I have a confession to make. It is that when I was young I feared going to confession. Nervousness would creep in all over me. The fear was great. The anxiety was paralyzing.
It was almost impossible to mentally review my transgressions before I entered the confessional box. The box was always so dimly lit. The darkness of the box added to the ordeal. I felt very much alone as I knelt in fear and trembling. Then panic would almost stop my heart when the small confessional box window slid open. The window usually opened with a loud bang. Then I would hear a stern voice say, “Tell me your sins.”
This method of doing private confession had its origin in the fifth century in Ireland. It gradually became universal in the Catholic Church. There were no introductions. There was no mood setting. There was no warm confessional space. There was no soft lighting. There was no background music. It was simply “Tell me your sins.”
Today, it is much different. There is more welcome. There is more heart. There is more compassion. There is more understanding. There is even the option of going face to face. And there is always the ever present and infinite and overflowing mercy of God. And His mercy enables us to be more self-caring and less self-critical.
Today, we have a built in opportunity for some easing into this healing encounter with God. There are Scripture readings. There is an invitation to bring your spiritual and your mental states. You share intimately. You listen empathically. You are direct and authentic. You tell your story with its high points and low points; with its grace and with its sins.
When I go to confession now, I look at every area of my life. I observe the ebb and flow of my life. In fact, if I do not go to confession with some regularity, I miss the spiritual fruits that come with this confessional ritual. I miss the possibility of some internal changes that can help me to be more in tune with the heart of God.
Going to confession brings me a good feeling of my own basic goodness. Invariably, that is one of the spiritual fruits that come with the sacrament of reconciliation. There is the inner peace and inner equanimity that comes from self- and soul-care. There is the equanimity that comes from self- and soul-compassion. It can become the master key to good spiritual and psychological health.
Going to confession brings a renewed awareness of the presence and activity in my life of a kind and compassionate God. It is a time to soak up the infinite mercy of God. “The confessional is not a torture chamber but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better” (Pope Francis, 2013 Jesuit interview).
Then, as I finish saying my prayers of penance or doing whatever penance was given to me, there is that sense of oneness and closeness to that indwelling we call God. In a sense, I feel purer and I feel closer to a state of grace. I feel unburdened. I feel guilt-free. I feel shame-free. I feel more worthy of happiness.
Of course, it is existential guilt, along with the grace of God that brings me to confession. And existential guilt as distinct from neurotic guilt is a kind of internal barometer. Existential guilt is a good guilt. Along with God’s grace, it is what brings me to confession and reduces the possibility that I will make the same mistakes again.
So, clearly, existential guilt has its usefulness. It motivates me to get to confession. It can serve to rein in any selfish and self-centered behavior. Further, the experience of going to confession can serve the purpose of purging the residual existential guilt that got me to go to confession.
Going to confession with regularity can be very healing. It can unburden my heart. It is so uplifting to hear “Your sins are forgiven.” These are very powerful and potent words for anyone. It can be especially welcoming for anyone brought up in a Catholic environment where regular confession was the practice.
In view of all the spiritual and emotional benefits of “going to confession,” this ritual is quite understandable. It is quite clear to me and not surprising that humans across various traditions and cultures have rituals for going to confession.
Down through the centuries humans have had rituals to clear their consciences. They have formats to clear their consciences. Going to confession is a purification and healing ritual for many people. It is an unburdening ritual for human failings and for negative behaviors. It cancels our sins.
Weightwatchers and Addicts
Weightwatchers go to confession all the time. Every week they disclose their dietary indiscretions. They confess to each other. Alcoholics go to their meetings. They confess to their sponsors. They risk the truth about their recidivism and their temptations. They confess their sins.
Drug addicts and love addicts confess to their sponsors. They tell their failings. They tell their faults and flaws. They wait for guidance. They wait for direction. They resolve to do better. They are strengthened in their resolve.
Emotionally distressed patients confess to their psychiatrists or psychologists. They will do it every week. They confess their struggles and their distress. They unburden and unload their emotional pain and hurt. They want to navigate the day-to-day challenges. They want to restore stability to their lives.
Couples will see a marital therapist. They confess their conflicts. They reveal their difficulties. They promise to do their homework. They practice their newfound skills at home. They look for direction. They place all their tomorrows in the wise hands of their counselor.
Judaism, Anglicanism, Buddhism, Lutheranism and other major religions have rituals and liturgies for the confession of sin. They see the stagnant state of human lives. They see that commitment and a sense of accountability have gone out of their lives. They see the black hole they are living in. They want a conversion. They want renewal. They want a new relationship with their God. So they confess their sins.
Catholics have private confession. They confess their sins to a priest. They see the situations they are in. They see their limitations. They want to explore their deadness on the inside. They want to end the stagnation. They want to end the sin. It is a quest for more personal integrity and honesty. It is a quest for change. It is a quest for conversion.
Catholics are searching for a deeper inner peace and a more harmonious relationship with themselves. They are cognizant of the implications of their social and self-defeating behavior. They have a sense of sin. They want a deeper relationship with their forgiving God. They want to end the separation.
Catholics receive absolution. They open their hearts to the comforting and healing words, “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” They wait for a penance. They are resolved to foster new moral behavior.
Catholics experience the grace of forgiveness. They embrace the infinite forgiveness of an infinitely loving God. It is very freeing for them to experience the sacrament of reconciliation. It challenges me to “do unto others as I would have them do unto me.”
The Sacrament has a transformative power. The sacrament says loud and clear “shed the guilt and let go of the past.” It says, “Don’t be overly concerned with self-interest.” It says “forgive others and do not hurt them.” It says, “Be self-nurturing and be nurturing of others.” It says, “Be self-supportive and be supportive of others.”
Loud and clear, the Sacrament of Reconciliation says, “Your sins are forgiven.” It says, “Every day is a new opportunity to begin anew on your spiritual path.” It says, “You can always encounter anew a compassionate God whose love and mercy are washing all over you.”
MSGR. MORGAN, a retired priest of the Diocese of Camden, is a New Jersey licensed psychologist.