Monday, June 10, 2002

Response to “Confession” from a reader

Robin wrote me to comment on my confession posts. I present here her email in italics, with my response in regular text. Sorry for the length of this one: I couldn't find a good place to edit Robin's email down, and wanted to respond to several of her points.

I usually love your posts, but I thought your defense of Confession was almost damning with faint praise. Your argument can be summed up as follows: (1) Confession is not really a very big deal -- maybe a little silly (we all need to vent, but there are other ways to do so); (2) the Church says we gotta; and (3) certainly no harm done, and maybe a little good from it, so why not.

I have no argument with 2) or 3) (recognizing that 3 is aimed at people who think confession superfluous) but 1) I take exception to. I think that captured my idea about it before I reconsidered. However, you need to read this post on forgiveness, to understand how important I consider the psychological letting go to be to the spiritual forgiveness. The last 2 long paragraphs don’t do as good a job as I had hoped of recapitulating the idea, but it is there. Only confession gives you certain knowledge of forgiveness, and so only confession can clear away fully the destructiveness of sin. Contrition alone may clear away the sins, but our minds don’t let the aftermath go quite so easily.

Additionally, implicit in the idea that “we are made for confession” is that God made us that way. Therefore, even treating confession as a purely psychological activity is nevertheless not dismissive, and even high praise, if we take it as something Divinely ordained. None of this was made explicit or clear enough in the original post, however.

I know I'm oversimplifying your points a bit, but I think you are underestimating the power of the sacrament of Confession. And I say this as someone who also underestimated it for many, many years.

Until relatively recently, I had not been to confession in 20-some years. Although I was reared as a Catholic, during the 20-year period, I had spent time as an agnostic, an objectivist, a Protestant, and as a Catholic of sorts (attending Mass and raising my kids to go to Mass but not really feeling that I was a "true" Catholic because some of the Church's demands -- including but not limited to Confession -- were more than I felt I could bear).

This is all sounding very familiar—except the objectivist and Protestant part.

About three years ago, I got some of my act together and began attending Mass on a regular basis instead of sporadically. I went every week. I had no idea any more how to pray. I bowed my head during communion but just pretended to pray because I didn't know what to say. Something in the Mass was drawing me, because I had grown to looking forward to it each week, but I was still separated from God.

Early this year, I began attending a more traditional Catholic church. (It was amazing how quickly the new environment inspired reverence in me, but that's another letter to the editor!) Within a short time, I decided that I was going to go to Confession no matter what it cost me emotionally.

I spent days reading about the sacrament and examining my conscience. It had been so long since I'd gone that I was afraid I was going to miss something big! Once I was satisfied that I had managed to recall all my mortal sins, I was deeply ashamed. Indeed, "horrified" would not be too strong a word. I had committed several over the 20-some years, and they were not small. My first reaction was to make excuses -- well, this was, after all, 20 years' worth of sin; and I have a lot of good qualities, too; these sins are not all that I am; etc. But I knew that the confessional was not the place for excuses.

That last point is the reason I said the Sacrament is better than simple private contrition. I am always inclined inside my head to justify and excuse what I have done. I am even inclined to do so in ordinary conversation. But the discipline of the confessional forces rejection of that kind of thinking.

I was scared to death, but I did it, with no excuses. The priest was very kind to me, and the whole process was over in five to ten minutes.

I left the confessional and did my penance, weeping in relief and thanks to God. But the really amazing thing is what happened to me afterward.

I am convinced that that confession was a necessary step to bring me into true communion with God. I had stopped misbehaving long before. I was going to Mass, and I had stopped doing the other things that were seriously sinful. But I was not close to God. I still felt psychic anguish, depression, and dread, and I was frustrated about many of my own personal characteristics that seemed to have become worse as I got older. I certainly did not feel any strong compulsion to lead a truly Christian life.

My confession has completely transformed my relationship with God. The anguish is gone. I thank Him every day for the miraculous way He has changed me. I get up early in the mornings now (NOT an easy task for me!) so that I can spend some quiet time with God before the kids get up and my work day starts. I'm praying for my enemies -- by name. I'm praying for the co-workers I once found so annoying or foolish. I am now aware of the sins that I am most susceptible to, I ask for help each day with them, and God always helps me! Best of all, I am daring to pray AT ALL -- something I was completely unable to do before I received the sacrament of Penance. I am really experiencing God as my good and loving Father.

The Church is absolutely right about this sacrament -- if anything, once a year is not nearly enough. It's not just "harmless," but a true sacrament, a miracle.

Many people like me who grew up in the 60's have very bad memories of Confession. When we were children, we remember being bawled out by priests because of what we did, or because of the time since our last confession, or because we couldn't recite the Act of Contrition smoothly enough. That trauma made it very easy to stop going once we were old enough to make our own decisions.

Fortunately, young people today don't have this same experience. Based on discussions with my kids and their friends, I think the biggest stumbling block to young people is that Confession seems pointless.

In short, the baby boomers are scared to death of Confession, and young people think it is an innocuous waste of time.

Both groups are wrong, wrong, WRONG! If you're older and were traumatized by a nasty priest when you were young, please have enough faith to give Confession one more try. The Church has changed in many positive ways, and this is one of them. I can almost guarantee you will not have a bad experience again.

If you are young and wondering "What's the point?," first forgive your elders for "overcorrecting" for the abuses they suffered in the past and failing to give you a sense of sin. Then read the Catechism and find out what sin is. Then examine your conscience and make a meaningful confession.

All it takes is a mustard seed of faith to result in a mighty tree. If you take this tiny step and make a good confession, God will reward you a hundred times over.

PS - I agree with you completely about the need for priests to preach this in Mass. I was fortunate -- at my church (the non-traditional one, believe it or not!), one of our priests got on a tear about our failure to go to Confession. He spent two full homilies on it. He was absolutely right to do so, and his homilies were what started my thinking that maybe I needed to do this. Before his sermons, I had convinced myself that no one went to Confession any more, and I wasn't even sure that the Church required it.

I don’t think that we are in disagreement on any significant point. The biggest problem for the sacrament is that one often hears the reasons not to participate and rarely hears an opposing viewpoint, except from tired old sticks-in-the-mud who are much more concerned with wickedness than forgiveness. If we disagree, it is mainly in emphasis: my focus is on showing opponents of confession that, even on their own terms, confession makes sense. Robin takes the argument back onto a more spiritual plane, where all penitents wind up, it is to be hoped.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post and God bless - a Bible believing but struggling Christian

8:43 PM  

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