I have been thinking a great deal about my experience at a few weekends ago. I felt an intense and unexplainable urge to go and confess my sins when I woke up Saturday morning. While I try to go every six weeks or so, this was no routine visit to the Priest for me. I needed to unburden myself of the numerous venial sins I had committed since I last participated in this Sacrament.
For the first time in the 16 years since I joined the Church, I was able to see the true nature of these sins as a tremendous burden on my shoulders. They were like a fog that kept me from seeing the path ahead. They were an obstacle in my relationship with Christ. I know these observations to be true because the moment I left the confessional booth, I felt as though a huge weight had been lifted. My spiritual vision was restored and I was again focused on serving the Lord.
Its weight. Every sin I commit in thought, word or deed is transformed into baggage that I carry around with me. As the weight accumulates, I begin to experience dryness in my prayer life. I make excuses for not reading the Bible and other books on our Catholic faith. My enthusiasm for sharing my faith with others becomes dampened under the burden of the sins I am carrying. My relationship with Christ is negatively affected. The joy I should feel gives way to nagging self-doubt and guilt – all because of sin. When the weight of sin becomes too great, I feel like I’m going through the motions. These bad habits which creep in are my warning signs, but do I heed these warnings fast enough? How do I break out of this pattern?
Stop and reflect with me for just a minute. When is the last time you went to Reconciliation? How did you feel the very moment you were absolved from your sins and did your penance? Compare that feeling with your state of mind today. Have you noticed any of the warning signs I mentioned in the second paragraph? Any that I did not mention? These questions are not for the purpose of making you feel guilty. I just want to encourage you to pause and reflect a little, as I have recently, on how accumulated its throws us off track and puts barriers between us and serving Christ.
One of the wonderful gifts we have as Catholics is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. When I was first reading about Catholicism, I was immediately drawn to this sacrament. I clearly understood through Scripture that Christ had given his disciples the power to absolve sins, and our priests are the delegates of Christ and the successors of the early disciples. If you ask a Catholic convert about the first time they participated in this Sacrament, don’t be surprised at how deep and profound the experience was for them. I made my first Reconciliation as a 40 year old man and the experience of confessing decades of sin was both terrifying and cathartic for me. I will never forget how much better and liberated I felt when I cast aside the burdens I had been carrying around for all those years. The slate was clean!
It is easy for us to simply say: « I will go to Reconciliation more often!” It is certainly desirable for us to participate in this Sacrament more frequently, but I want to encourage all of us to think carefully about one of the key lessons of this reflection: our sins, if not addressed and confessed, will negatively impact our relationship with Christ and the daily practice of our Catholic faith. Another important lesson is to avoid destructive patterns. Reconciliation, followed by a period of sins, Reconciliation, followed by a period of the same sins…is madness! How do we grow in our faith journey and break this pattern?
Please consider these practical actions to lessen the burden of sin, break out of harmful routines and make the Sacrament of Reconciliation more fruitful:
- Pray for help and guidance. Don’t go it alone. Ask our Lord for help. Give up our burdens to him in prayer. Fight through the « dry patches » in prayer and keep seeking him out. He is always ready to help. All he asks from us is our total surrender to his divine will. Just don’t ask Him to validate decisions we have already made.
- Practice active reflection. Take a few minutes each day to review our actions. Where did we go? What caused it? The Jesuit Daily exam is a big help, but I also carry around a copy of the examination of Conscience to review on occasion. Consider this guide from St. Padre Pio: “Every merchant in this world not only keeps track throughout the day of whether he has lost or gained on each sale. In the evening, he does the bookkeeping for the day to determine what he should do on the morrow. It follows that it is indispensable to make a rigorous examination of conscience, brief but lucid, every night.”
- Look for patterns and repetition. What sins are we repeating? Consider who we are with and the environment we are in when we commit these sins. We can often break out of bad cycles by avoiding people and situations which trigger sin. The late Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. once wrote: « another word for bad habits is ‘vices.’These bad habits are acquired by the repetition of bad actions. We may have the habit of unkind words, or of selfish behavior, which may have taken years to acquire. On the natural level, it would take years to change these bad habits into the opposite virtues. But with the grace of the sacrament of Confession, we can overcome these vices in record time, beyond all human expectation.”
- Know the Enemy. The prince of this world is the devil and he will never, ever cease to trap us, sow seeds of doubt, lead us astray and place obstacles in our path. Our best defense against him is staying as close to Christ as possible in prayer and through the Eucharist. A pure heart, free of sin and cleansed through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, pulls us towards Christ and keeps the Enemy at bay. St. Alphonsus Liguori once said: « the devil does not bring sinners to hell with their eyes open: he first blinds them with the malice of their own sins. Before we fall into sin, the enemy labor to blind us, that we may not see the evil we do and the ruin we bring upon ourselves by offending God. After we commit sin, he seeks to make us dumb, that, through shame, we may conceal our guilt in confession.
- Be completely open and honest with our Confessor. Tell the Priest everything! We can’t expect to be absolved if we don’t share with candor what we have done or failed to do. We also need to seek guidance on preventing sin as well as the absolution of sin and our Priests are here to help us. St. Francis de Sales sums this up beautifully with: « Go to your confessor; open your heart to him; display to him all the recesses of your soul; take the advice that he will give you with the utmost humility and simplicity. For God, who has an infinite love for obedience, frequently renders profitable the counsel we take from others, but especially from those who are the guides of our souls.”
- Trust in God’s mercy. We serve a loving God who is always ready to forgive us. We need to trust and have courage that our Heavenly Father only wants what is best for us. Pope John Paul II: « Confession is an act of honesty and courage – an act of entrusting ourselves, beyond sin, to the mercy of a loving and forgiving God.”
There is a common saying that the Church is a » hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. »We all fall short. Let’s be mindful that these sins are a weight around our neck, they obscure our vision and they are obstacles to our relationship with Christ. In the end, it is a great step, but consider the opportunities to shed this burden through increased self-awareness, different actions, deeper reflection, a stronger prayer life and a sincere trust in the mercy of God. Leading faithful Catholic lives centered in Christ is challenging enough.
Maybe, just maybe, we can stop tripping ourselves up along the way.
Additional Resources on the Sacrament of Reconciliation:
The Spiritual and Psychological Value of Frequent Confession by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Sacrament of Penance: examination of Conscience by Fr. John Trigilio
Tips for making a good Confession from Father Mike Schmitz
Rediscovering the Sacrament of Penance: Resources for Individuals from the USCCB website