Tuesday, June 7, 2016

When confession feels too comfortable & other surprises

The “dry run” for confession during RCIA was not without its surprises. Waiting in the pew with the “how to” confession guide, I was incredibly nervous even though we weren’t actually confessing. Knowing that my first confession was looming was enough. Had anyone ever been ejected from a confessional before?

The light at the top of the door turned green, and there I was—walking through the door of a confessional for the first time in my life. Scenes from movies and books were all I had to go on, but I had clear expectations of what the confessional would look like. Instead, I saw a kneeler beneath a frosted glass partition (think shower door) under bright fluorescent lights, and a narrow walkway to the left. “Come on back,” said the confessor, and I thought, “Excuse me?”

On the other side of the partition there were two chairs around a wooden table with fake flowers and a box of Kleenex on it. It looked exactly like a therapist
s office. My nerves settled immediately. I had to remind myself this was supposed to be confession. Instead, I felt like I should be asking if they would bill my insurance.

Heres why I dont like it.

Im there to confess my sins, and the priest is there, standing in for God. Sitting down to chat with a priest like were talking over coffee doesnt provide the proper gravitas. It feels more like Im betraying my husband to tell another man about my failures, while he holds out a box of tissue so I can dry my tears.

Confession should be different—the only place where I am kneeling, head bowed, giving voice to my public and private sins. Speaking to a priest in the same manner that I would to my husband, my brother, or my landlord makes him seem more like “just a man.” Yet the priest is not a mere confidant but miraculously connected to Christ himself, who over 2,000 years ago “breathed on them; and said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (Jn 20:22-23).

The mystical nature of confession is lost under those fluorescent lights, with the Office Max chairs and fake roses. And so is our anonymity, which is a privilege in our culture. To not say, “This is me. These are my sins.” We have twitter, facebook, snapchat, blogs—a million ways to express ourselves. We need not be the star of this show: this is about humility. Its about the sacrament, the penance, the absolution.

Another surprise about confession—and a pleasant one—is that its not uncomfortable confessing to a male priest. The priest will never experience my struggles as a wife and mother. He isnt thinking, “Why do women do that? My wife is the exact same way.” Instead, hes speaking for God, and judging according to His standard. I dont need to hear, “You lost your patience with the kids but toddlers are hard, and you have a new baby. I think you handled it really well.” Thats what I get from my female friends—its not what I need from my confessor. 

Converts will tell you that theyve never felt so heavy as they did preparing for their first confession, or so light when it was over. And thats true. I was nervous for weeks, thinking over my life. Before your first confession youre trying to remember all the stupid, sinful things you did, instead of trying to forget them. You sit down with a notebook and think, “What other hurtful things have I done?” and try to uncover all those gems. As St. John of the Cross wrote, “Strive always to confess your sins with a deep knowledge of your own wretchedness and with clarity and purity.”

I was terrified going to my first confession. There was plenty of wretchedness, and I was probably forgetting some of it. By this time I was at a different parish, so I wasnt sure what to expect on the other side of the door. The line was long, and I had plenty of time to appreciate that I was going to speak, aloud, all the sins of my life—to a priest, of all people.

But the most amazing thing happened in that confessional. It was everything I had imagined—small, dimly lit, an icon and a crucifix on the wall, a latticework partition separating priest and penitent. And there I knelt, with my list of sins and a rosary in my pocket. After confessing, in a wavering voice, all the sins of my life, the priest told me to be grateful. He didnt assign 4,356 Hail Marys. He didnt tell me I wasnt worthy to be Catholic. He told me to thank God for bringing me to this place, where I was afforded the mercy of confessing my sins, receiving absolution, and being received into His Church.

It touched me in a way no other penance could have.

And then I spoke my first act of contrition, made the sign of the cross, rose to my feet, and exited the confessional into a church illuminated by stained glass windows. There I knelt, facing the altar, gazing up at the crucifix—I had truly moved from dimness to light, from kneeling in humility to kneeling in gratitude, from the smallness of the confessional to the vastness of Gods forgiveness. And I am still grateful with every subsequent confession, to kneel before God and the priest, confess my sins, and receive absolution in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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Picture Source: Fondazione Cariplo [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons