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A number of fellow Catholics over the years have asked me for advice and encouragement about going to Confession. Few things make me more glad than to share my love and appreciation for this very special Sacrament, and I pray very hard that all Catholics may be drawn to it. At the same time, I also understand that it’s not an easy thing to do. So, especially now that we are in Lent, I would like to offer some encouragement for my brothers and sister who might be having difficulty approaching the Sacrament. (The following is from a letter I wrote to one dear person this evening; but I think it might be applicable and helpful to many people.)
I understand how much trepidation we can experience about going to Confession. It never completely goes away; I still struggle with it occasionally, and I’m sure everybody does. The reason is that the devil wants to prevent us all from going and receiving the tremendous grace, nourishment, and healing of the Sacrament. He will throw every lie and every negative feeling at us in order to stop us, to make us afraid, to make us distrustful and doubtful.
To withstand these difficult things takes God’s grace. Nobody can do it alone. And so, what you should do now and very often is simply ask the Lord for His peace and for the grace to go to Confession. It may be helpful to pray this Act of Contrition–and note especially the part I’ve emphasized:
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest my sins because of Thy just punishment, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.
Pray that at least once a day, and it won’t be long until you start to feel much more at ease and even eager to go to Confession.
Trust that there are good reasons that Christ instituted the Sacrament of Reconciliation and made human priests ministers of His mercy. The Sacrament itself provides not only sanctifying grace, but a very special, particular sacramental grace–that of stronger resistance to sin. The priest, as a fellow sinner and fellow penitent, can provide valuable help and guidance. As a fellow human, he can speak those wonderful words of absolution in a voice we can hear.
You certainly have nothing to fear from a confessor. You may think that he will be judgmental or perhaps even outraged at your sins. But he won’t. I’ve heard many priests say that sin is just sin–it’s boring, it’s dull, it’s unimaginative, it’s completely unremarkable. What they find truly remarkable is the courage and humility and faith of the penitents who come to them. And they feel privileged to be able to help and heal and minister to them.
I will just add here what I have told myself and others many times: In the whole universe, there is only one person who benefits from our not going to Confession–and that’s Satan. Don’t give him that benefit!
Also, I welcome anybody to contact me to ask further questions about Confession. I don’t ever get tired of talking about it!
I see it was only a little over a year ago when I last wrote on this topic. Well, I’m in a similar situation once again. At a point last week, weakness led me to a state of mortal sin.
At this point in my life, it is always a shocking and painful experience when I realize my bond with God has been severed over some foolish, selfish indulgence of a temptation. It is utterly humiliating to wake up in the Enemy’s bedchamber and know that I went there of my own free will, abandoning the secure castle of my Lord and Father for some promise of luxury and pleasure–a false promise my mind should have easily seen through, and my love and faithfulness should have easily demolished. It is an almost unbearable pain to find the dagger of betrayal in my own bloody hand.
But before long, the aftermath of mortal sin brings one to a stark moment of decision: continue to wallow in your own filth, compounded with self-pity and self-hatred, and thus surrender in despair to the Enemy… or rise to your feet to return to your Lord and Father and beg His forgiveness. At this point, we all become the Prodigal Son in Christ’s parable, and if there is any shred of conscience, intellect, and love left, we know there’s only one correct choice.
We cry to God and place ourselves at His mercy. We acknowledge how wrong we were and how much we depend on Him for health, sanity, happiness, security, and wholeness. If nothing else, we do it because we realize how much better we are in His castle than in the Enemy’s infernal palace. If nothing else, we do it out of base fear of the Enemy. That is not the best and noblest of motivations, but it suffices for our merciful and compassionate Lord to gather us back into His arms and the safe confines of His castle.
We rightly rejoice in His goodness and love and praise Him. One of the Psalms in this morning’s Divine Office captures the entire experience–both the pleading and the praising–very well:
The prayer of the poor man in distress
Blessed be God who comforts us in all our trials (2 Corinthians 1:3, 4).
Turn your ear, O Lord, and give answer
for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am faithful;
save the servant who trusts in you.
You are my God, have mercy on me, Lord,
for I cry to you all the day long.
Give joy to your servant, O Lord,
for to you I lift up my soul.
