One of the things I most looked forward to as part of the Christ Renews His Parish retreat the other weekend was simply the opportunity for a leisurely confession. There are always so many people in line at our parish’s confessional that the priests have little time for extra spiritual direction. For weeks I’d been eager to have the opportunity to chat with a priest at the retreat and get his insights on some things I’d been struggling with.
But when the big moment finally came, I was wiped out.
It had been a grueling past few weeks, I’d been up since 5:30 in the morning, and I was tired almost to the point of physical collapse by all the activity involved in the retreat. Then, when the priests first started arriving, one of them gathered us to make an announcement: one of the men who was supposed to be there, a priest named Fr. Francis whom I had heard good things about, would not be able to come because he’d just found out that both his niece and his nephew had been killed in a horrible car accident.
The news of that level of tragedy was the final blow to my morale. It triggered one of those “the world is such a terrible place” moments where I felt overwhelmed by all the potential for suffering and loss that exists in the human life. I waited for my confession in a mournful daze.
When my time finally came I walked down a hall to see that they’d closed the women’s bathroom so that the tiny space outside could be made into a makeshift confessional. The priest was a kindly Pakistani man who said little as I settled into the chair across from him, next to a plastic table with a Bible and some Kleenex. We greeted one another in the name of Christ, and my confession began.
After I recounted my sins he began to give me advice, and all my pent-up stress started to rush out of me as if I’d taken some sort of medication. The Holy Spirit couldn’t have been more palpable if he’d pulled up a chair and sat down next to us. I could barely resist jumping to my feet and shouting my thanks to God for this amazing experience. It was partially because the priest’s words had a surgeon’s accuracy in terms of their healing effect on my soul, but, mostly, it was simply his joy. He just had some something, some essence that is impossible to put into words, a kind of mighty, unshakable joy that permeated all his actions down to his smallest mannerisms. The slow, confident way he reacted to things; the timeless wisdom of his advice; the ease of his smile; the love in his words, especially when he talked about God — it all spoke of the sort of rock-solid peace that would have given me pause if I’d encountered it when I was an atheist.
After the confession I turned around to look at the sign on the wall outside his confessional, wanting to know the name of this man whose love of God was so contagious that it had infected me despite myself. I stopped in my tracks when I saw the hand-written letters: Fr. Francis.
I grabbed one of the coordinators and asked her if there were two priests schedule to be here with that name. She said that there were not. This was the priest who had just lost his niece and nephew. He had made time to stop by our retreat and hear confessions before he went to the airport to go be with his family.
One of the reasons it’s taken me more than a week to write about this is simply because I knew there was no way I could ever convey what I felt when I realized that the priest whom I had spoken to was Fr. Francis. It will have to suffice to say that I didn’t even respond to the coordinator; I just turned around, went to the candlelit Adoration chapel, slid into a pew, and began to sob.
And I kept sobbing, even after almost everyone else had left to go back into the main room.
A few of the other women came to check on me, each putting an arm around me and saying, “It’s okay.” I wasn’t really in a position to explain it at the time, but that was actually why I was crying — because it was okay. My tears were tears of overwhelming relief and gratitude, the sort of tears you might cry if someone to whom you owed a lot of money not only forgave your debt but handed you a million dollars. I had been given a priceless reminder, in the form a priest filled with love in the midst of his own hour of suffering, that while the grief we feel at the tragedies of this world is legitimate, we should never forget that the truth of the Gospel is essentially the truth that the sad saga of this world has a happy ending — in fact, it’s the happiest ending imaginable.
I’m not suggesting that the kind priest was in a great mood or didn’t feel horrendous sorrow at the loss of his loved-ones. I doubt he was “happy” in the sense of experiencing an emotion. But what I did witness, there in that most ordinary setting under fluorescent lights in the makeshift confessional by the bathroom, was something far more powerful than happiness: the deep-rooted, undefeatable joy that can only come from an encounter with God.
