It can almost go without saying that the Sacrament of Confession is quite possibly one of the most uncomfortable experiences a Catholic will ever undergo in his or her lifetime. Perhaps this is why it can often be so easy to rationalize oneself out of going: “Well, this month wasn’t that bad…” “I really just don’t want to waste Fr. so-and-so’s time…” “I would go to Confession today but I just really need some Taco Bell right now.”
And I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one who is guilty of basing the decision of whether or not to attend the sacrament on the priest I see in the confessional as I walk by: “Fr. Jim is just a little too tough on people…” “Well I was going to go today but I really don’t want Fr. Dan to look at me differently after.” “My family’s really close to Fr. Steve… what if he tells my mom?”
If you find yourself putting off going to Confession or at the very least waiting in line with what feels like a boulder in the pit of your stomach, you’re not alone. As difficult enough as it is to look at one’s own darkness, it is twice as unpleasant to ask another person (whether a stranger or a friend) to do so with you. Reconciliation is, by nature, an uncomfortable experience.
I think there are two primary reasons that the sacrament of Reconciliation is immensely undervalued in today’s world. The first is the discomfort one experiences in it (described above). The second is our not quite knowing how to grasp and appreciate what exactly is extended to us through the sacrament. But what exactly is offered to us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation? There are many ways to talk about Confession, and there is not much new that I can add here. But what I’d like to draw attention to is that after one is forgiven through Confession, “a new being is there to see”: “for anyone who is in Christ, there is a new creation: the old order is gone. (2 Cor. 5:17)” (cf. Jean Corbon, The Wellspring of Worship: 107)
Each of the sacraments in some way renders “a new being,” doing away with the “old order.” But there is something quite unique about Confession, in that each time a Catholic approaches the sacrament, he or she is extended an invitation to be re-made in God’s own image, to shed the burden of sin and to become, as it were, a new being. Such an invitation is radically merciful, deeply personal and wholly undeserving. If the Sacrament of Reconciliation is uncomfortable, perhaps it is in part because we are handed mercy when deep down we know we deserve justice.
And what is more, consider that this mysterious gift is extended to us in a uniquely personal way, in that it allows for no other witnesses but the person seeking forgiveness, and the minister of this forgiveness. Baptism, the Eucharist, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, Anointing of the Sick: each are typically celebrated with others present. But the mercy extended in Reconciliation is communicated privately, as though in a whisper. Each time a Catholic goes to Confession a hidden miracle occurs: in hushed voices and in dim corners our Creator removes the faults and sins that stain our lives and re-creates us in His own image. There is no ‘big bang’ here. He quietly and routinely reaches into the darkness and whispers “Let there be Light.” Or as G.K. Chesterton writes:
“[W]hen a Catholic comes from Confession, he does truly, by definition, step out again into that dawn of his own beginning and look with new eyes across the world…. He believes that in that dim corner, and in that brief ritual, God has really remade him in His own image. He is now a new experiment of the Creator. He is as much a new experiment as he was when he was really only five years old. He stands, as I said, in the white light at the worthy beginning of the life of a man. The accumulations of time can no longer terrify. He may be grey and gouty; but he is only five minutes old.” (Autobiography, 229–30)
The creation of the universe may have been an event unwitnessed by human eyes, but each time we step foot in the confessional we are personally invited to contemplate and witness the re-creation of our own souls. Why do we try so hard to discover the former but never stop to consider the unfathomable magnitude of the latter?
I often wonder if the difficulty with Confession is that we are not quite sure what to do with such a radical, personal, and undeserved gift of mercy (a topic which I will explore in greater depth in my next post).
Confession may be uncomfortable and often painful, but let us not allow this to deter us from encountering Divine Mercy. Let us hasten toward our Creator, trusting that in that “dim corner” and “brief ritual,” we will really be “re-made in His own image.”