O Lord, you are good and forgiving,
full of love to all who call.
Give heed, O Lord, to my prayer
and attend to the sound of my voice.
In the day of distress I will call
and surely you will reply.
Among the gods there is none like you, O Lord;
nor work to compare with yours.
All the nations shall come to adore you
and glorify your name, O Lord:
for you are great and do marvelous deeds,
you who alone are God.
Show me, Lord, your way
so that I may walk in your truth.
Guide my heart to fear your name.
I will praise you, Lord my God, with all my heart
and glorify your name for ever;
for your love to me has been great:
you have saved me from the depths of the grave.
The proud have risen against me;
ruthless men seek my life;
to you they pay no heed.
But you, God of mercy and compassion,
slow to anger, O Lord,
abounding in love and truth,
turn and take pity on me.
O give your strength to your servant
and save your handmaid’s son.
Show me the sign of your favor
that my foes may see to their shame
that you console me and give me your help.
I have confessed my sin to God and implored His forgiveness, and I believe I have received His forgiveness and had our broken bond mended. That is where I am now. But as Catholic, I find that my heart still yearns for something. It longs to make a more formal, mature, and responsible pledge of fealty to its Lord. It longs to actively re-dedicate itself to Him and His service. And because it is still human flesh, it also desires a more concrete and more certain expression of God’s healing and restoration.
To quench these yearnings, only one thing will do: namely, the Sacrament of Confession. To confess my sins in my own human voice to one of God’s ordained priests, and to hear in the priest’s human voice that my sins are absolved–these are necessary for my well-being, as I have found time and time again. I cannot over-emphasize how salutary this holy Sacrament is!
Moreover, it is a duty and a privilege to which I am bound as a member of the Church. It must be understood that for Catholics, there is no division, no dichotomy, between God and His Church. He is the Church’s Head, and the Church is His Body. Only a gruesome decapitation could cause such a division. In being bound to the Church, I am bound to God, and vice versa. In doing my duty to the Church, I do my duty to God, and vice versa. If the Church requires me to confess to a priest, I do not doubt for a moment that it is because God desires it.
To me, it is absolutely clear why He would desire it–as I said, I have experienced over and over how very good and necessary it is for me. But God is more than a physician who hands me a prescription. He is a loving Father who wishes me to possess some of His own freedom and dignity. Presenting myself to Him in the Sacrament of Confession provides me with that freedom and dignity. That is why it is not only a duty but also a privilege. It is a privilege to actively co-operate in re-forging the bond between Him and myself. It is a privilege to know that God loves me so much and regards me so much as His own child, that He calls me to take action, as well as to be a passive recipient of His grace.
As I always say, it is not an either-or situation, but a both-and situation. Love can never be one-way or one-sided. My going to the Sacrament of Confession is a free act of love and obedience to God, just as His granting of mercy is a free act of love and providence to me and to everybody who prays to Him.
I am still in need of going to the Sacrament… like last time, various circumstances have conspired against it. Hopefully tomorrow evening! I really, really, really need to receive Holy Communion! I never realize how much it means to me until I’m in a situation where I cannot receive it. Please pray for me as I ride out this little interval.
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.
At Confession this morning, my priest told me to read and pray about the epistle selection for this coming Sunday:
Brothers and sisters:
If God is for us, who can be against us?
He who did not spare his own Son
but handed him over for us all,
how will he not also give us everything else along with him?
Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones?
It is God who acquits us, who will condemn?
Christ Jesus it is who died—or, rather, was raised—
who also is at the right hand of God,
who indeed intercedes for us.
I found it so comforting and reassuring. I thought it was the perfect scripture passage for my personal life and for our lives as Catholics in the world. It really bolstered my confidence and my trust… my love too. Our Lord is so very great, and never outdone in generosity!
I looked up at the Crucifix… what more could God have given us than His own Son? What more could the Son of God have given us than His own life? His blood pouring from His many wounds?
And He never ceases to give us His life–His divine life!–through the Sacraments of the Church! The sanctifying grace we receive from the Sacraments is nothing other than God’s own divine life. It’s amazing when you think about it. How He not only holds us and the entire universe in existence, but also constantly sheds His very own life over us–provided, of course, that we are disposed to receive it.