NOTE: I changed the name of the priest in this post in case there are any privacy concerns.
I went to confession tonight; well, I tried, anyway. It was one of those big pre-Easter sessions where there were hundreds of people and about a dozen priests. By the time I got in one of the lines there were at least 30 people in front of me, and after waiting a while I decided to go home and try again tomorrow.
But as I was waiting I looked around the building and noticed something interesting. Since it wasn’t a Mass and took place at the end of the day, most people were in their regular street clothes, which made the cultural and socio-economic differences between everyone much more striking than usual.
As people filed in and out of the building I saw pretty much every walk of life represented. I saw some of our parish’s new immigrant families, recently here from Africa and Mexico and the Philippines; I saw women with perfectly coiffed hair and two-carat diamond rings in the same lines with sunburned construction workers with callused hands; I saw young and fit people holding the heavy doors open for people with disabilities; I noticed uniforms of all types, from medical scrubs to fast food shirts to police uniforms. In one of the most amusing juxtapositions, I saw an older gentleman in a pressed white dress shirt and slacks standing next to a young hispanic teenager with baggy pants that included an airbrushed panorama of the life of Tupac down one leg.
Just as I was about to leave, I saw the door at the other end of the church open. A man walked in whom I’ve seen around a couple times before. He always has a kind smile though he looks quite disheveled and wears clothes that are in much need of repair; I think I heard someone say one time that he might be homeless.
As I saw him take a place in line next to woman in crisp business attire, I thought of how different things would seem if I ran into him outside the church. If I passed him on the street, I would certainly think of us as two very different people. I would definitely presume my circumstances to be much better than his. Would some hidden part of my mind slip in the thought that I am somehow better? I hope not; but the mind of a sinner does strange things sometimes. But tonight, here in the church, all of us in line for confession, the truth was clear. St. Francis put it best when he said:
Here is one of the best means to acquire humility; fix well in mind this maxim: One is as much as he is in the sight of God, and no more.
This quote rolled through my head all night. You are what you are in the eyes of God, and no more. Never is that truth more clear than in line for a confessional.
The group of us spanned the range of the socio-economic spectrum in our city, and if you saw us outside the church we would seem to be divided along lines like powerful and powerless, rich and poor, immigrant and native. By external indicators it would seem that the people with jewelry and expensive clothes were in a much better position than the folks in threadbare shirts and muddy workboots. But to look at us all in the warm glow of the church and remember why we were all there was to remember that our differences in terms of anything that really matters are very few, and that the differences that you can see by external appearances matter not at all. Every one of us would end up on our knees in humility before the Lord that night. We are all sinners; we have all fallen far short of the glory of God; we are all in desperate need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. And, most importantly, as each of us would be reminded at the end of our confessions, we are all forgiven, and we are all dearly loved.
- Lies and confession: The case of the stolen pacifier
- Confessing my sins to a priest
- A first confession, Part I
One day last year I was putting grocery bags in the car after an epic store trip, and after I grabbed the last bag something caught my eye in the back of the cart: a $3.75 package of pacifiers. I somehow missed them when I was handing items to the cashier, so we hadn’t paid for them.
I had all three kids strapped into the car, they were all overtired and on the brink of major meltdowns, the store was crowded with 10+ minute waits to check out, it was already well past dinner time, and some rumbling thunder indicated that it was about to rain. It seemed virtually impossible to go back into that store. But I really needed those pacifiers. My one-year-old lost her other one and wouldn’t sleep without it; they were the main thing I’d gone to the store to get.
I decided that I would take them and pay for them next time I went to the store. There was, of course, no question in my mind that I would pay for them. I’m not a thief. I would never steal anything.
The next time I went to the store, however, I forgot the box for the cashier to scan. The next two times after that my husband went and I didn’t want to trouble him with it. The time after that I was in a huge rush and forgot about the whole thing. The time after that…Well, you get the idea.
