First Place Prose Winner
What God Feels Like
by Meredith Wilson
My knees are sore and sticking to the kneeler. I shift my weight, resting on the pew behind me for a few seconds before I sit back up to avoid my religion teacher’s watchful gaze. Nervous with anticipation, I shuffle through the booklet she gave me. When we’re not in church, Mrs. Campbell is a fun teacher; she takes us to soup kitchens, dresses up like different saints, and gives us Smarties when we get the answers right in class. “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession,” I mutter to myself, trying to make the words stick in my brain. I have already made up my mind to recite every sin listed in the pamphlet, convinced that I’ve committed each of them at least once in my 12 years of existence. One by one, my classmates make their way to the reconciliation room, where Father Tim waits to guide them through the sacrament of penance. One of his eyes droops perpetually, giving him a hangdog appearance.
Father Tim, however, is not a hangdog. He towers over the elementary schoolers and makes us scrape gum off the sidewalks in detention. He’s the reason that girls can’t be altar servers at our church anymore. I used to help light the candles and ring the bells, but now he doesn’t allow women near the altar during Mass. He also tried to bring back head coverings, but that movement has been unsuccessful so far. My mom likes him more than I do; she calls him her “spiritual advisor,” whatever that means.
Some students take longer than others. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch Nohemi Gaeta make her way to the back of the chapel. She walks with a confidence I don’t have, prancing, hips swinging side to side like a much older girl. Last week, she tore a piece of paper out of my notebook and drew a picture of me with scribbled hairs on my legs and a unibrow. She passed it around to all the boys in our class. I had tried to ignore the laughing, pretending I didn’t notice and burying my head in my hands. Nohemi has 10 brothers and sisters, so I try to cut her some slack. I have a feeling she’s going to be in there a while. I wonder if she’ll tell Father Tim about the drawing.
There is a knot in my stomach as I wait. I’m worried that I’ll forget to confess something. I imagine myself leaving with a single, stubborn sin clinging to me, deprived of inner peace because Father Tim scared me into silence. My class learned the difference between mortal and venial sins last week, but I’m still fuzzy on the details. I know that mortal sin is the one that damns you eternally, but how can I tell if my sins are mortal or venial? Murder will definitely send me to Hell, but what about digging my nails into my sister’s arm because she lost my favorite scrunchie? I cross my fingers tightly and hope that any wrongdoing I forget turns out to be venial.
It’s late in the afternoon, and I can feel myself growing tired from lunch and recess. I wish I could go home, but I know that even after this is over, I’ll have to wait in after-school care until my parents get off work. I’ll eat pretzel sticks with the lunch ladies and sit on the cafeteria floor to watch an old VHS tape. I think they’re playing Matilda today.
The incense hanging in the air makes my throat dry. I swallow forcefully, looking around at my sleeping, praying, or pamphlet-reading classmates. From the way Mrs. Campbell talks about Reconciliation, I am expecting a sense of relief after I confess. She says that once she lets go of her sins, her heart feels lighter, and she knows she’s closer to God. That is the upside to telling the Father everything I’ve ever done wrong; I can be certain that if I die immediately after, I will ascend directly into Heaven. I’m anxious, but I think it will be worth it to clean my soul. I’ve been dirtying it up ever since I was baptized.
I hear the door open and realize it’s my turn. I slide the kneeler back into place too harshly, and Mrs. Campbell casts a stern look my way as the noise of metal on metal clangs throughout the church. With stiff legs, I stand up, exit the pew, face the altar, and genuflect. I try to mentally rehearse what I’m going to say as I enter the room; everything is moving too quickly. Panicked, I choose to kneel behind the divider, so he can hear my voice but not see my face.
Silence. The athletic shorts under my jumper are riding up, and my hair sticks to my forehead. I’m grateful that I don’t have to look him in the eye.
I begin to quote the sins I had memorized from the list, mixing in the specific incidents I can remember. “I took the Lord’s name in vain, I didn’t clean my room when my mom asked me to, I used bad language, I was jealous that Lucy Martin had more Webkinz than me, I bore false witness against my neighbor, and I copied Ben Thornhill’s math homework because I don’t understand fractions.”
“Sin harms our relationship with God and prevents us from living in His image,” the Father tells me. “Are you sorry for these sins?”
“Yes,” I assure him, trying to make my voice convincing. “They won’t happen again.”
“Perform your Act of Contrition.”
I fumble in my jumper pocket for the prayer card I snuck in with me and hurriedly apologize for offending God. The Father grants me mercy and gives me my penance: five Hail Mary’s.
My heart hits my ribs as I walk back to my seat and clumber onto the kneeler. I try to breathe through my nose, but every breath echoes in the quiet chapel. I wonder if I did it right. I begin to pray, searching from the depths of my stomach to the ends of my fingertips for something that feels like God. I’m not sure where the soul is located, but I don’t feel any lighter. Heaven doesn’t seem any closer, but maybe I forgot something. Maybe it doesn’t matter how I feel. I tell myself that maybe when I take my first Communion, I’ll understand what Mrs. Campbell was talking about.