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confessionThis probably wasn’t what the editor’s of Alive Now had in mind when they chose “confession” as a prompt.

But I have to confess — if this is how you approach me, you probably aren’t going to get what you want.  I don’t respond well to hysteria, in part, because for generations this is how the women in my family got their way.  They could, as a group, go from calm to complete hysteria in moments.

Because of this, when someone tries to rant me into helping them out with something, they very seldom get the help they need.  It may very well be a legitimate request but as soon as I hear hyperbole and the emotional black mail begins . . . I’m sorry.  Are you still talking to me?  I quit listening.

Is it something I need to change about myself?  I’m not sure.  I’ll be taking it to God in prayer.


No rants involved.


Do you suffer from lightheadedness? Ringing in the ears? Do you sweat excessively? Do you have unexplained pain in your feet? How about difficulty concentrating? It’s enough to turn anyone into a hypochondriac.

I’m talking about a form I have to complete every time I see my doctor — that is, every six months. On it is an extensive list of symptoms; I circle the ones that seem to apply to me. As always, I struggle with honesty. Well, yes, my back does hurt. But does it hurt hurt? Do I want to open that can of worms, or should I just try not to sleep on my back so much?

It’s rather like examining the current state of one’s soul — as a person is wont to do during Lent. (Am I following through with my Lenten promises? How can I improve?) It also reminds me of the sacrament of Reconciliation. Before I can confess my sins, I have to make a list of them. And it seems like the same old sins keep appearing on this list, just as I continue to report the same health symptoms to my doctor. “Being short-tempered” is my “continuing asthma.” “Selfishness” is right up there with “osteoporosis.” I might as well bring a form into the confessional with me.

What happens when a symptom becomes a chronic health problem? Well, you fight it, of course, with a program of prescriptions and wellness techniques: exercise, healthy eating, etc. But what should you do when the chronic problem is a sin — the same one, time and again?

It is all very well and good to promise you won’t do it again — something I do, and have done for years. And every time I really mean it. And then, halfway home from church, some small annoyance starts my skin tingling, like a form of eczema, and I snap. Or judge someone’s appearance or actions. Or fall prey to depression. And suddenly, it’s déjà vu all over.

Maybe it’s time to look at underlying causes. Is that cough a cold or tuberculosis? Am I being selfish because I don’t feel loved enough or because I am greedy and childish? Do I lose my temper because others don’t live up to my expectations (and why should they?) or because there is something about my life that needs radical change? These are the questions I should be asking, investigating, and diagnosing.

What’s on your list? What symptoms keep popping up to plague your spiritual life? And what can you do about them to effect systemic change? Consider Lent your yearly check-up. And then get to work.

I got a funny response to one of my posts once. It was litany of reasons (tagged “an interesting read”) why Catholicism is wrong, wrong, completely wrong. I ignored it. Not because you can’t teach an old dog new tricks (I am neither terribly aged nor canine), but because Catholicism is ingrained in me. It is woven into my being like a fine silk thread. Once, someone asked me if I was “a cradle Catholic.” I responded that I had been born five weeks early — my mother had gone into labor during Mass on Christmas Day — and that I’d been born in a Catholic hospital and named after a priest. (Fr. Lawrence Smith, devotee of his namesake, St. Lawrence, and who himself is surely a saint now.) You don’t get more cradle-y than that.

One of complaints in the aforementioned litany concerned the sacrament of Reconciliation. Having just experienced the sacrament’s sweeping beauty just last night, I thought there no better time than the present to explicate it further. My detractor noted, “Only God can forgive sins.” Yes. Of course. A priest does so as a representative of God. Jesus himself told the apostles that whose sins they forgave in His name would be forgiven in heaven. Sweeping aside the notion that priests (as vowed disciples of Christ) are the successors to the apostles — I can’t sweep it aside, but maybe someone else can — there is more to the story than merely this.

All sin is public. You may think that diatribe you utter in the privacy of your own home has no ripple effect in the larger world, but you’d be wrong. All sin affects others because it causes you to be estranged from the Church; and, as we know, the Church is made up of the people of God. What I do wrong hurts you. It changes the air between us. It warps all of my relationships on a molecular level. The priest, as the representative of the Church, extends mercy to me on behalf of those I’ve wounded. I can’t apologize to all of you, but I can apologize to the person who shepherds our local flock.

True, priests are not perfect. There are a few bad apples, just as there are bad doctors, bad politicians and bad truck drivers. This imperfection — and I promise you, most of the men I’ve known as priests strive hard to avoid imperfection — does not make a priest incapable of being the conduit of forgiveness. If a baby were dying before my eyes, I could baptize it — and I’m not even a priest. Sinner that I am, God can still use me to do God’s work.

We used to call this sacrament “Confession.” The Church updated its language more than 30 years ago to reflect the fact that it is so much more. The sacrament is greater than just a personal unburdening of sin. It is a celebration of mutual healing: I am healed, and the community I’ve wounded is healed as well. What a lovely two-way street it is!

Reconciliation is a beautiful thing, especially at this time of year. Advent calls us to walk together to that place where we behold the Son of God in all His humanity, in all His glory. I can’t walk with you if we are estranged from one another. Even if you think Catholicism is wrong, wrong, completely wrong, you must admit: Anything that brings us together must be a good thing.

Remember that scene in “A Christmas Story” when Ralphie looks out the window on Christmas morning? He’s greeted with a snow-cloaked, icicled fairyland. Indiana winter has transformed his oft-seen backyard into something new and magical. That’s what it looks like outside my window right now. I wouldn’t recommend going out in it, but there it is. The streets, where you can see them, are empty, silent. We have retreated to our 21st century igloos, there to sip soup and watch our day planners empty courtesy of snow day cancellations.

There’s something so beautiful, so pristine about new-fallen snow. It makes me wish my soul looked that way — peaceful, pure, undisturbed by my moral journey. Wishing won’t make it so, however. Just as the snow will eventually become trampled, muddy, slushy, plowed into dirty piles and shoveled into ugly lumps, so do our souls wear ever thinner with use. There’s no way around it. Just as there’s no way to preserve the pristine snow other than staying indoors, looking but not touching, there is no way to preserve the innocence of our souls other than by not engaging in life at all. You go out of the house and into the world, you’re gonna get grimy. It’s the human condition.

Which brings us to the much-beloved sacrament of Reconciliation. Some call it Penance or Confession. Same rose, different name. I confess; I love this sacrament. There is nothing so fortifying, so soothing to heart and soul than forgiveness. To be forgiven of one’s sins may not restore one’s soul to a newborn’s tabula rasa, but it does, absolutely, make everything better. When Pope (the poet, not the pontiff) said, “to err is human, to forgive divine,” he wasn’t kidding. That washed-clean feeling is as near to heaven as I’ve ever felt on Earth.

Unfortunately, our church’s Lenten Penance Service was cancelled due to the current Snowpocalypse. I miss it. I miss that feeling of coming clean, of becoming, for a moment, like new snow. I can hardly wait for it to be rescheduled. My well-trammeled soul will be renewed. I expect a new car scent to waft off me like cologne.

Do me a favor: Forgive someone today. Maybe it will be that snarky girl in high school who made fun of your figure. Maybe it will be a more recent hurt — a snub from a friend or a rude driver. Just do it. They may never know it, but you will have given them the greatest gift that you can give. And if I’ve ever wronged you, please forgive me. Today, envying the snow, I need it.


Have a Mary Little Christmas

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