A convert faces the confessional

July 6, 2015

From the Pews

Penitents wait in line to receive the sacrament of reconciliation at Sts. Philip and James Church in St. James, N.Y., March 25, 2013. Sts. Philip and James and all other parishes in the Dioceses of Rockville Centre, N.Y, and Brooklyn, N.Y., and the Archdiocese of New York participate annually in Reconciliation Monday, which falls during Holy Week and offers the opportunity for confession from midafternoon into the evening. CNS

Penitents wait in line to receive the sacrament of reconciliation at Sts. Philip and James Church in St. James, N.Y., March 25, 2013. Sts. Philip and James and all other parishes in the Dioceses of Rockville Centre, N.Y, and Brooklyn, N.Y., and the Archdiocese of New York participate annually in Reconciliation Monday, which falls during Holy Week and offers the opportunity for confession from midafternoon into the evening. CNS

Most converts shrink from the idea of confessing their sins to a priest. Most Catholics, too, I suspect. Who doesn’t shrink from the confessional? A French philosopher once said it would do us all good to go about proclaiming our vices and weaknesses in the same loud voice we use to brag about our accomplishments and our virtues.

Well, here was my opportunity.

I was an odd convert. It was for confession that I had become a Catholic, among other attractions. I knew that the Protestant way was too easy. For me, at least, it was too easy to imagine a God who was not watching me too closely when I sinned or listening too closely when I asked for forgiveness. So, I had the double disadvantage of taking my sins more lightly than I should and not ever being quite sure I had been forgiven.

I was drawn to the idea of confession ever since I read the autobiography of the great psychologist Carl Jung, in which he admits that all he really did for people was to listen to them tell their story. When I thought about that, I realized that we have all experienced the power of someone else’s presence. Think of the times you were quietly depressed, all by yourself, and maybe not even really aware of how sad you were feeling until someone came over to you and asked you how you were doing, and you burst into tears. The presence of a sympathetic human being brings emotions to the surface, and in telling our story our inarticulate, half-understood thoughts and feelings become understandable to us because we are forced to utter them in words.

I knew that Jung was right and that the Catholic practice of confession must be keeping a lot of Catholics off psychiatrists’ couches. The Catholic way offered the sinner accountability, a palpable rite of forgiveness and the healing that comes of utterance.

When the time came for my first confession, I who had longed for the confessional found myself balking in terror. It wasn’t easy, at the age of 60, even to face a lifetime of one’s sins, let alone telling them aloud to a priest. With furious embarrassment I imagined holding up everyone else in line while I took forever to unburden myself, then emerging from the confessional, all eyes on this big sinner who took more than her share of time.

So it was with great relief that I learned I could make an appointment to see a priest in his office. I was more than willing to abandon my romantic image of myself as a mantilla-shrouded penitent kneeling in the cool anonymity of the confessional at dusk. The thought of that anonymity had been comforting, but in my mind, it hadn’t ever been sufficient. Disguise my voice? Go to a different parish to confess, where I am unknown? Best just to face the priest, look him in the eye, and face the humbling reality of my sinful nature.

So I found myself one afternoon sitting before a priest, Kleenex in hand, sobbing my way through my misspent life, while a pair of quiet, gentle, nonjudgmental eyes gazed at me in sympathy.

All of it? Am I truly forgiven for all of it?

There was someone in the room with me to say, yes — all of it. It’s God’s free gift. And, by the way, here’s your penance.

Penance! I had forgotten about that. And I learned about making amends, which would show God and my fellow creatures that I meant business, that I believed however falteringly in the possibility of Christ’s command to “go, and sin no more.”

It wasn’t long before I understood that for continuity I needed a single confessor. I needed someone who would come to know me, know my persistent failures, help me with my struggles, cluck sympathetically, “Yes, that again.” But most importantly, I confess (it becomes a habit), I couldn’t imagine broadcasting my sins among all of our priests. The idea of every resident priest knowing a portion of my depravity was more than I could bear. How this thought exposed and embarrassed my vanity!

I chose a confessor and came to meet with him for reconciliation every month or two. After the first few euphoric visits I began to feel discouraged. I heard myself confessing the same old sins over and over. What was the matter with me? Wasn’t I serious about reforming?

My confessor counseled patience and self-forgiveness. I thought he was being too easy on me. That was the whole thing about this Catholic God. He was too loving! He was a pushover for a penitent tear or two. But over the months, in wrestling with my resurgent demons, I gained insight. The battle lines were mostly drawn, and I was forced to recognize the true power of the old, ingrained habits I was struggling against. I took the measure of my enemy and it soon became apparent I needed to fight harder, and smarter.

It was also discouraging to discover I was more sinful than I thought. In preparation for reconciliation, I used various guides to the examination of conscience, and I discovered the looming reality of sins of omission. Here was a bottomless pit of potential sin. How ever could I do all the things love and conscience told me to do?

Yet, in a small way I began to do some of the things I was now aware I had been neglecting. Sometimes, truly, seeing is doing, and struggle is subverted. I learned that freedom from sin is not just a matter of avoiding doing wrong. It is also filling our lives with right actions.

There have been great benefits to my regular appointments with my dark side. Confession is the mark of my commitment to fearless self-searching, to conscious effort to become the person I want to be and to seeking spiritual guidance in this process of self-transformation.

And it works.

As in any struggle to change, it’s easy to feel I’m not getting anywhere until one day I notice that the view from my window is different, and it’s because I’m standing in a new place.

Each time I go to reconciliation, I am reminded that I have God’s unfailing forgiveness and support, the Church’s unfailing support, and the support of one wonderful holy person whose eyes are love. Once I even blurted out in the midst of my confession, “I can’t believe there’s a person whose job it is to do this — that alone is enough to make me believe in God!”

I have become more forgiving of myself because of confession. After all, I have a priest commanding me in the name of God to forgive myself! This is a sacrament of repeated forgiveness, of palpable, embodied forgiveness. I find myself again and again in the presence of this God who is just love, and whose love is truly unconditional. It makes me want to ease up on myself — and others, too.

I am returned again and again to my community. I am reminded that I am not alone in my troubles, and that my sins do not harm me alone, that reparations are in order, that I am important to the community and my good works are needed. I leave with a lightness of spirit, a feeling of having been released, filled with hope for the future and a sense of my place in the great and interconnected human brotherhood. (I also feel this way when I leave the dentist.)

I’m not much better at resisting sin, but temptation seems to come around less often, probably because I’m much better at throwing myself into the path of grace. As a convert, I am dazzled by the profusion of channels of grace in the Catholic Church. Channels and rivulets and cascades and waterfalls of grace! Of these, reconciliation is a wide river I drink from, an anchor point, a regular return to God embedded in my routine life, and it is one of the greatest gifts of the Catholic tradition. It is God inviting me to turn back toward him again and again, over and over, until one day I never turn my face away at all.

A few centuries again, when every self-respecting Protestant middle-class family had servants, it was well known among these families that if you wanted an honest, hard-working servant, you hired a Catholic.

And people knew why, too: Catholics had to face the confessional.

Virginia Chase Sanderson is a retired college instructor of literature and writing who lives in Minneapolis. The essay is based on a talk she gave at St. Stephen in Anoka.

 

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