Making a rare journey on the London Underground the other day, I came across a strange adaption of a familiar notice. It warned me not to walk on the tracks because of a Risk of a life changing event. It would be comforting to think that the relevant authorities were showing concern for witnesses and families and friends, whose lives are certainly changed by such events, but I suspect not. Much more likely, because more common, is the unwillingness to name directly the most immediate and obvious consequence.
Sacraments are life changing events, or they are meant to be, which is perhaps why we back away from using direct language regarding them. In the confessional ,w are drawn to that curious grammatical form I shall call the Penitential Abstract, which is often introduced by phrases like “For the times I have..” followed by a generalised list of types of human behaviour true of all of us some times and of many of us rather often. But we can’t confess the sins of humanity, only our own. So, if we really want a life changing event, like being forgiven, then we have to speak without repetition and deviation (hesitation’s ok) and leave aside all possible ways we may well have sinned, and get to what we ourselves have done. So forget the exhaustive lists of possibilities, which will always have left out something anyway, and say, this I have done, this is on my conscience, this is what a I need help for. God is not subjunctive, and neither should we be. Otherwise we are engaging in a polite ritual, sacramental good manners, but not running much risk of a Life Changing Event.
The fish are, as ever, illustrative. Over the winter several of the senior residents of our pond (their pond?) “passed” as we say. Perhaps they would say they have gone to the Great Heron. This led to a succession crisis among these hierarchically minded creatures, since they swim about always following the largest, oldest and boldest of their kind. But our new Top Carp is rather too elderly for the role and spends much time lurking under a lily pad, while her nearest associate seems rather unwilling to go first in the search for nourishment, so all the smaller ones hang back as well. Anyway, after much coaxing (and lots of wasted food) he has finally got the hang of it and they are now all happily stuffing themselves every 4 p.m. God’s grace is here, always. But we do need to open our eyes, and mouths to find it.