me. A Brazilian doctor came running up (he’d been helping out at the mission), and quietly examined the wound. He looked up at the missionary in charge of the work site.
“He needs Sticks,” he pronounced solemnly.
A hush descended on the crowd. The missionary’s eyes grew big. I started to get nervous, real nervous. “Sticks?” I thought. “What in the heck kind of Amazon witch-doctor nonsense are you trying to–”
“Oh!” cried the missionary. “You mean, he needs stitches!”
“Yes yes, stee-chez,” the learned physician replied, with a smile. I breathed a deep sigh of relief.
A short while later, we were at the local hospital. I sat in the waiting room holding a towel to my head, while a heated discussion ensued in Portuguese. You see, my doctor friend didn’t have hospital privileges in this particular town, but at some point they decided to let him treat me anyway. “Don’t worry, Ray-ahn, we will get you your…stee-chez.” He smiled. I laughed nervously.
The doctor took great care of me. Much better than some of my other emergency room visits, in fact. The hospital was so impressed with the fine quality of the doctor’s Stick work, that they asked him to come back. “Ray-ahn, I think you were supposed to be hit in the head to-day, for God’s Kingdom. Now I can come back and be a ministry at this hospital!” Sticks for the glory of God! I offered to cut off one of my fingers and drive with him to the next town. He patted me on the knee. “This is all for to-day.”
I’ll admit, the first time I went to Confession, I was nervous. I was supposed to go at some point before being received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil Mass. I had only seen a Confession in the movies, and of course, that never ends well. Besides, how on earth was I going to confess 26 years of plentiful, deep, and occasionally-imaginative sin?
I also hadn’t met the priest before. He was a friend of a friend, a member of Opus Dei from Spain. I spoke with him briefly on the phone, “I am actually free on Good Friday, Ray-ahn. Can you make it then? Good. See you soon.”
My first Confession ended up being one of the most grace-filled experiences I’ve ever had. Father Jose took me through the Ten Commandments (I’ve broken a solid majority of them), at each point reassuring me of God’s promises of forgiveness. He offered me kind pastoral advice on my current struggles, and gently guided me through what I was supposed to say (I had no idea how to say an Act of Contrition). As he gave me absolution, I felt like a tremendous burden was being lifted off of my shoulders. I always knew that God forgives repentant sinners, but here was a beautiful reassurance. After he warmly welcomed me to the Catholic Church, Fr. Jose gave me three Our Fathers as penance.
A mere 20 minutes of spiritual surgery, and I felt like a brand new person.
St. Alphonsus de Liguori said that a priest hearing a confession “is not only a teacher, he is a physician. And his faculty to hear confessions is first of all a ministry of charity.” Going to Confession isn’t about being beaten down, or being embarrassed. It’s about receiving the forgiveness of our wonderful God. It’s about encountering the love and mercy of our Heavenly Father, administered by a doctor trained in that particular medical specialty.
I know that, to a lot of people, loving Confession might seem strange. If you weren’t raised in the Catholic faith, the idea of kneeling in a booth and telling someone what you’ve done wrong might not be very appealing. But often we receive grace in strange ways, don’t we? After all, sometimes the Kingdom of God comes by way of Sticks…