Clarity and Confession: Reflections on Penance

You can’t pick a favorite sacrament. You just can’t. Each has its own beauty and wonder and draw. But there is something uniquely moving about Penance.

That’s not something I pictured myself saying back when I was preparing for my first confession. Or in the almost-decade I spent avoiding another one. Or even the first few times I returned to the confessional after that. But it’s a sentiment that’s dawned on me over the last couple of years.

I bet nearly all of us cradle Catholics have vivid memories of anxiety and embarrassment leading up to our first reconciliation. What adolescent, after all, looks forward to announcing their sins to another person—let alone a priest? There’s so much pressure to deny what is “bad” about us at that age, when we want so badly to be liked and loved and trusted.

And for adult converts, faith formation is a process of incredibly personal self-discovery. It isn’t easy to lay bare the ways we fall short to another person.

So it’s no surprise that I have come across some misunderstandings of the purpose of this sacrament, from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. To be clear:

  • Confession is not an opportunity to impose guilt.
  • Confession is not a mechanism by which the Church holds control over your relationship with God.
  • Confession is not a conspiracy to dig up dirt in order to keep you “on the hook.”
  • Confession is not an exercise in self-defense, in which we try and shore up our value despite our sins.
  • Confession is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, given to or by someone merely for intoning formulaic words like a magic spell.

“The Human Heart is Heavy and Hardened”

Make no mistake: Sin is a heavy burden. We are obliged to live in accordance with what is morally good not for the sake of following rules, but because it is in our nature to want and to be what is morally good.

This is why our conscience speaks loudly when our courage fails to do so. It’s why we like to say that an act of kindness “restores our faith in humanity.” It’s why giving feels good. It’s why love is the pinnacle of human connection.

Catholic or not, most of us believe that someone who is kind and genuinely devoted to doing the right thing is a healthy and well-ordered person.

When we don’t live according to this inclination toward goodness, it weighs on us. We feel depressed. We feel ashamed. We feel lost, or helpless, or unworthy. And that feeling spirals, doesn’t it?

It is painfully easy to look back at the laundry list of things we’ve done wrong and think, “Well, too late now.” We build bad habits and “fall off the wagon” again and again, and eventually, it seems like the only path forward is one big, ugly circle back to where we started. There is temptation, maybe subconscious: “What’s the point in trying to do better? I fail every time anyway.”

Sometimes, we choose to cope with this via mental gymnastics that attempt to resolve cognitive dissonance by convincing us (and others) that our vices aren’t so bad after all. But, when our conscience is well-formed, this self-indulgence rarely keeps us happy for long.

And then there are the burdens that settle on our hearts through no fault of our own. Burdens that weigh heavy on us, interrupting our spiritual practices and our perspectives on ourselves, the world, or God Himself.

In 2020, as a multitude of global and social crises overwhelm us with sorrow and frustration, we know how tumultuous simply living in this world can be. It is backbreaking work, and none of us can do it alone. Deep in our stormy thoughts, it is so difficult not to simply lean into that despair and lose sight of what is still good and true all around us.

“God Must Give Man a New Heart”

How can any of us hold up the weight of the world alone—especially while dragging our own hopelessness along, too, like boulders fettered to our ankles?

The answer is, of course, that we can’t. We’re never meant to carry the whole world alone. But we are woefully incapable of lifting even our own little share in it effectively when we are restricted by sin and the suffering that plagues us when we turn away from the Lord and his boundless love.

If you have a toddler, you know what it’s like to watch someone attempt the same task in the exact wrong way, over and over, while not just refusing your help, but completely snubbing your suggestions for how to get themselves sorted. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gently explained to my son that the easiest way to remove a shoe is to push it down his heel first, only to watch him fruitlessly tug on his toes whilst screeching his frustration right back at me.

Think how God must feel when we refuse His guidiance.

As Catholics, the sacrament of confession is our opportunity to turn our ears toward God. He wipes our slate clean, yes—and it’s a delightful relief every time that gift is given—but He also speaks to us in and around the confessional. Through the priest who ministers to us, or the quiet moments of prayerful penance afterward, or the newly opened curtains that let His light shine on rooms in our hearts that had been darkened by sin—He speaks to us.

The grace bestowed through Penance is one that restores our hearts to what they were designed to be. We become white as snow, receptive as Mary was in the moment of her Fiat, unwavering as John the Baptist as he taught bystanders that he must decrease as the Son of God must increase.

Sisters and brothers, I beg you: As soon as you are able, flee to the Lord in this generous sacrament. I promise you won’t be sorry.

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