I have a problem with Confession.
Let me explain.
I became a Catholic in 2010 (although I was well on my way years before then). Having come late to the Catholic fold, I spent the formative years of my life (as a Lutheran) never having gone to Confession (aka the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation). During that time, my experience of confessing my sins rested upon private conversations I had with God. These were wonderful moments of closeness with Christ and remain so, because I still confess in this fashion to this very day.
But it wasn’t until my first Confession with a priest that my mind started to really concentrate (and race). What should I say? What will he say? How much time does he have? How many and which sins should I list? What about the ones I forgot? What about the ones I am really embarrassed by? What if I forget when to say the Act of Contrition? Will my penance be the recitation of a few Hail Marys or to actively and charitably seek out that impossible enemy or will I have to drag a ropy net of armor up a mountain in Paraguay like Robert De Niro in The Mission? Okay, maybe I wasn’t worried about that last one, but it was an interesting consideration for a moment or two.
When my time approached, my heart was racing and my palms were sweaty and…and…it couldn’t have gone any better. The priest was thoughtful and engaged – seeming to sense my nervousness and never raising an eyebrow to my “This is my first Confession” line. He kindly overlooked my verbal missteps, but instead focused on the matter at hand – what are my sins, how can I show a sign of my contrition and how can I avoid repeating them. As I walked away, I felt lighter, unburdened. I sensed more acutely what G.K. Chesterton meant when he was chided by contemporaries about his practice of this “morbid” sacrament.
The morbid thing is NOT to confess [your sins]. The morbid thing is to conceal your sins and let them eat away at your soul, which is exactly the state of most people in today’s highly civilized communities.
But here is my problem with Confession… I am still not very good at it.
Oh, I know, I know. As Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos once wrote, “The wish to pray is a prayer in itself.” I believe a contrite heart can achieve absolution from our loving God even if the only expression of guilt is guttural groans (so poignantly described in the Psalms) and a profound aching, yet remorseful silence. God knows his children’s hearts.
But my problem isn’t that I am so capsized by guilt as to be unable to express it. Hardly. Rather, it is that day in and day out I have hardened and rationalized (thanks to selfishness, entitlement and the constant secular din assuring me I’m a pretty darned good egg) so that my Conscience has become a bit deformed. A deformed Conscience is a bit like a drunken captain studying the night sky for his ship’s guidance. The only problem is that he errantly follows shooting stars and false planets as opposed to the True and Fixed Light in the heavens. One source of guidance will run him aground while the other will bring him home. With a deformed Conscience, not only do I have difficulty fully recognizing and following Truth, but I may not fully recognize untruth. I may even disregard good and not call evil evil…I may call it justified or reasonable or earnest or misunderstood. In so doing, my sin is not perceived as sin and, thus, remains unconfessed.
And that is a problem.
My other problem with Confession is flipping the switch. It is one thing to recognize sin and confess it. It is fully another to genuinely and earnestly seek to avoid sinning again. This is the foundation for what German Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace.
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
The grace that comes out of Confession, while extraordinary and invigorating, is costly. This doesn’t mean we must earn it – that we must somehow do something that makes us deserve it. There is nothing we could ever do to cross the chasm of sin that rests between us and God. Instead, God crossed that abyss through Christ’s redemptive sacrifice. And so, we are to enter the Confessional, hat-in-hand, to speak honestly and openly about our failure and our earnest intent to try not to fail again. Grace comes at a price. But the price was paid by Christ, not by us. Our only proper response to this unmerited gift is to flip the switch – to live differently in honor of what Christ has given to us. Flannery O’Connor brusquely reminded us of the modern misconceptions about the cost of grace,
What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.
So what am I to do about my problem with Confession?
First, I want to forever immerse myself in the Truth, Goodness and Beauty to be found in the Catholic Faith. I want to understand the Truth of the Gospels, the Catechism and Church teachings, the saints and the apologists so that my Conscience can be well-nourished and well-formed. To know the Truth, one must spend time with it.
Second, as my Conscience becomes better formed, I want to use it prior to Confession through a thoughtful, prayerful Examination of Conscience. As my last priest said to me in Confession, “My friend who is a football coach told me that his best athletes weren’t simply natural on the field; they watched tape…lots and lots of tape. In so doing, they could analyze their mistakes and adjust their game so as not to re-commit them. Perhaps, Tod, at the end of your day you should spend more time watching the tape…” Good advice, Father.
Finally, as I walk away from Confession, I want to realize that I am liberated in order to serve. G.K. Chesterton rightly asserted, “The Catholic Church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” As a result, I should eagerly take on the loving and lighter yoke of Christ (with its rights and duties). Subsequently, I need to flip the switch so my good intentions become faithful actions. As one good friend reminds, “Every day I rise a saint and retire a sinner.” Perhaps by confessing we can spend less time as sinners and by flipping the switch we can spend more time as saints.
Yes, I think this seems like a good start…
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