The plaza in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome imposes itself on the imagination. It is humbling to stand at the religious center of 2,000 years of creative and passionate spiritual endeavor. Here in the presence of the unthinkable successor to the mighty Roman Empire, the mind tends to implode, to shift into reverie and things besides mere thoughts enter the heart. So much history in one place creates a kind of soul warp where the collective consciousness of untold generations creates images in the mind and leaves the vision slightly blurred to accommodate the intrusion. One staggers through this psychic doorway to discover that nothing is as it see…
I was a second year student in the University of Dallas Rome program. We were to spend three days a week in class and the rest of the time roaming Europe. We went just about everywhere#151;Paris, the coast of Spain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and even North Africa but it was in Rome that I experienced the unusual.
The first thing that I noticed after entering the Basilica of St. Peter’s and gaping about were the confessional lights bright against dark wood, then the signs in many languages above the confessional boxes. They seemed forbidding and ritual—encrusted, archaic technology left over from a vanished yet still vital world.
Confessions were being heard in Spanish, English, Chinese, Malay, Polish, Czech, Russian, and God knows how many other tongues. I thought to myself, “How convenient, anyone could go.” Immediately, I mentally countered with the thought that it would be convenient for those who wanted to go—myself of course not being included. I could not tear myself away, however, and for some reason I kept looking at the lights. I then forcibly walked the other way, thinking that there would be many other interesting things to look at. I wandered over to the Pieta and marveled at the flow of the marble. Only the real masters can make marble look like human flesh close up. The work of Praxiteles comes to mind and the stunning statue of Antinous at Delphi—small wonder that Hadrian had been so captivated by him.
After a few minutes with Michelangelo, I found myself back in the same place. I started to become annoyed. What bullshit! Who could need confession? I was surprised that this was even an issue for me, as I had left the Catholic Church at fourteen and at twenty-one had no intention of returning. I was suddenly caught in the gravitation of the struggle that was going on and recognized that I was in fact having an argument with myself. What occurred was one of those rare moments when you catch yourself looking at yourself and wondering what the problem is. From this illumined perspective, desires whether for good or ill are transparently clear. You either want something or you do not. I experienced what in retrospect might be called a paradigm shift. I caught myself denying what appeared to be a bizarre desire (from my perspective at the time) and simultaneously realized from an entirely different and larger perspective that what I wanted was tantalizing and possibly beneficial in a way I could not understand.
I knew at that point that I had to go into the confessional—there was no honest way out. I simply wanted to go and there was no denying it. I felt a subtle shuddering as if I was standing at the edge of a cliff and there was no turning back. At the same time there was an immense clarity to what I was about to do. The fulfillment of my own history, a venture into the unknown, a vast quantum leap into the future seemed to be at hand. I hesitated; what sins would I confess? The answer bore down on me with awful certainty. “Confess all of them.” I realized that if I was going to do this, there was no point in doing it halfway.
So I went in and confessed all my misdeeds from age fourteen to twenty-one-a seven year accumulation of sexual misconduct and a host of other failings. I do not remember all that I confessed or even what the priest was like but I do remember stumbling out of the confessional like a person facing a new dawn after a reprieve from some long incarceration. I felt lighter and also re-oriented-as if something had been out of focus and was now suddenly much clearer. I immediately wrote it off to psychological relief but could not quite escape the sense that something extraordinary had happened.
My life was never the same after that. I had many moral lapses from that day on but always went back to confession, and astoundingly, the relief from spiritual oppression and darkness always seemed to occur. If I had to describe it another way, I would say that before I go to confession, I feel fragmented, vaguely depressed, somewhat inverted and upon receiving the forgiveness of Christ, set aright or made joyfully whole in a mysterious manner. What is certain is that in Rome, St. Peter’s black box opened a window onto a different reality for me.
About Sean O’Reilly:
Sean Joseph O’Reilly is the editor of many award-winning travel books, including The Road Within, Testosterone Planet, The Ultimate Journey, Pilgrimage, and The Spiritual Gifts of Travel. An active member of the Society of American Travel Writers, he is also the author of the shocking and controversial new book How to Manage Your DICK: Redirect Sexual Energy and Discover Your More Spiritually Enlightened, Evolved Self. He lives with his wife, Brenda, and their six children in Arizona.