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