As the weeks turned into months, the need to pay for the pacifiers felt less and less urgent. I told myself that I was definitely going to pay for them eventually, but it kept not happening.
An interesting thing happened in my prayer life as well: when I would repent of my sins during prayer, I never mentioned the un-paid-for pacifiers. Because, after all, I was going to pay for them. I just hadn’t gotten around to it. My mind had not categorized that as a sin. I didn’t “steal,” I just “delayed payment.”
All of this fuzzy thinking suddenly got a whole lot clearer one afternoon, a couple months later, when I was preparing to go to Confession.
I was going over one of those Examination of Conscience aids and when I got to the questions related to the Seventh and Tenth Commandments, the pacifiers immediately came to mind. I imagined articulating to my priest all those excuses that had sounded so good in my head: “Well, Father, I didn’t steal anything. Although I do have these pacifiers at my house that were not paid for. But they’re just ‘on loan,’ because I’m going to pay for them!”
He would undoubtedly ask me how long ago I took these pacifiers from the store. And when I told him that it had been more than three months, it would suddenly be crystal clear what was going on: I had stolen them, and I was lying to myself about it.
It is an uncomfortable moment when the lies you tell yourself to excuse your sins are dragged out into the light and exposed for what they are. Knowing that I would have to explain my actions to another human being made me realize the uncomfortable truth: I had stolen. And, given the fact that three months had already passed without me making it right, it is unlikely that I would have ever remedied my actions, all the while telling myself that I hadn’t done anything wrong because one day I would make it right.
The discomfort of this newfound awareness of my sin motivated me to break through the morass of my laziness and lies and get down to the store to give them my $3.75.
This is why I love Confession; this is why I need Confession.
As I recently discovered, evil always works through lies. I regularly confess my sins to God in private prayer, but when my confession remains within the safety of my own internal thoughts, it is fertile ground for lies to run wild. Too often my silent confessions to God tend toward mental meandering, bringing up only certain sins that are at the forefront of my mind, skipping over some of the older ones that lurk comfortably in the shadows. Too often the little stories I tell myself — “I’ll pay for it later” — sound pretty good when they’re fleeting thoughts in the shelter of my head, safe from the scrutiny of another human being.
But Confession drags my thoughts out of the shadows and forces me to examine my sins in the full light of day. Having a set place and time where I must account for all my sins since the last Confession remedies my all-too-convenient tendency to “forget” certain things. Having to codify my thoughts into spoken words brings clarity to all those amorphous ideas that ebb and flow in my brain. Having to go over my sins with another human being — to be questioned about my actions by someone whose voice is much less easy to ignore than the still, small voice of God — brings conviction and humility in a way that private prayer cannot for someone as spiritually immature as I am.
And, as I’ve said before, while the process of verbalizing my sins might be uncomfortable, being able to hear the words of God’s forgiveness that the priest says in persona Christi helps me know and feel God’s mercy. After seeing the power of Confession in my own life — in the case of the pacifier and so many others like it — I don’t need any theological book to know that this Sacrament is a gift God gives us to help us really understand the weight of our sins, and the power of his perfect love.
As soon as I hit Publish I’m going to head out to confession.
In my long road from atheism to Christianity, one of my favorite memories is when I made my first confession, the Wednesday before Easter of last year. When I think back on it I first remember the ethereal chant music that wafted throughout our beautiful church, and the surprising sense of stillness and peace that pervaded the sanctuary, even though there were more than 500 other people there. I remember marveling at the diversity of the crowd: a man in an expensive business suit would be standing next to a young construction worker in muddy workboots, followed by a teenage girl and an elderly lady. We were all so different, yet all united by our beliefs, all there for the same purpose. I remember thinking about all the unpacked boxes that waited for me at home, and how thrilled I was about our much-needed new house. It felt like it was the first day of the rest of my life, and it was.
I don’t have time to write much more today, but to celebrate the memory of this wonderful event in my life, here are some posts in which I’ve shared my experiences with this sacrament: