Receiving sacraments was a big deal at St. Joseph's School in Lake Ronkonkoma. In 1966, we were a class of 50 boys and girls. Without a cafeteria, gymnasium or specific teachers for health, art or music, Sister Mary Humilita was with us all day long. In the interest of keeping order, Sister had rules, rules and more rules.

Preparing to receive the sacrament of penance, our second-grade class memorized and rehearsed our opening prayer, "Bless me Father, for I have sinned," as well as the Act of Contrition.

In addition, Sister assigned three sins for all of us to confess. We were instructed to recite: "I disobeyed my parents and teachers. I fought with my brothers and sisters. I told lies. For these sins and all my past sins of disobedience, I am sorry."

Although I had five sisters at the time, I hadn't any brothers yet, but it never crossed my mind to omit the sin of fighting with them. I'd learned at a very young age that, if you want approval, "Follow the rules and be a good girl, Bernadette."

This "moral checklist" worked well until I broke a rule.

Every Halloween, we used pillowcases to collect our treats. As a seventh-grader, my favorite candy bar was a Baby Ruth. Whenever one was tossed into my pillowcase, I reached in and gobbled it.

When I got home, although I had tons of cavity-inducing, sugary treats, I didn't have any Baby Ruths. But my sister, Loretta, did -- and her pillowcase looked just like mine. So, I switched them and, in a matter of minutes, consumed all her Baby Ruths.

Immediately, fear and remorse set in. I had never stolen anything before, nor had I confessed any sins except for the three I memorized in second grade.

A gray cloud of guilt hung over my head for an entire year until, once again, Halloween approached. In an effort to unload my burden, I mustered up the courage to go to confession and ask Father to absolve my sin.

As soon as I entered the dark confessional, tears began to flow. I saw the silhouette of Father's head nodding as I blubbered on about Baby Ruths.

Hearing that my penance was the standard "three Hail Marys and one Our Father" filled me with great comfort until Father added, "You need to tell your sister."

I thought, "Oh! This is torture!"

Back at home, I went directly to Loretta's room. We sat on the bunk bed facing each other. As I divulged my crime, she tried desperately to stifle her laughter, saying, "You mean last year? Are you serious?"

It's funny now, but living with guilt is no fun.

When I measure my worth and value based on my behavior, I miss the boat completely. As a task-oriented person, I often fall into the rigid trap of a moral checklist. This is what Scripture refers to as "living under the law." If I follow the rules and be a good girl, I am good. If I don't, I am bad.

There is a higher calling -- a daily, life-long, challenging one. It does not involve rule-keeping, memorization or rehearsal in order to gain God's love and approval. Instead of trying, it involves abiding -- abiding in the Spirit. And, without checklists, it produces abundant fruit.

(Mrs. Bonanno attends St. Mary's parish in Albany. Contact her at