The key to maintaining that disposition is the Sacrament of Confession. Sanctifying grace and mortal sin cannot co-exist in our souls. That is why Confession is of such vital importance–it is where we exercise our freedom to choose good and avoid evil, to choose divine life and reject sin. The choice is ours. The Lord is waiting for us, waiting to acquit us and grant us His peace, His mercy, His love, His very life.
Not only at Lent, but all year long.
I write and talk pretty often about Confession and what a tremendous blessing it is to me. I’ve come in contact with quite a few people who experience great difficulty with going to Confession. So I thought I would try to address such difficulties.
The most common difficulty seems to be shame. “I’m too ashamed to go to Confession!” I would say that if you are ashamed of having sinned, it’s a good sign! It means your conscience is functioning properly. You are probably feeling very drawn to go to Confession–you know it’s the right thing to do. You probably know that it will restore you to the peace and love that can only come from being in a good relationship with God. But how to get past the shame or other anxieties?
Here are two things that have always helped me:
1. Examine your conscience and pray the Act of Contrition every day. At the end of each day, look back over the day and think about whether there were ways in which you may have rejected God, and/or ways in which you might have hurt or neglected another person. If so, then take responsibility for them–that is the first step toward repentance and reconciliation. And pray an Act of Contrition. We know this prayer as being part of the Confession rite itself, but we should be praying it every day! Here is the version I use:
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishments, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.
Note the last sentence: you are resolving, with God’s help, to confess your sins. Do you think God will ignore such a prayer, or refuse His help? Praying this prayer each day will help you get to Confession and overcome any obstacles you encounter. God Himself will bring you!
2. Pray to St. Michael and your guardian angel. There is only one person in this entire universe who has anything to gain by your not going to Confession, and that is Satan. He and his demons will do whatever they can to keep you away from the confessional. But God has given us very special helpers for dealing with demons–remember the holy angels, and call upon them! Ask them to be your escorts and keep those evil angels at bay. The holy angels are mighty and powerful, and they know better than any other creature how to deal with demons!
Do both of these things each day, and before long, you’ll not be able to restrain yourself from the Sacrament! Or, at the very least, they will help clear your path and get you moving in the right direction.
Will you still have jitters or bothersome feelings about going to Confession? Yes, you most likely will. I generally still get nerves about going to Confession, even though I go pretty frequently. But it doesn’t matter–it simply doesn’t matter. It has no power over me any more. And it will lose its power over you, too. All the feelings that may seem so huge and powerful now will soon shrink to their actual size–to practically nothing! That’s because you will have your eyes set on something much better and much more important–reconciliation with your Heavenly Father!
I do hope these brief thoughts are helpful. Remember: I love Confession, and I love talking about it, so, if you have any other Confession-related questions or concerns you’d like my take on, please let me know! :)
I’ve been thinking a lot about our second reading for this Sunday’s Mass, from St. Paul’s letter to the the Philippians:
Brothers and sisters:
Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.
For to me life is Christ, and death is gain.
If I go on living in the flesh,
that means fruitful labor for me.
And I do not know which I shall choose.
I am caught between the two.
I long to depart this life and be with Christ,
for that is far better.
Yet that I remain in the flesh
is more necessary for your benefit.
Only, conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.
Having come to Mass from the Theology of the Body conference, I immediately thought that it was very fitting, sort of a nice summary of some of the things we’d heard and discussed at the conference.
Obviously, at the beginning, St. Paul makes reference specifically to Christ being “magnified in [his] body.” Not just in his soul or in his mind or in his letters, but in his body. We all magnify (or diminish) Christ through our bodies, through our external actions and interactions with others. Like words, actions really mean something. We can imitate Christ through our physical actions, or we can fail to do so. St. Paul intends to spend his life “in the flesh” serving others, being of benefit to others, and engaging in “fruitful labor.” The word “fruitful” stood out to me, because that is one of the 4 characteristics of God’s love: it is full, free, faithful, and fruitful. St. Paul wants to give a love that is fruitful, to love as Christ loves, to imitate Christ.
