One summer during college, I went on a retreat with my Catholic youth group. And not just any retreat, but a canoeing retreat. It took place at Canada’s stunningly beautiful Algonquin Provincial Park and I regretted it from the moment I realized I’d have to row a canoe and occasionally even carry that canoe, plus my worldly belongings, over my own head.
It was hot, there were swarms of bees, and you couldn’t even catch a break when we stopped to rest because that was scripture reading time. The campground, when we reached it, wasn’t so much a campground as a small secluded island with no plumbing or electrical outlets to plug your curling iron in. We cooked by fire, put iodine tablets in the river water to cleanse it, and slept on the forest floor in tents.
Despite all that, Algonquin was pretty impressive. I was with my closest friends, had my eye on a handsome Quebecois, and was appreciating the beauty of creation despite myself. You can’t help but feel closer to God when you paddle by a single moose standing in shallow waters with mountains and the setting sun as backdrop. Or when you’re kicking back by the fire with a brewski and some chips.
On the last day of the retreat, after we’d packed up the campsite and put out the fires, we had the opportunity to receive the sacrament of confession. The prospect of dragging out your sins without the benefit of a confessional window to hide behind was daunting to say the least, but our chaplain – Father Sunshine – was a stand-up priest who had good rapport with young people and was always quick with a kind word or joke. Besides, after three days in the woods, we felt humble and changed. One by one, we took the plunge.
I was the last to go and when my turn came, I went to town. There was no end to my transgressions, no sin left behind. Big ones, small ones, I lifted each one individually and cast it off like refuse into the abyss. In the past I’d questioned the necessity of confession as a sacrament, believing that no mediator was needed between me and God. But there is something about laying your faults bare, about lifting them up and giving them away, that is spectacularly liberating. At least, it was very good for me.
Afterward I felt like a new person. My backpack was suddenly lighter, there was a bounce in my step. But even more importantly, I knew that in just six short hours, I’d be showering and sleeping in a real bed. What I didn’t know was that while I was going through my litany, everyone else in the group had paired up. One by one, the canoes and their occupants set off towards home base as the wind picked up and a steady rain began to pour.
Father Sunshine and I were the only two left.
He looked at me, I looked at him.
“I guess we’re buddies” he said.
Next thing you know, I’m in a boat with my confessor. It’s driving rain and I’m doing my best to keep the canoe moving forward in a straight line. Father Sunshine is patient and gives gentle advice, but in his heart of hearts I know he’s marveling at my sins. It’s a predicament to say the least, only made worse by the fact that we’re drifting farther away from the other canoes in the middle of a storm.
The only redeeming thing about the situation is that I’m about to die a saint.
After awhile, even father Sunshine starts looking worried and suggests we ask Saint Peter to keep an eye on us and give us faith. Saint Peter, of course, is the apostle who with God’s help rowed his boat safely ashore in the raging sea of Gallilee while Jesus slept.
Even in my terror, I couldn’t help but notice the poetry of the situation. Especially when, after dispensing his advice, Father Sunshine put down his oars and lit up a Marlboro Light.
“Keep rowing,” he told me, “I have faith in you.”
I don’t know how we made it out alive, but it was the best penance I ever did.
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