You Do Not Have to Be Good.
by Jessica Star Rockers
When I was about six years old I had my first confession. I was raised Catholic. And I was raised on the idea of good and evil. At six years old apparently, I had committed enough sins to warrant a visit to the priest. Whatever I had done, whatever evil I had committed as a first grader, it was enough to keep me from heaven. And heaven was more than just eternal happiness. Heaven was where my grandfathers were, my great grandparents, and someday my parents and my brother. My aunts and uncles and cousins. To be kept out of heaven sounded awful. And in the Catholic Church when you are kept out of heaven, but not quite bad enough to go to hell, you are in an in-between place called purgatory. In my imagination, purgatory was like being locked outside of the most amazing party, and everyone you loved was there, but you couldn’t attend. I was not about to let this happen to me.
So I did everything I could do as a six year old to make sure that I would go straight to heaven. Following the ten commandments, this was a big one. Wearing a scapular, which is two cloth pictures of Jesus and Mary, tied together by a string, and tucked underneath your shirt. Wearing it is like a constant prayer. And if you die with it on, you are automatically absolved of your sins.
I also prayed, sometimes in the morning, usually before meals, and always at night. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray to the Lord my soul to keep, and if I should die before I wake, I pray to the Lord my soul to take. If I should die before I wake. As a child I assumed, since I was taught this prayer by adults who knew how the world worked, that people of all ages must be dying in their sleep all the time, without any warning. That’s pretty scary stuff.
So I was thrilled when at six years old I got to go to confession. This was gonna be it for me. For the last six years I had accumulated sins too numerous to even really remember. So I chose to go with some easy ones, fighting with my brother, not doing what I was told by my parents and teachers, being mean to the other kids, sneaking candy and soda. I knew that once I confessed, the slate would be wiped clean. And I was never going to sin again. I was going to be good.
I was in Catholic school at the time and my whole class got to go together. And so we went, led by Sister Marietta, to the church next door. And then we each, one by one, stepped inside what looked like a large wooden box with two sides separated by a blue curtain. Forgive me Father for I have sinned. There was a priest sitting there and I did my best to recount my moral failings. The priest replied that I was forgiven, instructed me on the prayers to say in penance, and told me to let the next person in.
I remember my friends and I afterwards, we felt so light and free we stretched our arms out and flew through the parking lot back to school. In my memory, when I think about it, it feels almost as if I am actually flying. If goodness had a feeling, than that would be it. Flying, as the poem says, like a wild goose through the sky.
Many years later, when I read that Mary Oliver poem, I had already figured out that I was a perpetual sinner. Goodness, it seemed, was beyond me. And heaven, well, I wasn’t even sure it existed anymore.
But think of what she says in that poem. You do not have to be good. You do not have to be good. This is universalism. You don’t have to confess. Divine love means that no matter what you do, good or evil, in the end we are all reconciled to the sacred. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
I think one of the most beautiful things in the world is that this sort of acceptance, of ourselves, of our bodies, of who and what we love, this is taught to our children and they grow up with this understanding. There is no God in the sky judging us, hovering in the clouds, looking for reasons to condemn us or separate us from those we love. We are allowed to love what we love. And nothing that is love can be evil.
“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” Even despair can be holy. Even despair is sacred. Even at your lowest, you are never out of the circle. You are never cast out.
“Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination.”
And I love this line because even being lonely can sometimes feel like a failure. If we were good we wouldn’t be lonely. If we were good we would have more friends, we’d go to parties. But we don’t have to be perfect. We only have to love what we love. That is enough. Even in our loneliness, even in our despair, we only have to love.
You do not have to be good to feel free enough to fly through the parking lot like a wild goose. You do not need anyone to absolve you. You, in all your flaws and imperfections, loving who and what you love, no matter what the world thinks. And as the poem says, the world goes on. In Judeo-Christianity this is called Grace, that love is available to us at any moment, and it doesn’t matter what we do or don’t do. As our first principle states, we are inherently worthy.
But as you have probably experienced yourself, something interesting happens when deep down you truly feel inherently worthy. Out of that place, your sense of self-worth, your understanding that you matter, that you are loved, Out of that sense of connection to the great web of life, springs a desire to do good. When you feel good deep down inside, And know you are loved, You naturally, instinctively, want to share it. When you feel connected You want to do good. This is exactly the opposite of what I was taught growing up. I was taught that you had to do good to be worthy. But now I believe that when we as humans are allowed to connect with that source of love and goodness inside, we feel empowered to do good things for others, we feel inspired to do good things for the world. And as Mary Oliver says, we do not have to walk on our knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. We only have to connect with love. And then we don’t worry so much about being good. Instead we start looking for ways that we can do good.
“The world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”
So now I have a confession for you. I never actually said the prayers the priest told me to say that day. I mean I tried. But I was six. And I could only kind of remember half of one. And the other was really boring. And I didn’t want to say it ten times. So I just kind of pretended that I said the prayers. So you see I had barely stepped out the door when I was already beset with sin again. But it was too late because the world had already offered itself to my imagination. And I flew through that parking lot with my friends, feeling loved and forgiven.
Perhaps I wouldn’t be good. But eventually I would figure out how to do good. And that to me was much more meaningful.
We belong here, each one of us, in this community, but also in the world, on this earth. No matter what anyone has told us about our failings and mistakes. No matter what we’ve been told about goodness and perfection. We belong here. We are enough. We are inherently worthy of all the world has to offer. And we have every right, whether we say our prayers or not, to live from that love that rests deep within us and to respond to the world with all that we are as it announces our place in the family of things.