Indeed, St. Paul expresses such a complete giving of himself and entrusting of himself to Christ and Christ’s will that it doesn’t matter to him whether he lives or dies. It is quite radical! And yet, all Christians are called to such dedication of self.
One important way we interact physically with God and the Church is through the Sacraments. Sacraments by nature have everything to do with the material world and physical presence. This is very clear when it comes to Communion: we can understand Communion as a most intimate and powerful union between Christ’s Body and our bodies. It is a two-way action: He gives and we receive. There is such a thing as a spiritual Communion, of course, which is a good thing… but it can never replace the physical reception of Communion. I think that the importance of physical presence is also one reason (among others) that the Sacrament of Confession cannot be conducted over the phone or internet or any such thing. Priest and penitent must be physically close to each other, be able to listen to each other and speak to each other, be “in tune” to each other. It’s easy to overlook it or take it for granted, but Confession consists of a very close, very strong bond. I think we can sense that if it were done “virtually” or over the phone, there would be something very important missing.
Through the Sacraments, we partake of God’s own life and love, and receive all that we require to live for Him and for others. We are nourished and healed by them just as we are by food and medicine.
This reading ends with an exhortation by St. Paul to his fellow Christians: “Conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Again, conduct is an external feature, shown through our bodies. It is not enough to just say, “I am a Christian.” If you say that, but your conduct does not show it, then you are lying, you are dishonest. Likewise, if you receive Communion, but your soul is steeped in mortal sin, or if you go to Confession but have no plans to avoid sinning, you are lying to God and the Church, and those Sacraments are not going to give you grace. Your inner self and outer self must be in alignment–you must have integrity. This was another theme throughout the conference: having integrity. Holiness relies on integrity. Being fully human relies on integrity–we aren’t body or soul, we are body and soul. We can’t cleave ourselves in half and be fully ourselves.
Anyway, I have just been very taken by that reading… and both it and the conference have really inspired me to strive harder to give myself fully, freely, faithfully, and fruitfully to God and my fellow man! I know I will be happier and more myself for it.
Father Z gives us an excellent fervorino on the importance of doing penance and going to Confession. It also includes good reflections on Purgatory and Hell. These are things of which even the most practicing of Catholics need frequent reminding. We can never have these things too much at the front of our minds. (Off-topic note: Internet Explorer is having trouble loading some blogs out there, including Father Z’s. Firefox works, however, and I highly recommend it.)
I went to Confession myself the evening before last. You know, it’s something that is always new. Even though I generally go every 2 weeks, and often have the same “laundry list” of things to confess… every time feels like the first time. Receiving absolution is always something new, wondrous, miraculous. It never gets old. It can never be received half-heartedly. It still makes me weep. The love and mercy of God are still overwhelming. And the ways in which Confession builds up and sharpens my conscience is pretty amazing too. It really makes me look at myself and my life and my relationship with God in new, deeper, clearer, more honest ways–it makes me more sane.
Just to be clear: when I say I have a “laundry list,” that is not to imply that there is anything rote or indifferent about my confessions. I think and pray very long and hard before Confession about what I’ve been doing or not doing, how I’ve been relating or not relating with God and other people, what effect I’ve been having on the world around me. For me, most of the work happens beforehand, and during the Sacrament itself, I tend to be very brief and to the point, and more focused on listening to the priest and receiving God’s grace. I believe that is the proper way to go about this Sacrament. Especially at my parish, where Confession is well-attended and lines can be pretty long (definitely a blessing, not a bother)!
We are really blessed with wonderful confessors, too. Somehow, they always know just what to say, what to ask, what penances to assign. They always know how to get to the heart of matters, whether big or small, and they know how to handle and to heal human hearts. This last confession of mine was a bit more in-depth than usual. Father and I both needed to talk things over a little more than usual. Sometimes, I have things going on that I might just shrug off or not consider really sinful. Usually subtle things that slowly begin to bother and weigh down my conscience. I don’t always know how to articulate them. All I know is that they’re not good for me, they hurt others, and they are not what God wants for me or from me. This is what has been going on recently for me. It felt so good and so relieving to talk with Father about it. He understood. He didn’t think I was crazy or stupid. And best of all, he gave me really wonderful advice and a really helpful and meaningful penance.
