I’m not sure why I recall this particular moment with such vividness, but I can easily remember the sister standing in her black habit (this must have been in the late 1960’s) with her back turned toward the class, facing the blackboard. Over the blackboard marched a long line of dark-green cardboard squares demonstrating the proper way to write the alphabet. As if replicating the perfection of those letters, Sister drew an enormous letter O on the board, and followed this with the rest of the prayer: O my God, I am heartily sorry.... I, like the rest of the students, carefully copied the prayer on a sheet of pale-green lined paper.
We were instructed to learn the prayer for class the following Sunday. I remember staring dumbly at the blackboard, crowded with words, wondering how I could ever memorize something so long. And initially, I found the Act of Contrition difficult to understand. First of all, am I hardly sorry? No, said Sister, heartily. And do I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell more than offending God? No, she explained, most of all I detest my sins because I don’t wish to offend God.
That was the first and last time I was taught the Act of Contrition. The prayer remained with me for some years, and whenever I was waiting in a confessional line, preparing to receive Communion during Mass, or thinking about some sin I had done, I would say the Act of Contrition and remember Sister at the blackboard and that big, flourishing O.
But as a young adult, during a time when my faith was placed on the back burner, I forgot the Act of Contrition, at least the way it had been taught to me. For I didn’t call upon the prayer much in college, nor during my days working in corporate America. (Not that I couldn’t have used it.) It wasn’t until the Jesuit novitiate that I found myself saying the prayer with any regularity.
The problem was that I had forgotten the original ending. The first part I remembered well enough, but I couldn’t recall what came after I firmly resolve. What was I supposed to resolve? Too embarrassed to ask anyone, I scouted around the novitiate for some books on prayer. But the guidebooks offered only alternate versions of the prayer (avoid the near occasion of sin popped up a lot), and none had a familiar ring to it. There seemed to be as many permutations as there were books on prayer. Maybe, I thought, Sister had made up her own version.
So over the years I’ve been actively on the lookout for the formula I had first learned in C.C.D. But there seemed to be no way to track down the original. (Needless to say, I hadn’t kept that sheet of pale-green paper.) I briefly toyed with the idea of calling the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph, but ultimately rejected this course of action. It could have been a truly embarrassing conversation: You don’t know the Act of Contrition?
Then, a few weeks ago, during a confession, one penitent, as many do, began to say the Act of Contrition. To my surprise, at the close of the prayer, he recited the ending exactly as I had been taught it. Unfortunately, he said it rather hurriedly, and I certainly wasn’t going to ask him to repeat it. (Excuse me, could you say your Act of Contrition again?)
That night I mentioned my search to a Jesuit, originally from Philadelphia, who lives in my community. Did he, by chance, know the prayer as the Sisters of St. Joseph would have taught it? Of course, he said, and out of his mouth came the prayeras if he were reading it from the blackboard in 1968. He ended, I firmly resolve with the help of thy grace, to avoid sin, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.
So my little search had ended. It took 20 years, but at least now I know what I need to firmly resolve.