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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.

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I attended my first High Mass in the Extraordinary Form (EF) this morning.  It was glorious!  I’ve been wanting to attend one for a while now, but there’s a story behind why I went today.

Basically, I did something really stupid last night, such that I really, really needed to go to Confession before Mass!  The only priest I could think of who offers Confession before Sunday Mass was our FSSP chaplain.  So I dragged myself out of bed before 6, and mustered up my courage to go to a new place, for a new kind of Mass, and to confess to a new priest.

I got to the monastery chapel where the Sunday EF Masses are said, and I got there in plenty of time.  But I couldn’t tell where the confessional was, and I had not seen the priest around.  I finally asked a young man sitting behind me, and he told me I needed to go outside to an adjoining building.  Well, by the time I got there, there was quite a line.  And about 20 minutes until Mass was to start.  The priest had to cut us off.

I stood there, crestfallen and uncertain what I should do.  The young lady who’d been in line ahead of me told me that Father also hears confessions after that Mass.  That was well and good, but I felt I would have to refrain from receiving the Eucharist if I confessed after Mass.  I thought about going somewhere else, in hopes of possibly finding a priest to hear my confession.

But I felt oddly compelled to attend the high Mass.  It was something more than interest or curiosity that compelled me.  Something much more powerful… something supernatural, which came from within me and from without at the same time… if that makes sense.  The phrase I have long used for it is a gravity upon my soul.  An ineffable, external force which also ignites a great longing within my soul, a willingness and eagerness to respond to the force.

So I walked back over to the chapel, which by that time was standing-room only.  I stood in the doorway, not sure where I should go or whether I could possibly find a seat.  I was feeling very uncomfortable and hot and self-conscious.  Honestly, I just wanted to disappear, and in fact, I was about to turn and slink away when a young man came and told me there was a seat up front.  I didn’t like the idea of having to refrain from Communion in front of the entire chapel (as if it were all about me, right?).  But I also didn’t want to be ungrateful for the consideration shown to me.  I hesitated, but again, I felt that compulsion.

I followed the boy to the empty spot, sat down and tried to pray, fumbled around for my missal.  All while being devastated that I couldn’t in good conscience receive Communion.  I felt sort of like there was an earthquake going on inside me.  I wondered if the people around me could tell–it seemed impossible that they couldn’t.

And then…

And then the music began, organ and choir.  A simple hymn before Mass, but it was so beautiful that I could imagine the angels in Heaven appearing and becoming audible.  Then a bell rang, and the splendidly-attired servers and priest filed in.  The priest began the chanting of the Asperges Me, and the choir and congregation took it up while the priest sprinkled holy water on everybody.  I recognized the text of the antiphon as a passage from that most excellent prayer of penitence, Psalm 51:

Thou shalt sprinkle me, O Lord, with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed; Thou shalt wash me, and I shall become whiter than snow.
(Angelus Press 1962 missal translation)

As I felt a small shower of water come down around me, I felt God’s mercy wash over me.

And I was transported.  Transported out of my worry and discomfort, transported out of my nervousness and the internal earthquake.  Transported out of everything dark and worrisome and into a marvelous light.  The chanting, the Latin language, the incense, the splendor of the chapel and the vestments and the finely choreographed movements… it all transported me.  It wasn’t about me at all, and yet I found myself in a most wonderful place.  “It is good that I am here,” I thought, echoing the sentiments of St. Peter as he stood before the transfigured Christ, dazed but fully conscious of the blessing he had received.

Yes, of course, I found the liturgy a bit strange and hard to follow along with (I still find even the low Mass challenging at times).  But it didn’t matter.  I was aware of what was going on.  A great mystery, to be sure, but a mystery into which we are meant and indeed created to enter, without fear or hesitation.  I had been compelled to do just that, and I was now part of it in some small way.  What my feeble mind didn’t grasp, my soul certainly did.  It resonated with every sound, smell, sight, and motion.

And then there were the Scripture readings and the homily.  As I listened, I thought and prayed:  “OK, Lord, so this is why You compelled me.  This is all exactly what I needed to hear, and what You wanted to tell me.”  We heard Galatians 5:16-24, where St. Paul speaks of the works of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit and how we must live in the Spirit and crucify our flesh together with Christ.  Yes… I suppose I needed that reminder.  The Gospel was Matthew 6:24-33, where Christ warns that one cannot serve both God and mammon, and that if we have faith and trust in God, we will not be anxious about provisions for the needs of the flesh, for God knows us and provides for us, as He does for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field–and then some.  “Seek ye therefore first the Kingdom of God, and His justice; and all these things shall be added unto you.”  Yes… I definitely needed that reminder!

