I am certain that in a lifetime of being Catholic, many people have had one or more rather odd or disconcerting confessions. So, I suppose what happened to me with a priest I shall call Fr. Dan might be typical enough, but for me it has been a unique experience. I have been fortunate in having mostly really good confessors, even those whom I have not known and those who have laughed at me. (I suppose I would laugh at me in the same cases, as well.) This particular confession took place at a retreat I attended that was conducted by Fr. Dan, so, except for our interactions at the retreat, he was unknown to me and I to him. And confession with him took the oddest of turns.
The topic of the retreat was Franciscan spirituality, a popular topic in my part of the world, where the missions here were established by the Franciscans. Our local retreat center is run by the Franciscans, and the convents here are generally Franciscan. So, here I was, an SFO (third order Franciscan) candidate, at a Franciscan retreat center, spending a weekend immersed in learning more about Franciscan spirituality with a Franciscan priest. What could be better? Well, actually, a lot.
At the very first session, Fr. Dan presented a part of St. Francis's bio. In doing so, he interpreted it somewhat differently from what I was used to and made a pronouncement that floored me, kept me puzzled all weekend, and caused me to talk to him separately.
"St. Francis," he said, "never really heard a voice telling him to rebuild God's church. He just thought he did. Obviously, it was something he was thinking about, something that he thought should be done, and so he 'heard' in his mind the words that led to his rebuilding not only San Damiano but the more abstract 'church'."
Say what? St. Francis was confused about what he heard? Convinced that if St. Francis said he heard a voice he really did hear a voice, not a little bolstered by my own experiences and readings of the experiences of St. Theresa of Avila, I approached Fr. Dan during the break and asked him whether he thought that God ever speaks to people in a voice.
"No," he responded. "That's not the way God works."
But what about all those times in the Bible when someone heard the voice of God? Was it only in their minds, too?
"Yes," he said.
"Don't you think that God can choose to speak in a way that people hear?" I asked.
"No," he said curtly. "God is not capable of that."
I do not remember much of the rest of the retreat. In fact, I missed a portion of it because a friend who speaks only Russian had a stroke and I am the only local "family" that she has so I spent some time with her doctors and hospital staff, translating for her. Fr. Dan seemed to understand the urgency of that and forgave my absence for a few hours. While I had difficulty understanding his position on whether or not God speaks to people (ever), I found Fr. Dan to live up to his reputation as charming. Though there was not much of substance in his presentations, there was an obvious attraction between him and the participants. I felt the attraction, too, except for the nagging concern over his comment on the weakness of God and the mistakenness of St. Francis.
The retreat ended with confession and Mass. Mass was fine; Fr. Dan celebrated a lovely Mass. Confession, though, as I noted at the beginning of this post, took the oddest of turns in a way that I could not fathom and still cannot. I related a Jonah-type experience (I do encounter these unwished taskings from time to time that I sometimes try to sidestep initially), in which I had just given in (I always do; when God wants something, God gets it -- at least from me) but was still working on those sticky details, the ones that are along the lines of "Oh, God, do You really want me to do that? Please, not that!" I did not get far, however, when my tongue stopped working. Literally. I could not say another word. I just looked at Fr. Dan silently. Now, typically, one would expect the priest to take over, ask some questions, pull the details out of me, or at least say something. Fr. Dan, however, seemed to have also been struck dumb. He just looked at me. We looked, and we looked. Silently. Maybe for as much as a couple of minutes. (Time passes slowly when you are just looking and not talking, yet wanting to talk.) It was all very strange. Finally, he silently made the sign of the cross over me, and I walked away.
That was over a year ago, and the matter still puzzles me. Were we really struck dumb in some modern version of the meaning of that expression, or had I done or said something wrong? Was there something I should have done that my inexperience precluded me from doing? Why could I not talk? Fr. Dan was a charming priest in general. Disagreement on one small matter (well, maybe not that small a matter, considering that I do hear, aloud, something that seems to be a voice that gives me tasks me that I could never dream up or even want to carry out) should not have created such a barrier. Moreover, why did he not speak? I am inexperienced, but he has been a priest for many years. Certainly, he has heard more complicated things than I was relating.
I have no explanation for what happened. I do not pretend to understand it. I do, however, remain troubled about it. I suppose, though, that if God wants me to understand it, He will send along an explanation at some point in some form. Until then, I simply furrow my brow and continue down that path, you know, the one along which God pushed Jonah.