Contrition: Paterno

by Maria L. Evans

O God, the creator and preserver of all mankind, we humbly
 beseech thee for all sorts and conditions of men; that thou 
wouldest be pleased to make they ways known unto them, thy saving health unto all nations. More especially we pray for
 thy holy Church universal; that it may be so guided and 
governed by thy good Spirit, that all who profess and call 
themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and
 hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in 
righteousness of life. Finally, we commend to thy fatherly 
goodness all those who are in any ways afflicted or distressed,

in mind, body, or estate; [especially those for whom our prayers 
are desired]; that it may please thee to comfort and relieve 
them according to their several necessities, giving them patience 
under their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their afflictions. And this we beg for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.

–Prayer for All Sorts of Conditions of Men, Book of Common Prayer, pp. 814-815

Truthfully, I’ve tried to emotionally distance myself from the whole “Penn State thing” as much as possible. Everyone who knows me, knows I am a huge sports fan, especially when it comes to my St. Louis Cardinals and my Mizzou Tigers. But mostly, I suspect the world of Division I college sports is a lot like politics, the institutional church, and sausage–one shouldn’t really watch any of them being made if one wants to enjoy them. But the recent illness and death of Penn State Coach Joe Paterno in the past few weeks reminded me of how convoluted and sticky the business of contrition can be.

“Contrition” is one of those words I tend to lump in with words I think of as “Roman Catholic” words. My best friends growing up, who attended Catholic parochial schools, used the word far more than I did. It’s a word that isn’t so out in the forefront of our Anglican sensibilities, although it’s certainly in the Book of Common Prayer, particularly referring to the Reconciliation of a Penitent.

I’ve really stayed away from having opinions about the Sandusky story at Penn State, and have been content to let the legalities of this story play out, and to simply pray for “healing of all involved.” The above prayer, despite its non-gender inclusive old school Prayer Book language, is very rich in that regard–when I know wrongs have been committed, evil has been done, and I can’t even begin to imagine what was going on in the minds of everyone involved. It is hard for me to think beyond the pain of victims, and this prayer snaps me back to a fuller understanding of the things that happen in the world that are just plain wicked.

My confession is it was easy for me to throw a rock at Paterno when this broke–so I stayed as emotionally far from it as I could. After all, I usually view legendary powerhouse teams with a certain amount of disdain. To me, the latter part of Paterno’s career was more about Paterno the Legend than it was about anything human about him. I probably thought of him more or less as an “auto-icon” of himself, in the vein of Jeremy Bentham–really dead, mounted and stuffed like Trigger, in the museum of Happy Valley. I am normally not a judgmental person–in some ways astoundingly non-judgmental considering I make a living judging things to be “benign” or “malignant”–but I knew to enter too far into this story created emotions in me I did not want to approach.

So I was surprised at how I felt the pathos and the discomfort of Paterno’s final interview with the Washington Post. It was clear that this scandal had an effect on him. It was clear that we were viewing a man who knew his last days on earth were imminent, but it was too easy just to brush this off as a person cutting some deals his his last days. The public nature of this last interview, frankly, made me uncomfortable–probably because I got more glimpse than I needed of someone else’s private demons. It felt like an over-share of grand proportions, and I found myself wanting to turn the volume down on the audio and look away from my computer screen. I found myself wondering why he chose this public route to find his private contrition, when I knew it would do nothing to assuage the hurt and anger of many, or even change their minds about the complexity of this one iota.

But as I’ve contemplated this piece of the story, I’ve come to realize that it is part of why our Prayer Book has “A Prayer for All Sorts of Conditions of Men,” and the various prayers that lead our community to pray for those people and situations and conditions that our raw pain and blind anger sever any means for us to see a picture beyond the auto-icons of our own egos. It’s also why we have the Reconciliation of a Penitent–to provide a means to humanize what our nature is to dehumanize, to add a sacramental layer to transform attrition (shame and guilt arising from fear of punishment) to contrition (from the Latin conterere, literally “to grind or to rub.”)

In short, contrition is a process of being ground down, and the reason we find ourselves averting our eyes at the sight of the discomfort of others, I believe, is the memory of the times we’ve been ground down, even if the event in question is nothing we’ve ever personally experienced. In short, when we pray for all sorts of conditions of humanity, we are praying for ourselves, because we feel the chafe, all the same.

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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