My confessor too gave me really important reminders: God created each one of us, God loves loves us, God takes care of us. We can put all our trust in Him. We can put all of our cares, worries, and difficulties into His hands. We all need those reminders too. If we didn’t, then we also probably wouldn’t need Confession! But we do. God knows how we are made, and what we need. To deny or reject or avoid Confession is an insult to His love, mercy, wisdom, and providence.
I have encountered this question a number of times in the last three years. It is often a sincere and earnest question, with which I empathize greatly. Sometimes it is posed more cynically. I’ve been met with my share of incredulity when speaking of my life as a single Catholic.
The usual point of contention is the Church’s teaching on chastity and on sexual expression being reserved exclusively for husbands and wives–and even within marriage, there are laws of chastity and properly-ordered sexual expression. For all unmarried people, chastity requires complete sexual abstinence. Again, this is for all unmarried people: regardless of why they are unmarried, regardless of their sexual orientation, regardless of their state in life, regardless of how imminent their marriage may be.
This is a hard teaching. But is it impossible? It can’t be if I and many other people live up to it. So, do I have some kind of super-power? Is my sex drive abnormally low? If those were true, then I wouldn’t consider it such a “hard teaching.” The fact is, I struggle with it as much as anyone, and occasionally I fall–and I’m not sure I would believe anybody who said otherwise. So, then, how do we live according to this hard teaching? There are three fundamental and inter-related requirements.
1) We must stand apart from the secular world. This is important for Catholics to do in every aspect of life, but especially when it comes to chastity. In the opinion of the secular world, chastity is impossible, or at least miserable. In the secular world, even children are scarcely expected or encouraged to live chaste lives! For one thing, chastity doesn’t sell. For another, it doesn’t “feel good.” The secular world is very much about money and self-gratification, and nothing is more easily exploited for those purposes than human sexuality. This is pretty much the way it has always been.
For those who are (rightly) ashamed of being openly in thrall to money and gratification, there are all kinds of supposedly rational and scientific arguments that, as long as it is consensual, all sexual expression is normal and healthy and only natural, and that any kind of repression is harmful and turns people into basket cases–and the Catholic teaching of chastity sounds an awful lot like repression, doesn’t it? My favorite is the “argument from nature,” in which nature is used to rationalize any and every kind of sexual behavior based on the fact that such behaviors have been observed among animals. This argument is very faulty and capricious. I’ve heard quite a lot of people use it to rationalize their preference for promiscuity and conveniently overlook the little fact that some animals are naturally monogamous. Those who like to use it as rationalization for bad behavior drop it quickly as soon as some unnatural things like fast cars, computers, jet planes, and breast implants are concerned.
As for “repression” turning people into “basket cases,” experience simply doesn’t bear that out. If anybody can make a good case for me, or any other chaste single Catholic being a basket case as a result of being a chaste single Catholic, I’d really like to hear it.
All of this said, I am not saying that chastity comes naturally. Not in this fallen world. But remember: human nature is different from animal nature. It is partly supernatural. In order to live an authentically human life–which includes chastity–we rely on supernatural assistance. Better yet, it is there for the taking.
2) We must trust God completely. There are a great many things I could say about being in relationship with God. Let it go without saying that all Catholics must have an ever-growing, ever-deepening personal relationship with God. But I consider trust to be one of the most essential and crucial elements of that relationship. Lack of trust can make a soul especially vulnerable to ravage by loneliness, despair, envy, and depression.
When we say something is impossible, we imply that it is without hope, that it cannot be helped by anything or anybody. As we have seen, that is generally the opinion of the secular world when it comes to chastity. But Scripture and Tradition–our Catholic faith–tell us that we have a God who gives us hope, a God who cares for us and helps us, a God who knows us and knows our needs better than anybody else, even better than we know ourselves, and who provides for those needs. He made us–we hold no secrets, no mysteries for Him. There is nothing impossible for Him, and He does not ask anything impossible of us. All we have to do is cry out to Him for help. And when we are beseiged with temptations against chastity, we must be willing to cry out to Him immediately. “Lord, I am in trouble! Lord, please safeguard my chastity! Lord, please take the edge off of these desires!” If you pray like that at the first sign of temptation, and if you pray for chastity in general, God will help you!
