Catholics are to take advantage of the sacrament of Penance at least once a year–if you’re Catholic, you should remember that from your CCD or RCIA class. Advent is a particularly good time to do this. If, like most of us, you hurry to clean your homes in preparation to receive guests, wouldn’t you like to also clean your soul in preparation to receive The Guest, the Christ Child, who comes to us at Christmas?
Think of it as the way we clean off all the gunk of accumulated sins from our soul, rather like taking your mud-stained SUV through the car wash after letting it get thoroughly grimy on the highway. Like the salty winter road grime on your car door, sins eat away at our souls, making them weak and puny and prone to damnation–something nobody wants, of course.
All terrible analogies aside, the main, most important reason we go to Confession is that sin separates us from Jesus and the only way to wash those sins away entirely is to go straight to the Man himself. Venial sins–those of a less grave nature or committed either without complete knowledge or full consent–can be cleansed in the reception of Holy Communion. The mortal sins–those of grave matter, committed with full knowledge and consent–can only be cleared away by Confession.
However, even if you’re not regularly and willfully violating the Ten Commandments with crass impunity, it’s a good practice to go to Confession more often than mere need would indicate. Since none of us knows exactly how long we have on this earth to work out our salvation, it would seem that frequent or even somewhat frequent Confession would be in our own best interests. If you want to keep your soul in peak condition, a good detailing on a regular basis is worthwhile.
That’s where even for regular practicing Catholics, things can get a little tough. I know, I get it; it’s embarrassing to think about your moral failures, let alone verbalize them even in the privacy of a confessional, often to a person you only nominally know from his Sunday homilies. And confessions can be deeply personal, painful things, sins that cut us to the bone, or they can be irritating and wretched things like how mad you might’ve got at someone who caused you a momentary inconvenience. And what would this guy know about it, anyway, sitting there on the other side of the screen? (Note: for this article’s purpose, I’m ignoring the existence of face-to-face confessions, which I abhor for personal reasons, namely being, I am awkward enough in anonymity or even presumed anonymity; I don’t need to amplify this by eye-to-eye contact.)
The reasons are there, and they are good. First, perhaps least prominent, is in our recollection of our sins. Self-knowledge, they say, is the first step to wisdom. In taking time to acknowledge and quantify our sins, to ask ourselves what we’ve done (or not done) to push ourselves away from Jesus, we take ownership and responsibility for our sins, and (hopefully) gain a little insight as to how not to repeat them in the future.
Second, in the act of Confession, we surrender ourselves and our wills to that of Christ. We acknowledge we’ve done wrong; we speak the sin aloud, and we make a firm purpose of amendment in our Act of Contrition. In the humility of acknowledging that we have hurt God in willfully turning away from His love, we make ourselves vulnerable to Christ’s healing absolution. We become the Prodigal Son returning to the Father, sorry for what we’ve done, open to his restoration and love, with a will to change ourselves–or to let ourselves be changed.
Sometimes this is easier said than done. Sometimes it takes an act of will to find a church with available Confession times, get yourself into your car or on the bus or on your bike, head across town and then stand or sit in line for half an hour with a bunch of other sinners. It’s difficult and irritating and it takes a bite out of your Saturday afternoon or early weekday morning (of course be sure you don’t compare that to anything our Savior may have suffered, by the way). Added to that, you can never be sure the priest might not be at his 100% best; he might be tired, or surly, or unwell; he might’ve just come off of a retreat with fifty unruly college students who had an ebullient night of adoration complete with praise and worship, and he’s not in any sort of mood to listen to your circumambulatory story about why you didn’t pay your parking ticket. Or, he might just be grumpy. God help him, he might be short with you, but remember you’re not there to explain why you did something–or worse–blame someone else for your sin. Stick to the point; tell your sins, as you remember them, with as little circumstantial explanation as possible (unless Father asks for clarification)–or as they used to tell us, “in number and kind.” In other words, what kind of sin and how often?
Is this awkward? Heavens above, yes, it’s awkward! It wouldn’t even hurt you to admit that to the priest–”Father, it’s been a while,” or “Father, I’m not sure what to confess.” Usually, the priest is more than willing to help you confess. For me, at least, and I suspect most introverts, it’s the same. I blank out; I forget my lines; I stumble over words and the phrases of prayers. It happens. Often, helpfully, the confessional has the Act of Contrition printed and pasted on the kneeler (note to sacristans, this is a blessing–consider it, if you haven’t done it already). Though I was raised Catholic, I can still manage to forget it at the best of times. I have suffered through both brusque, somewhat terrifying confessors and more unguent interlocutors, for whom nothing it seemed was sinful enough to warrant absolution. The thing is, I still went. The important thing is to GO and to be absolved of your sins, to put yourself right with the Lord.
Don’t put Confession off until it’s too late just because it’s uncomfortable or awkward or you don’t feel absolved. As Christians, we believe Christ will come, and we believe as he told us that since no one knows when he is going to come, we should live in a state of preparedness to receive Him: “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (Mt 24:36) This doesn’t suggest you should live in constant fear and misery of his return! On the contrary; Christians should anticipate his coming with joy as one would a long-expected guest, and we should try and keep our lives holy. Of course, we are human and we will stumble and fall. Let Jesus work through the sacrament to bring you back into his companionship. To quote the corny joke, “Jesus is coming–look busy!” Don’t just look busy. Be busy in tidying up your heart by acknowledging and confessing sins.
And the more often you go, the less time you allow to elapse between visits, the easier and more natural it will become.
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