Going to Confession wipes away our sin, but what about the flabbiness we've left in our wills?
What happens if I steal a box of donuts and eat all of them?
I will have committed an injustice by theft. I will have added unduly to my waistline. Perhaps worst of all: I will have weakened my will and made it easier for me to steal again, most likely something more significant than donuts.
Suppose I go to Confession and admit to stealing donuts?
I receive sacramental absolution and am forgiven—that’s a matter of grace. I make restitution to the owner of the donuts—that’s a matter of justice. What’s left? Some 25,000 sugar-based calories I didn’t need now sitting on my waistline. And, let’s not forget: I have weakened my will and made it easier to steal again.
If I say to myself, “Well, I went to Confession and got my record expunged—and that’s what counts!” then my repentance is surely incomplete, and my conversion has not gained any traction. The habits of mind and heart that led to the theft are still in place. That “firm purpose of amendment” that catechisms speak of is not likely to be very firm, if we leave the confessional with a “clean slate” and no heartfelt desire or concrete plan for change.
That means that the “near occasions of sin” we promised to avoid are going to draw near very soon, and we are likely to yield to them. What to do?
If I’ve stolen donuts, I may slap my now engorged waistline and say, “Ugh! I really gotta get rid of that!” Maybe I will commit to a regimen of diet and exercises to work off the illicit and unhealthy calories I scarfed down. But what about my weakened will, made all the more flabby by the theft, and weakened further by my perfunctory sacramental confession?
Will I (metaphorically) slap my sloppy soul and say, “Ugh! I gotta get rid of that!”? How can I work off all the “will-weakening” I absorbed when I consented to the theft of the donuts?
To answer that question, we have to make use of an apparently forgotten and certainly underused concept: penance.
Now, folks who avail themselves of sacramental confession may object and say: “But Father! The priest told me to say three Hail Marys for my penance and I did that, so what are you talking about?” The penance assigned before the priest gives sacramental absolution asks the penitent to make at least a token gesture of sorrow for sin, an indication of a desire for change—and that’s fine as far as it goes.
But if we are really serious about undoing the damage we have done to ourselves by our sins, then we need to undertake a program of planned and sustained penance, in what St. Ignatius Loyola would call a spirit of agere contra, that is, to “act against” the sinful inclination.
For example, if I am in the habit of stealing donuts, I am disposed toward the sin of gluttony. My program of penance must include saying “no” to the things I want, and saying “yes” to things that are good but unpleasant. I might take up some rigorous fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, and also eliminate desserts for a month and fill up on all that broccoli my mother begged me to eat all those years ago. I may or may not end up liking broccoli, but that does not really matter. What matters is that I am uprooting habits that lead me to sin, strengthening the faculties that consented to sin, and, over time, replacing the bad habits with good habits.
The process is simply but memorably illustrated by poet Portia Nelson, in her poem describing her own struggles:
Autobiography in Five ChaptersONEI walk down the streetThere is a deep hole in the sidewalkI fall inI am lost … I am hopelessIt isn’t my faultIt takes forever to find a way outTWOI walk down the same streetThere is a deep hole in the sidewalkI pretend I don’t see itI fall in againI can’t believe I’m in the same placeBut it isn’t my faultIt still takes a long time to get outTHREEI walk down the same streetThere is a deep hole in the sidewalkI see it is thereI still fall in … it’s a habitMy eyes are openI know where I amIt is my faultI get out immediatelyFOURI walk down the same streetThere is a deep hole in the sidewalkI walk around itFIVEI walk down another street
No more excuses. Let’s work on making pure and strong what we have allowed to become dirty and weak by sin.
When I write next, I will continue our reflections on contrition and penance. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.