A saving sacrament

“Stay with us, Lord, for evening draws near, alleluia.”  
— From the Liturgy of the Hours (Lk 24:29).

My taste in books is eclectic. Embarrassingly so. I’ll burn the midnight oil over serious works on serious subjects in Church history. Then, the next thing I’m reading is “Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood,” (Harper, $16.99) by William J. Mann.

The title is far more titillating than the content. The basic story involves the still-unsolved killing of a movie director from the silent film era, William Desmond Taylor, in the evening of Feb. 1, 1922. It was big stuff at the time, a headline-grabbing scandal that’s long forgotten now. Keep that in mind for most of today’s headline-grabbing scandals.

Spoiler alert: If you decide to read the book, I could inadvertently signal the author’s conclusion on who did the killing early on in your read. But it’s still conjecture on his part, not God’s truth. So let it go.

The book involves names that still come down to us — Will Hays, the motion picture industry’s first “morality czar,” and Adolf Zukor, who came to America as an impoverished Jewish orphan from Hungary and became Hollywood’s first major corporate giant.

But the book focuses on smaller potatoes, including three young and pretty silent film actresses. Over 40 years after Taylor’s death, in October 1964, one of them was living in near poverty as a recluse as “Mrs. Lewis,” the widow of an oil company worker. Here’s what happened, described toward the end of the book, which is why I’m bringing this up:

There was a commotion outside her home, and the son of a neighbor approached to see what was happening. The tiny old woman, Mrs. Lewis, was lying in great pain on the kitchen floor “talking rapidly, muttering words” he couldn’t understand. She was suffering a heart attack, eyes frantic, “her hands clawing at the air.”

“A priest!” she rasped. “I need a priest!”

The young man knew she was a “Catholic convert” and she pleaded with him that she had to confess her sins, though he wondered what “possible sins this demure old lady could have committed.”

Then she said it, in a “clear, terrified voice”: “I killed William Desmond Taylor.” The name didn’t mean a thing to the young man, but as he tried to comfort her, she kept begging him to get a priest so she could confess to the long-ago murder.

“Finally the ambulance arrived, and Mrs. Lewis was lifted onto a stretcher and carried down the back stairs. She was brought to the Sunset Boulevard Hospital, where she died at 5:20 in the afternoon.”

Mann never says whether a priest arrived in time.

Spoiler unalert: Mann doesn’t believe Mrs. Lewis personally killed Taylor. He builds a case around an associate of hers when she was a young actress under another name. Read the book to find out.

But “Mrs. Lewis” probably knew all about the murder. And that’s why she begged for a priest, begged for confession, in the last hours before her death. And it was that guilt she bore for nearly half a century.

We carry stories into this Year of Mercy. It seems as I get older, the past drags at me, claws at me, haunts me. But there is a way to let go. And to let go before that is me on the kitchen floor.

I don’t know what I would do without God’s gift of the Sacrament of Confession. To experience God’s forgiveness, to let go of the past, to do penance, to make amends, to get on with life. That’s God’s tender sacramental mercy.

When the “evening draws near,” we want the Lord with us. Alleluia.

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.