Published March 25, 2004
I am sitting on a little bench outside the confessional, holding a slip of paper upon which I have jotted down some of the sins that plague me. As I wait my turn, I feel the old anxiety stalking me.
Like many Catholics of my generation, I grew up detesting the prospect of going to confession with every fiber of my being. After all, confession had all the earmarks of stuff that made kids cringe.
Most kids have a natural instinct to hide their wrongdoings (known as the “It wasn’t me; it was my little brother” syndrome) because they dread the punishment that usually follows the admission of guilt.
Going to confession also required talking in complete sentences to an adult, a priest no less, a person who caused great awe in children. Generally, I was shy about conversing with adults (“So what have you been up to at school, dear?” my aunt would ask. “Oh, nothing,” was my sage reply.) and the fact that confession required a sustained conversation made me dread it all the more.
Then there was the anxiety of waiting in line before the confessional. You stood there with your heart pounding, nervously going over the laundry list in your mind. You weren’t sure what would happen if you forgot a sin; would that negate the whole confession?
Oh, wait, then you remembered the prayer you say at the end: “For these and all the sins of my life, I am sorry” and you felt a little relief.
But would I remember the words to the Act of Contrition? That was a very long prayer for a little kid in the days before anyone offered a “cheat sheet.” Besides, I wasn’t exactly sure what all the words meant, but when I got to the “loss of heaven and pains of hell,” my blood ran cold.
Getting the numbers straight irked me. I went to confession every Saturday with the same sins, including disobeying my parents and fighting with my sister. Still, I couldn’t remember how often I sinned, so somewhere along the line, I invented the ingenious idea of tagging all wrongdoings with “100 times,” figuring this number covered all the bases.
To their credit, no priest ever chuckled when they heard a very small and trembling voice admitting: “I fought with my sister 100 times. I disobeyed my parents 100 times.”
In my teen years, confession became even more agonizing. Frankly, it was embarrassing to tell a handsome priest that I sometimes had, shudder, blush, scandalous thoughts.
Now that I’m older, I realize we are not responsible for the thoughts and images that swoop into our minds—although we are responsible for actively entertaining and dwelling on them—but in my younger years, I was overly scrupulous and held myself responsible for whatever popped into my mind.
My thoughts return to the present moment now, as it is my turn to scurry into the confessional. I avoid the kneeler with the privacy screen because it reminds too much of childhood days when I whispered my sins in darkness and instead take a chair directly across from the priest.
At first my voice trembles and I feel that perhaps I will burst into tears from pure nervousness, but then, as the words start pouring out of my mouth, I start to relax—and I suddenly am amazed at how easy this really is.
The priest is not chastising or chiding me. He doesn’t seem shocked or angry. He doesn’t mention punishment and hellfire and damnation but instead reminds me of God’s love and mercy.
Despite all my anxieties over the years, I have to say that no priest has ever responded with the words I have dreaded most, words that I suspect may prevent others from setting even a toe inside the confessional.
In my worst dreams, the priest rises up and shouts, “Get out of here, you sinner! I can’t forgive THOSE sins!” Isn’t that the response we all fear?
Tears of relief sting my eyes as the priest reminds me that it is better to let go of the past than to fret over it. He also assures me that God wants us to feel hopeful about the future instead of worrying about what might happen.
Soon I am saying the golden words, “For these and all the sins of my life, I am sorry.” As I bow my head for absolution, I feel like a kid on a morning when you look out the window and the whole world is blanketed with snow, and you get to be the first one to play in it.
I am almost giddy with relief because I have been given a clean slate, a new start and a chance to make amends. Most importantly, my examination of conscience helped me see some of the things that are holding me back from really embracing Christ.
Lying is wrong, and it is better to take the chance of angering a friend than continue my habit of polite deception. I also see that my tendency to mentally chew over the past and blame myself endlessly for old mistakes is evidence of Satan’s handiwork, not God’s.
It’s hard to remember that every time we receive a sacrament, whether it is confession or holy Communion or the sacrament of healing, we brush shoulders with God, open our hearts to grace and put ourselves in touch with his endlessly merciful love.
As I walk away from church today, praying for the grace to banish, once and for all, my old fears about confession, another phrase from the Act of Contrition flutters through my mind, namely that God is “all good and deserving of all my love.”
Confession allows us to clear away the stuff littering our souls. Most importantly, it gives us a way to show how much we love Him.
A parishioner at St. Thomas More Church, Decatur, Lorraine Murray writes a column called “Grace Notes” every other Saturday for the Faith and Values section of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She is the author of “Grace Notes” (Catholic Book Publishing/Resurrection Press) and “Why Me? Why Now?” (Ave Maria Press). You may e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.