In addition, trust also means entrusting ourselves to God, putting our entire selves in His hands, making a gift of ourselves to Him. It is saying, “God, I want to know and to fulfill Your will for me. I want to be the person You want me to be, and I want to do the things You want me to do. I want to follow Your commandments. I want to walk by Your side.” Trust in God involves both giving and receiving. He gives freely, but He does not force anything on us. We have to assume a posture of receiving. We have to be disposed to receiving what He gives us.
3) We must go to Confession regularly. God gives Himself and His eternal, supernatural life to us through the Sacraments of the Church. The Sacraments we can, and should, receive constantly are Holy Communion and Confession. Most people have no problem with Communion, but Confession is another matter. “Oh, I don’t need Confession. My sins aren’t that bad. Besides, why do I need to tell my sins to a priest?” Unfortunately, I think that this attitude has often been fostered by our clergy and religious educators, if not actively, then certainly by omission. Fortunately, I think that the damage is slowly being reversed. I am here to do my part by saying: You need Confession, and you need it regularly. I would recommend it at least once a month, but it is essential whenever you have commited a mortal sin. There are two basic reasons why.
First and foremost, Confession cleanses and releases our souls from sin and restores them to a state of grace. That state of grace is necessary in order for our souls to receive the graces offered by all the other Sacraments–it disposes us to receive grace. Furthermore, to receive Holy Communion when in a state of mortal sin not only deprives us of the graces of Communion, but also incurs additional mortal sin, namely sacrilege. Think about it: if you knew the Lord Jesus was coming to visit you in your home, you would probably want your home spotless and beautiful and full of good things to offer Him. When you receive Communion, you are bringing Him into your soul, which is to be a temple, a dwelling place for Him, so shouldn’t you want your soul to be spotless, beautiful, and full of delights for Him as well? You wouldn’t invite him into a sewer tank or a rotting mausoleum, but if your soul is in a state of mortal sin, that’s analogous to what you are doing. It is an offense to His goodness and His grace, an abuse to His Body and Blood, and hence an additional mortal sin. So my advice is that if you are aware of having committed a mortal sin, don’t even think about receiving Communion until you’ve gone to Confession!
Secondly, Confession is a Sacrament of healing and strengthening, which is effective even if you are not in a state of mortal sin. I have experienced this so many times in my life. Times when I have struggled constantly with temptations and come to the very brink of surrendering to them. Times when I’ve been distressed and exhausted physically, mentally, and/or spiritually. Times when everything has been in complete disarray and I haven’t been able to “get my act together.” Times when I’ve been plagued with confusion, doubt, despair, loneliness, envy, or other negativities. I often say that Confession “sets my world aright.” It has the ability to fortify me, to give me energy, to help me see clearly, to remind me that I am not in the world alone and I am not helpless.
I know Confession is not the easiest thing in the world. But I can say that it’s always much worse in my imagination than it ever is in reality! That’s probably because the devil doesn’t want us to go. The devil doesn’t want us freed from his slavery. So, one simple thing you might do if you have trouble going to Confession is pray to St. Michael the Archangel and to your guardian angel–ask them to protect you from the devil’s torments and trickery and to clear your way to the confessional. There are also Saints who are special patrons of Confession, such as St. John Nepomucene and St. Gerard Majella.
So, assuming it is not impossible to be a good single Catholic… can it make you happy? The answer to this is very simple: Happiness is not an object; happiness is not an emotion; Happiness is a Person. A divine Person. Actually, three divine Persons. As long as we have those three divine Persons in our lives, we can be happy no matter what life is like and no matter what the devil or other people may try to do to us. Ultimately, the three recommendations above bring us closer to Him. And thus, they bring us to happiness. Now, I don’t particularly enjoy being single, because I feel called to marriage, and I desire that will all my heart. But my life is still happy because I keep bringing it back to God and making Him my focus! This is something I’ve learned entirely by experience. Therefore, I encourage everyone to experience it for themselves. It is not always easy, but it is very worth it. The happiness that comes from living out the Catholic faith is a happiness the world can never afford.