This is a sequel to an earlier post. Basically, I was in the awful position of having a mortal sin on my soul, and despite my best efforts, couldn’t get to Confession for a couple of days.  But God was merciful to me in wonderful and unexpected ways.  I took comfort and strength in that, but also reaffirmed my intention to get to Confession as soon as possible.

Which raised the question:  Why go to Confession anyway?

All that Sunday, I had these niggling little temptations to just say, “Oh well, God has forgiven me, He has accepted my contrition and my efforts at reconciliation, and after all it’s not my fault that the chaplain didn’t allow enough time for Confession.  And now that I think of it, was it really so horrible what I did?  Do I really have to give up Communion?  There’s still time… the last Mass at my parish is still an hour away…”

I could have quickly and easily rationalized my sin away–the human mind is so very good at that!–and just ditched Confession.  And many people would have applauded that.  Many decent, sincere, and well-meaning people have tried to convince me that I don’t need Confession.  In their minds, they have tried to liberate me.  I love liberty as much as anybody, but as appealing as it may seem, there is something very wrong and discomforting about the notion of giving up Confession.

In my heart of hearts, I knew the fact of the matter: I am in no position to ditch Confession.  I am in no position to absolve my own sins and declare officially that everything is once more hunky dory and peachy keen.  I am in the position of convicting myself of sin, mourning the rift I’ve caused between God and me, and seeking reconciliation with Him.  And you know, there is the greatest of freedoms in that!  To grit your teeth and face reality, to take responsibility for your actions, to seek to make amends with another, to be reunited with One you love.

And the ordinary means–the only certain means–I know of doing that is the Sacrament of Confession.

Yes, God is merciful.  Yes, He is good to me even when I mess up and turn my back to Him.  Yes, He used my pitiful failing to bring about a greater good.  Yes, He let me know He was still there for me.  It may very well be that He, in His own ineffable way, unbound as He is by the Sacraments of the Church, had already made my sins disappear and restored me to a state of grace.  He can absolve whomever and whenever He wills.  I don’t doubt that.

But we are bound. We are bound by love and justice, faith and trust, loyalty and obedience, to the Sacraments of the Church, Sacraments Christ established for our welfare.  We don’t get to presume upon Him and His own superior ways and privileges.  We don’t get to cleverly rationalize things away and fly the coop.  We don’t know what is best for us.  We don’t fully know the state of our own souls as God does.  We are not authorized to make the binding and loosing declarations that God, in His mercy, enables His ordained priests to make.

We are bound for our own good, and assurance.  Consider what the Psalmist says:

Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart;
there is no fear of God before his eyes.
For he flatters himself in his own eyes
that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated.
The words of his mouth are mischief and deceit;
he has ceased to act wisely and do good.
(Ps. 36:1-3, RSV-CE2 translation)

Now, I realize that it’s easy to say, “Oh well, that’s talking about wicked people, not me!” But think about it. If you honestly can’t see yourself in that description of “the wicked,” if you have never “ceased to act wisely and do good”–even for a short time–then you should become the first living person to be canonized a Saint.  I was actually struck first by the translation of this Psalm used in the Divine Office here in the U.S. (and other English-speaking lands):

Sin speaks to the sinner
in the depths of his heart.
There is no fear of God
before his eyes.

He so flatters himself in his mind
that he knows not his guilt.
In his mouth are mischief and deceit.
All wisdom is gone.

“Sin speaks to the sinner in the depths of his heart.”  That definitely struck close to home for me.  That was the voice I kept hearing in my head that morning.  Sin trying to convince me that it was not sin at all.  I’ve paid heed to that voice before.  So do many people.  So many people within the Church and in the world at large have completely lost all “sense of sin.”  Guilt is seen as baggage to be shed.  We are taught that certain sins (most often of the sexual nature), far from being sinful, are actually normal, healthy, even good for us–and that to repress them is dangerous and maddening.  I believed that for many years.  And looking back, I see that my life then was far more repressive, dangerous, and maddening than my life is now.  That’s what happens when you pay heed to sin.

I was also recently struck by these words of Père Garrigou-Lagrange:

I certainly know the interior of my soul better than other men do; but it has secrets from me, for I cannot measure all the gravity of my directly or indirectly voluntary faults.  God alone knows me thoroughly; the secrets of my heart are perfectly open only to His gaze.
(The Three Ages of the Interior Life, part 1, chapter 1 ¶9)

On the surface, this may seem to argue against the necessity of Confession: if only God knows what is in my soul, if even I myself can’t clearly see and know it, then why on earth should I tell my sins to another human being, a person who may know nothing about me? Why not just confess to God instead and let that be the end of it?

First, I would say that 1) confessing to God, and, 2) confessing to a priest in the Sacrament of Confession do not constitute an “either/or” dichotomy.  Rather they constitute a “both/and” unity.  We do both.  In fact, I don’t know that it is possible to make a good confession to a priest without having first made a good confession to God.  Confessing to a priest does not replace confessing to God… it adds to it.

I am highly uncomfortable with the notion of confessing to God and letting that be the end of it.  It seems so… easy.  So… convenient and comfortable.  So… undemanding of personal accountability and responsibility, personal freedom and action, personal reaching out and striving.  It’s one thing to pray to God in privacy.  It’s another thing to speak your sins out loud to a human ear.

In the private confession to God, I think there’s the danger of complacency and pride, the danger of it becoming routine and mechanical–“All I have to do is get down mutter some words, and then I’ll be scott free.  OK, yeah, sorry God, I won’t do it again.  We’re good now, right?  See ya!”  On the other hand, I have yet to meet anybody who harbors complacency and pride while standing in line outside a confessional.  Truly, I don’t think it’s possible.  And it never becomes routine or mechanical either; it doesn’t matter how many times I go to Confession–each time seems like the first time.  Easy, convenient, comfortable, undemanding–no way.  It takes heart, it takes devotion, it takes courage, it takes will.  And doesn’t God deserve that?  If you want to be reconciled with God, must you not put everything into it?  Heart, soul, mind, and body?  Do that, and God will do all the rest.

So, confessing to a priest instills humility and conscientiousness and it calls us out of ourselves–it demands a selfless act, a giving of self.  It demands making a connection with another.  Ultimately, it’s about giving ourselves and making a connection with God.  Believe me, I wouldn’t go through with Confession if it weren’t all about God–who would?  And the Sacrament, by its nature, brings that connection to a concrete, human level.  It brings us the experience that the sinners in the Gospels had–facing Christ on a concrete, human level, being before Him in all their weakness and brokenness and wickedness, and hearing Him say in a human voice, “Your sins are forgiven. Go and sin no more.”  That’s a much different experience than praying in silence.  It’s a more certain experience.  Again, not a replacement for prayer, but a powerful addition to it.  A powerful living out of it.

Is it not apparent that sacramental Confession has benefits and sound reason to it?  Is it not clear that we are bound to the Sacrament for our own welfare, as well as for love of God?  I cannot imagine my life without it.  I can’t imagine my soul being sustained without it.  I feel that I would be lost in very dangerous waters without it.  I would forever be second-guessing myself, wondering if I couldn’t perhaps do more to be reconciled with God and pledge to Him my good faith.  That would be agonizing!  There would be no liberty or re-assurance in that.

Walking out of the confessional with the glorious declaration of absolution still sounding in your ears–that’s true liberation.  That is just as irreplaceable as prayer.  And I, for one, am grateful for it!  Being deprived of it for a couple of days was enough to make me appreciate it.

Advertisements