Begin by asking to see yourself as God sees you.
Parishioner: Father, I suppose I would go to confession if only I could think of any sins I’ve committed that are worth mentioning.
Priest: How about asking your spouse for suggestions?
That’s not an entirely flippant quip. It is analogous to the story that retreat directors like to tell.
Retreatant: How will I know if I made a good retreat?
Retreat director: Wait six months and ask the people you live with.
I speak of this because I know that we humans can be blind when we look in the mirror. It is very easy for us to cling to illusions, to take for granted the innocence of our rationalizations, to be ready to accept without question the “reasons” why the moral law does not apply to us.
We know how we look and sound to ourselves and can easily acquire the habit of believing that if we do not see fault in ourselves, then there is no fault. That’s a foolishness that borders on presumption, and it can facilitate an undue comfort with patterns of sin.
Unless we ask, we are unlikely to be aware of the impressions we make on others, or know what it is of ourselves that appears to them.
Consider this (admittedly Anglicized) line from Robert Burns’ famous poem
To a Louse—On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet, at Church: O would some power the gift to give us to see ourselves as others see us.
Yes, it is true that others can see aspects of ourselves that we are blind to, and such knowledge gained from talking to a spouse, close friend, or community member may well be helpful in preparing for confession. Do we have the courage and humility to ask God how he sees us, as a preparation for confession? And let’s be clear what I mean by that question.
Some folks might say: “Oh! Father is asking me to look through endless lists of rules and laws that I’ve broken, and to turn myself in to God, just as a taxpayer might go through the tax code and look for things to ‘confess’ to the Internal Revenue Service.”
That’s not what I mean! What I have in mind is something closer to reviewing a list of toxins that you may have been ingesting, whether with full or partial knowledge. An examination of conscience (and there are many available online) might prompt you to say: “Oh! I didn’t know that was poisonous! Wow! I didn’t know that was deadly! Oh no—my favorite ‘treat’ isn’t just fattening, it’s killing me! I’d better give it up!”
Remember, the work of sacramental confession is not simply having your record expunged. A merely juridical approach like that would make the sacrament seem like a visit to the prosecutor’s office in order to get some parking tickets dismissed. That is an impoverished view of the sacrament. Worse—it leaves undone and overlooked all the work that needs to be done after receiving sacramental absolution. Real conversion, true repentance worthy of the name, takes effort and determination. That’s where a good examination of conscience comes in.
Through Scripture and Tradition, God has made known the truth about himself and about us, about how we are to live with him and with one another. He has made known the heights of glory to which we are called. And even a passing familiarity with history and just a bit of self-examination shows how readily we can fall from those heights to truly terrible depths.
God wants to forgive and heal. He won’t do much with what we refuse to offer him, especially with our love and with our sin.
If we’ve been cheating on God by loving everyone/everything but him, if we’ve been trying to hide from God’s justice and mercy by loving and excusing the sins he hates precisely because they will kill us in the end—then we need to make a thorough examination of conscience and sprint to the nearest priest.
God thinks we are worth fighting for—why don’t we?
The saints hated their own sins—why don’t we?
Let’s recall these words of C.S. Lewis:
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Let’s not settle for what will damn us and break God’s heart. Let’s make a good confession.
When I write next, I will speak of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.