Anatomy of a Confession—A Lenten Reflection

Window at Parish Church of St Peter, Frampton ...
Window at Parish Church of St Peter, Frampton Cotterell, England (Photo credit: DanieVDM)

What exactly is a good confession? I think first of all the basics of sincerity, willingness to turn from sin, and admission of the particular faults or issues at hand. Second with that, but no less important, would be to speak, courageously and out loud to another human, specifically to the priest, the sins committed as best can be remembered, and to receive absolution from our Lord Jesus Christ through his ministry as a confessor.  One of the first acts of the resurrected Jesus was to give this power to the Apostles and, by succession, to the priests of the Church:

19 † On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

21 (Jesus) said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

23 Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”[1]

John 20: 19-23, NABRE (New American Bible, Revised Edition)

The purpose of this post will not be to so much to explain the nitty-gritty details or nuts and bolts of this Sacrament and how it operates, although at the end I will link to some articles that further explain that aspect as well, but rather to share an experience I had just this week in the confessional.  My biggest fear (and I think many readers likely share this same sense of dread regarding the Sacrament of Reconciliation/Confession) was in bringing to Christ through the priest the fullness of my own struggles.

By this I mean it is one thing to quickly say “Father I was sort of bad last week forgive me” and quite another to say “I committed adultery 4 times in 2 days with 3 different women.”  And no, that was not my particular topic of concern, so lest any rumors begin to fly due to this article you can safely lay that one aside and now.  Let it rest, folks, I am not telling my specifics here!!! They are in any case beside the point.

I did have some pressing issues, though, and knew I could wait no longer to speak the sinfulness of my heart out loud and with clarity.  So I sat in the confession row for 45 minutes yesterday afternoon and I was far from the last sinner in that line! Long confession lines, I would thankfully add, would be one of the signs of a spiritually thriving parish. And our lovely Cathedral/National Shrine of St Paul is definitely that.

Dome of the Cathedral of Saint Paul in St. Pau...
Dome of the Cathedral of Saint Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I view it now, I am not really sure that my “sin list” was particularly much worse than certain other times for that matter.  But there was one significant difference. Last week I posted in regard to a 2 day period in which I very nearly said “no” to the Church. Not a “no” to Jesus, at least not purposefully so, but a “no” to the outer trappings of Rome and her leadership in my life.  But for those of us who are Catholic Christians it becomes the same thing. Jesus did not separate the Church from Himself nor should we attempt to do so.

In any event, especially after rehearsing my “list” for 45 minutes, I was pretty clear by the time I entered the “Tribunal Booth” what needed to be said—word for word in fact.  I often go face-to-face but not this time—and the Church in her mercy does allow us to confess either way. This time, though, anonymous “hiding” was just fine with me. One area of sin, already alluded to, and this one I will tell you about, was undoubtedly that whole area of submission to Church authority. As mentioned, last week, after a long time of not even having such thoughts enter my mind, I went through around 48 hours or so where I had to search my heart and sift through layers of doubt about even remaining Catholic.  I wrote more in detail about this if you are interested (again the link is below) but besides confessing it to the whole blogosphere I needed some absolution from a priest to really “seal the deal.”  But it meant, once again, facing the dissident musical notes of my life and formally committing myself to Rome all over again—and all during what was supposed to be the “best Lent ever.” I felt, and still do, that the very act of so seriously doubting my Faith again, after all the Lord has truly done for me over these last 6 years since my return,  was somewhere between ungrateful and truly wretched. The astounding and good news however is that God loves “wretches like me” as the song Amazing Grace tells us so eloquently.

Page 53 in Olney Hymns, the verses that would ...
Page 53 in Olney Hymns, the verses that would become known as "Amazing Grace" (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here then is where the Holy Spirit, speaking through the words of a carefully listening (both to me and to God) priest, became shining soap suds of cleansing to my otherwise filthy soul. After I clumsily spurted my way through all of this, trying hard to be succinct but on the other hand attempting to leave out nothing of import, he gave me a few short minutes of counsel. I told him I felt genuinely that I had failed the Lord so much this Lent, and he said simply “Lent never made a saint out of anyone—it just shows us that we are not saints.”  Those were “amazing grace” words to me, and ones I do not ever remember hearing whether in a confessional or even during a Lenten retreat for that matter. Too often we go into Lent striving to be more holy, more disciplined, and godlier as a result. Then Easter Sunday comes, we break our fasts and eat our meal consisting primarily of Virginia spiraled ham and home-made peanut butter chocolate Easter eggs, and then sit back to watch a good movie or take a nap. Then back to life “as usual” for the rest of the year. But his view was that, at least in my case, and for most of us, Lent should be a mirror of the areas we will need to work on long past Lent’s end.

Slovak easter food
Slovak easter food (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And of course he was and is right.  He was in no way suggesting that we make no special efforts during Lent.  We should and there is still time to do so thankfully. But he was saying that we, if we do seek God, may quite unexpectedly find ourselves face to face with our very weakest areas. It is only then however that we can begin fighting them with any consistency.  I am by no means leaving the Church, and by God’s grace never will. But knowing that I could even still think in those terms both humbled and frightened me, and rightly still does. I think I have a small sense of why St. Peter, who insisted he would never deny the Lord, “wept bitterly” when a few short hours later he did so, not once but 3 times. I am beginning to relate all too well to our first Pope. Perhaps an upside-down crucifixion will be in my future as well.

Yet even the weaknesses we have, whatever they may be, can be used to help our walks with God. I have always assumed my weak areas to be a hindrance primarily, and to a very real extent of course they are.  But he suggested letting those same weaknesses remind us of who we are and how much we need God—in short to allow our weaknesses become our strengths.   And to always be reminded that we can indeed fall again, so we must fortify in areas we know are difficult for us.  And most of us know what those areas may be on a personal level, even though mine may differ from yours in the specifics.

Maybe this Lent will indeed be the “best Lent ever” for me after all. Some of that spiritual reading I planned or novenas or other prayers which I should have prayed already can still be done after Easter, once the ham and candy eggs have digested and been forgotten. Lent should be all year-long anyway. And if you are like me, it needs to be—desperately.  Lent serves little purpose otherwise.

[1] Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Board of Trustees, Catholic Church. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, & United States Catholic Conference. Administrative Board. (1996). The New American Bible: Translated from the original languages with critical use of all the ancient sources and the revised New Testament (Jn 20:19–23). Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.