The night before my youngest daughter was to sit in front of a priest to divulge all of her sinful ways to ask for forgiveness for her first Penance, I sat down with her to practice the Act of Contrition. The Act is a part of the seven Sacraments both of my daughters are learning in church. It’s the script, which if said correctly, helps to wash away any transgressions of the canonical 10 Commandments of God (or any other of the 335 Commandments parents tend to keep and add on to).
The Act of Contrition starts out with, “Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee…” It then moves in to loving God, asking for his forgiveness, saying ‘Amen’ and then waiting for the priest to make with the absolution. It is vital, according to her teacher, she know the Act word for word which is why, I knew we needed the practice after Emma began with, “Oh my God I’m hardly sorry for having off-end-den thou”. The last thing I wanted was to have my daughter sit in with the priest and not know the words that would help release off of her conscience, the sin of fighting with her sister (Parent Commandment #21).
I was tempted to talk to the priest prior to Emma confessing her sins. I wanted to reassure him, no matter how jumbled the Act of Contrition may have ended up being recited by my daughter, she really is sorry. Because even if the words don’t come out correctly, my kids have had a lot of practice asking for forgiveness. The amount of practice that would make the acrobats in Cirque de Solei seem lazy.
Because they are kids and they are still learning their way in this world and because they can’t fight the innate urge to ignore their parents, my kids are faced with the almost seemingly daily exercise of having to issue apologies. I wouldn’t expect a shark not to sheer off a surfer’s leg from the knee down if given the chance; I don’t expect my kids to listen to me or not to make mistakes (you can’t fight nature).
But the frequency of the word ‘sorry’ as a precursor to being forgiven runs the risk of losing its potency. My kids are sorry for spilling the full juice box in the living room (even though I specifically told them not to bring said juice box in the living room). They’re sorry for eating the last cookie, using all of the toilet paper and not telling anyone, for taking one of my shirts in to school to use as an art smock without asking, sorry for farting at the dinner table and burping during the Sermon at church. They’re sorry for feeding the dog their dinner, fighting with each other, forgetting to turn off the lights in the basement (for a week) and of course, not listening. It’s as if ‘sorry’ can be the go to word.
As easy as it is for them to say, it takes more than the mere mention of the word ‘sorry’ for it to have any sort of impact.
Take every celebrity, politician, or athlete who has had to issue a public apology as directed and written down by their PR agent. They do a fine job of reciting the lines and even sound a little like my seven year old as she recites the Act of Contrition. Looking directly in to the camera or at Oprah, these repentant celebrities say the words they anticipate we want to hear. But is there any real regret or gravity behind what they are saying?
I want my kids to know asking for forgiveness, whether it is for flushing a Barbie down the toilet or for hanging on to a multi-million dollar endorsement deal, is not merely the act of reciting lines their mother and I want to hear; rather it is the solemnity of those words we are listening for.
The words are inconsequential. I don’t care if they say ‘sorry’, ‘my bad’, or use a properly inflected ‘Dude’. Any of those would be fine with me so long as I know my kids are acting out of contrition and not obligation. Too often we get caught up in the act of being sorry only to forget about the earnestness of the contrition.
In the end, my kids are going to make mistakes, lots of them. That’s ok. I’m expecting them to. It is a part of growing up and they will find out, it is a part of life. Everyone makes mistakes and there will come a time (most likely within the next 12 hours) in which they will ask for forgiveness. What I want to instill in my kids is, how I hear an apology is far more important than what I hear as an apology because that can make all the difference between simply asking and actually being forgiven.