Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Column: I confess

This is part one of three on sacramental reconciliation.

Thank you to all those who shared with me why they go. In her wonderful book (if you're looking for something for Lent - take a peek) St. Benedict's Toolbox, Jane Tomaine notes in her section on humility and obedience that one Benedictine tool is to "practice self-disclosure with someone I trust" — and in this sacrament I have the opportunity to do just that.

It is sometimes discomfiting to speak aloud the ways that I've fallen short of the mark, but like opening doors onto the monsters in the closet, light banishes darkness. My preference is to go face to face — the sacramental encounter is not just a way to let God hear me, or for me to hear God, but a moment to know that God sees me, and for me to see God.

And the Latin term for "afflicted spirit" is one that captures better than the English how I feel at times: animi cruciatis.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 10 March 2011.

Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
— Joel 2:12-13a

I confess. I go, I mean. To confession. Regularly.

Why do you go, wonders a friend, in these days when so few people do? Are there not less discomfiting ways to experience God's mercy and forgiveness? Perhaps, but none so effective.

I will admit the sacrament of penance is one I've always approached with equal parts anxiety and tranquility. When I was young, I was forever worried that I would forget the words to the Act of Contrition — so worried that I never learned to be anxious about actually confessing my sins. Those, I knew, and if I didn't, one brother or another was happy to remind me.

Yet my earliest memories of going to confession are also cloaked in tranquility. Perhaps because living in a three bedroom house with six kids and a large dog, those brief Saturday sojourns to the warm, still parish church were one of the few truly quiet moments in my life. A place where I could encounter God without having to simultaneously keep an eye on a younger brother.

More than 40 years later, I'm still going to confession, still finding it to be an experienced edged with anxiety and yet remarkably replete with calm.

The anxiety I feel is no longer that of a child worried that she will forget her prayers. Instead, it is a nagging sense of dislocation, an uncomfortable realization that I've strayed from the path I would rather be on. I long to be found again by God. My desire is itself an act of contrition, what the Church calls animi cruciatis, an afflicted spirit, and compunctio cordis, repentance of heart. The path to sacramental reconciliation begins here for me, when I know that my heart is rent open, when I mourn each of the chances to follow God that I lost. I am anxious to return.

Tension might propel me through the door of my confessor's office, but tranquility holds court within. As my confessor's stole settles over his shoulders, so, too, does peace settle over me. Here I can safely shake out the dark corners of my soul, exposing to God's steadfast and loving gaze what would prefer to be hidden. God listens.

Ultimately, though, I don't go to confession because I'm anxious about what will happen if I don't, or even for the peace that unburdening my soul brings. I go because this is what Jesus died for — the forgiveness of sins. Christ gave His very life in order that I might sit in a chair in my confessor's office, and say, like the thief on the cross, I have sinned, and hear Christ, from the cross, respond, I will take you back. It's a gift I cannot refuse.

Lord Jesus Christ, you are the Lamb of God; you take away the sins of the world. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit restore me to friendship with your Father, cleanse me from every stain of sin in the blood you shed for me, and raise me to new life for the glory of your name.
— From the Rite of Penance


  1. Lovely and moving, especially as I look toward Saturday's celebration with beloved former rector.

    Re: the forgetting issue...My most humorous confession happened in college, when my mind did go blank in the middle of an Act of Contrition (I'd only been doing it since age fifteen or so, and just a few times a year). What slipped out instead was a swear word! The Jesuit didn't bat an eyelash, just quipped "That's not in the *approved* version of the prayer--I think you'll find it on the other side of that card"!

  2. Anonymous5:03 PM

    I have a question though, in all seriousness: why does it have to be a priest that we go to, why does it have to be anyone at all? If God listens to us when we pray and ask for forgivenes in silence...why do we need the sacrament of confession?

    I feel like I should know this. I went to Catholic grade school. The overarching theme to our religious education, though, (or at least what I got out of it) was 'just do it'.

  3. Great question, Anon! My personal perspective, if Michelle doesn't mind: I am absolutely in love with confession, as both priest and penitent. But as an Independent Catholic I don't see sacramental confession as obligatory, rather as a tremendous blessing for those called to it. And I believe in returning to the early church tradition of the desert mothers and fathers with confessors being chosen by call and gift rather than ordained status (though ordination training ideally gives some good preparation, and it is symbolically powerful to celebrate with someone who officially speaks for the Christian community). Lay confessors can be wonderful and some of the best are sponsors in the 12 Step tradition--which also emphasizes the "confession" to humans I do see as obligatory--apologizing and making amends to those we have hurt, directly when possible or indirectly if direct amends would damage them, others, our ourselves. I do worry deeply about absolutions/declarations of forgiveness both in public liturgy, including Protestant ones, and in private confession, that neglects this crucial step beyond confessing in prayer to God.

  4. Michelle,

    My absolutely most beloved thing to do as a priest is to be with people during the Sacrament of Reconciliation. If I had my complete druthers, I'd spend the rest of my life hearing confessions in a large city church.

    I didn't come easily to this position because, unlike you, I had a pretty awful experience of Confession as I grew up. My family went to Reconciliation every two weeks and, as a teenager, I'd wake up on Saturday mornings either feeling free and wonderful or with a terrible sense of dread.

    Many times, the priest told me I was going to hell... And yet, and yet, later in life I found the Sacrament of Reconciliation to be deeply consoling and that it allowed me to get very close to my loving God.

    I made a vow that, if I was ordained a priest, I would never, ever make anyone uncomfortable in the confessional and that I would never act as a judge or an inquisitor.

    One of my Theology professors said, "God is never stingy with grace. What gives clergy the right to think they can be parsimonious with it?"

    It saddens me that so many Catholics have abandoned the practice of going to Confession. I completely understand why they are "voting with their feet" but it still seems like a great loss.

    Well, this is the longest comment I've ever posted on a blog, so you can tell that I feel passionately about it.

    Thanks for your post.


  5. I think that confession is a beautiful, healing, and releasing action. I wish we had a more formal ritual for such a thing in the UMC. It would probably encourage our parishioners to confess more often.

  6. Thanks, Laura, for responding to Anonymous.

    It's a good question, and one that perhaps I'll take on later this week in a post. (First, I have to get that retreat talk written!)

    And to Laura, Paul and Shannon - my thanks for adding your own passionate perspectives to this!

    Paul, I am with your old professor - these signs of grace, channels as they are of God's abundant grace, ought not to be grudgingly meted out! What one gets does not deprive another (unlike the desserts of my childhood!). I do wish more people would give confession another chance, and by volunteering to write this series for the paper, I guess I'm doing what I can in that regard!

    Shannon, I think the ritual gives us something to cling to when the going gets difficult, so I certainly view it as a attraction to the Roman Catholic version!

  7. Shannon, there are lovely rituals for confession in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, Lutheran Book of Worship, and -- would you believe -- UCC hymnal and worship book. You might take a look at those, and possibly try one yourself with a friendly pastor-- and see if one would be comfortable to offer or adapt for your parishioners...