As part of his homily upon these exhortations, Father encouraged us to pray the Rosary.  It was probably the best and most inspiring preaching on the Rosary I’ve heard!  It really moved me, almost to tears.  My prayer life of late has been… shall we say… a bit weak.  Not because I’ve been unable to pray, but, honestly, because I just haven’t made praying a priority.  (Gosh, maybe that’s why I’ve been falling to pieces lately.  Do you think?)

The Mass proceeded.  I implored the Lord for a spiritual Communion.  After Mass came Adoration and Benediction.  I once again bewailed my sins and begged for mercy.  I was still painfully aware of my separation from Him.  And the fact that it was I, not He, who had caused it.  A hard conviction to pass upon oneself.  But not a death sentence.  God doesn’t hand out death sentences (despite some all-too-popular misconceptions about Him).  Rather, I felt Him say to me, “My child, I know that you came here to be reconciled, and although things have not gone as planned, I have kept you here so that you might receive hope, healing, and encouragement to sustain and re-fortify you.”  I thanked Him profusely and reaffirmed my intention to get to Confession as soon as possible and to do better.  I marveled at how He brought that beautiful morning from the previous day’s pitiful failing.

I tried to go to Confession again after Mass, but again, there were too many penitents and not enough time.  At the time, I was still disconsolate about it.  But I decided that I would wait until Tuesday morning and go to Confession at my parish church, to my parish priest, my usual confessor.  And in the meantime, I would trust in God’s tremendous mercy and providence.

That’s what I am doing now, and with considerable peace of mind, thanks be to God. But perhaps that raises another question:  So, why go to Confession anyway? I’ll address this question in a separate post.  I was planning a similar post anyway, and what happened today provides a good context for it.

Let me just close by saying:

1. Mortal sin IS. NOT. WORTH. IT. So avoid it at all costs and save yourself a whole lot of grief!

2. But if you can’t avoid it, DO. NOT. DESPAIR. Be humble, honest, and contrite before God, and get to Confession ASAP!

[UPDATE: Father Z reports that the official English translation has been released now.  I’ve updated the excerpt below with the official version.]

Pope Benedict has issued a letter to all Catholic bishops regarding the lifting of the SSPX bishops’ excommunication and the unfortunate explosion surrounding Bishop Williamson’s crazy and wicked notions about the Holocaust.  What should have been a peaceful, merciful step toward reconciliation turned into a loud nightmare, with the Holy Father coming under a great deal of fire–much of it from within the Church.

The New Liturgical Movement has a full English translation of the letter, along with various commentaries.  I initially came across all of this at WDTPRS, and Father Z of course has his own comments.

I haven’t gotten to read it all, but there was one part that really struck me.  Pope Benedict asks:

Can we be totally indifferent about a community [the SSPX] which has 491 priests, 215 seminarians, 6 seminaries, 88 schools, 2 university-level institutes, 117 religious brothers, 164 religious sisters and thousands of lay faithful? Should we casually let them drift farther from the Church?

This reminded me immediately of the end of the Book of Jonah, where Jonah is so angry that God shows mercy to the repentant people (and animals) of Nineveh.  Jonah is angry because God forced him to prophesy to the city even though Jonah knew God was merciful and would spare the city.  He was concerned only for himself, his own wishes and his own comforts.

God replies:

And should I not be concerned over Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left, not to mention the many cattle?

There are lots of people furious that one bishop had his excommunication lifted even though he holds some very hurtful and very wrong-headed beliefs about the Holocaust–never mind that the excommunication had nothing to do with his views on the Holocaust.  There are also certainly many “liberal” people in the Church who are furious at the idea of some radical “ultra-conservative” types being let back into the fold.

Pope Benedict is saying, “Listen, this is not about just one bishop and his wrong ideas about the Holocaust.  It’s also not about supposed religio-political ideologies and rivalries.  This is about an entire community of Catholics who are in danger of drifting from the Church and in doing so may be risking the loss of their immortal souls.  Should I not be concerned over them?”

It seems like an incredibly simple question coming from the Supreme Pontiff, the overseeing Shepherd, of the Catholic Church.  Previously, I compared Pope Benedict with the merciful father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. He continues to show mercy, even under fire, even amid betrayals and general mass chaos.  He’s got his eyes on the prize and knows what is important.  He’s going to do what is right by the Church, what needs to be done.

We couldn’t ask for, nor even hope for, a better pope than Benedict XVI at this time in history.

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