To confess deeply, from the heart, is a very humbling experience. Perhaps that is why we do it so seldom.
Or maybe it’s only me.
There have been times in my life when I have avoided confession altogether, making up excuses why I didn’t need to do it (yet).
“I haven’t done anything all that bad.”
Or its opposite:
“I cannot bear the thought of telling the priest that. God forgives me whether I go to confession or not; it’s not worth having anxiety attacks over.”
Besides the fact that I don’t enjoy being humbled (it is too similar to being humiliated), there are other obstacles to the heartfelt confession.
Sometimes I long for a confession that will rip open my soul and expose everything – that all of the shame and dread and ugliness of my sinfulness might be healed.
It is not just that I am afraid to confess in this way (although, of course, I am). It is more that I often find it nearly impossible to match the timing of my awareness with the opportunity to confess it.
One time several years ago, before I had a regular confessor, I experienced such a moment of awareness and knew it would be at least several days before I would be able to go to confession. And it was clear that I would be confessing to someone whom I didn’t know and who didn’t know me.
I decided to write it down, to say to God in writing what I wanted to say at the very moment in which the anguish was real and alive.
Later, I was glad I had done this. I believe it was during Lent because I had to wait in a long line before it was my turn. Such a relief. No planning or rehearsing. No effort to muster and maintain an appropriate level of compunction throughout the long wait.
It was all right there. I had my confession in my pocket.
When it was my turn, I briefly introduced myself to the priest. Pulling out my letter to God, I explained that I would like to read it, my confession.
The priest seemed a bit surprised but permitted it. Whew. Although I do not recall any of the particulars of what happened next, I know that it was good.
It was absolution, a true mercy descending into my heart where once anguish had prevailed.
It is hard to predict when those moments of awareness will occur – the moments in which God allows me to see how much I can drift away from Him in a mere 24 hours.
Sometimes these moments occur when there is an unanticipated crossroads between hope and despair.
It may seem as though everything is fine, perhaps even better than fine. I have positive hopes and the sun is shining in my soul as I pray.
A few hours later, I see it. I see all of the time I’ve wasted, how selfish I’ve been, how what I thought was a glorious moment was indulgence in pride.
No wonder it felt so good. It was sin.
In moments such as these, there is a temptation to hopelessness. How could I have gone so wrong? The wretchedness takes over my thoughts and I realize that I am lost in darkness, emotionally and spiritually.
Not only am I lost but, I now know, I am powerless to find my way back to the light.
Perhaps there is no way back. Perhaps there is no light to return to. Perhaps my notions of God and love and salvation are one massive delusion. Perhaps there is no hope.
Is it even worth crying out into the darkness?
Yet the only alternative is utter despair.
And so I cry out, from the deepest part of my heart, “I need You!” Tears flow and I rock myself, praying that grace will come.
“Finally,” God sighs from the heavens, “finally she has let go of trying to control her life. Now she is ready to meet Me.”
With open arms, He embraces me in forgiveness and healing. A sacramental moment.
But the Sacrament of the Church is even more than this, if that be possible.
Though humbled and healed, my repentance is far from finished. Jesus held out his hand and rescued me, as He did Simon Peter when he lost faith while walking on water, but the work of forgiveness has just begun.
When I am alone and afflicted, He will not abandon me.
Yet He has also made it clear that His forgiveness of me is not just a personal gift.
It is more like a seed He has planted deep in my heart.
I need to water it, nourish it, cultivate it until it has taken root and become part of me.
This seed He has planted is His mercy, struggling to mature in me that it might bear the fruit called forgiveness.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
I have said these words more times than I could possibly count. But do I really understand what they mean?
Some have said that it means that God will not forgive me if I do not forgive others.
That, however, does not sound quite right to me. It would seem to imply that God’s mercy has restrictions on it – that it will not to be given to those who fail to show mercy.
This might sound “just” if we assume a legalistic perspective on salvation. Why should you be forgiven if you won’t forgive others?
And didn’t Jesus suggest this in His parable of the unforgiving servant who punished the one who owed him a fraction of what his master had just forgiven him? And does not the story end with the master punishing his wicked servant? (Matthew 18: 21-35)
Although it may sound as though Christ is demanding that I forgive, in actuality, He is explaining to me what forgiveness means and inviting me into the heart of it.
In His parable, Jesus is telling me that if I cry out for mercy merely to relieve my personal suffering and do not allow myself to be transformed by it, I will continue to be subject to the eternal death.
Why is this?
Let us go back to the seed planted in me when He forgives me. If this seed of His love falls on fertile soil, in my absolution, His mercy takes over my heart and grows there.
(The “fertile soil”, of course, is humility, my sins and shame broken down, sacramentally “composted” into a spiritual humus.)
He does not and never will withhold His mercy. Yet if I fail to cultivate the seed of His mercy in me, it will die.
And alone, I will die with it.
In the prayer He gave us, Christ our Savior explained to us what true forgiveness means. Being forgiven and being forgiving are inseparable if we are to truly participate in the divine Life.
If I receive God’s forgiveness yet do not allow it to be given through me, can I say that I have accepted His mercy into my heart, that I have been transformed by it? Or might I just be carrying out a ritual duty to relieve myself of guilt?
Should I desire only the latter, I may just as well put my sins on the head of a goat and release it into the wilderness. I will have symbolically discharged my guilt but I will not have participated in the divine Life.
If I forgive others but do not allow God to forgive me, my forgiveness is suspect. At best, it is a noble human effort devoid of true holiness. At worst, it is a sin of pride in which I resist being humbled, imagining that I can do without God what God alone can do through me.
On the other hand, when His mercy does take root in my humbled heart, I cannot help but become a forgiving person.
Even when I feel unable to forgive, when I am too blinded by my hurt or pain, Christ-living-in-me is at work if I have allowed His mercy to take over my heart. What I don’t know how to forgive, He forgives from within me.
Surely He knows my weakness. Surely He knows that, apart from Him, there are some things (perhaps many things) that I am incapable of forgiving. But this is the point of sacramental forgiveness – to transform me from a place of death into Life.
It is in this Life that I become like Him, not of my own accord, but because of His great love.
People outside the Church (and some inside) question why this transformation requires confession to a priest. This aspect of the Church’s sacrament is solidly based in Scripture:
Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful. (James 5: 13-16)
It would be far more comfortable to privately tell God of my sins than to acknowledge them before another. But this “comfort” would allow me to believe that my sinfulness (and thus my forgiveness) has nothing to do with anyone but me.
It would not humble me nor would it draw me into the transformation that makes my heart merciful.
In order for the seed He plants to grow within me, I, like a gardener preparing the soil, must dig deep beneath the surface, past the rocky soil and thorns (Matthew 13: 3-7). Only in this way do I reach the fertile soil of my humility. It is hard work and seldom comfortable.
Yet fail to do it and His mercy will not take root within me.
The digging means that I must admit before others that I am a sinner, no better than anyone else and quite possibly worse. The truth of this becomes much more real when said aloud and alone, without a congregation to hide behind.
Once accepting the reality of my sinfulness, when a brother or sister sins against me, I am unable to condemn them for I cannot help but be in sympathy with their dilemma.
For their dilemma is my dilemma. Their sin is my sin.
When I see someone sick with the same disease from which I have been delivered, how can I not share the antidote with them?
When I see someone under attack by my enemy, how can I not rush to their aid, knowing that someone first rescued me from his grip?
I cannot accept mercy, truly accept it, without becoming merciful.
I cannot become truly merciful without Christ forgiving from within me, teaching and transforming my heart through every obstacle.
May I dig deep – may we all dig deep.
Ultimately, what we find will be joy…