Of all the practices of my faith, the one I dread is going to Confession. When I go, it is like pushing myself to get up and exercise when I am out of shape. After doing an examination of conscience, I try not to think too much about the fact I am going so that I don't persuade myself otherwise until my shoes are clapping up the sidewalk to the church door between the 3:00 and 4:00 hour on a Saturday afternoon. A line of penitents is already ahead of me, waiting, and I take my place at the end of the line.
The waiting is part penance itself. It is what I imagine purgatory must be like, seeing yonder into paradise and yearning for God’s love and mercy as He holds out a white garment for you to put on; but when you look down at yourself, you see crimson and dirt and tares all over your clothes and you can’t wait to be rid of them so you can put on the new clothes and enter paradise. You can’t wait to get rid of your sins. You practice what you will say, you whisper Our Fathers and Hail Marys as you watch as the others go in, come out, kneel down and pray.
The light at the top of the door is green. It is my turn. Once inside the confessional, I shut the door and I am surprised to be submerged in total darkness, waiting for the priest to finish with the other penitent and then come over to my side. I wait in the blackness, suddenly feeling my heart pounding and naked as though God were looking straight into my soul. It is just me and Him. I am aware of myself breathing.
A muted glow suddenly appears, lighting up the grid between us. The priest has come to my side. I can’t see the priest and he can’t see me, which reminds me that it is to Christ that I am asking forgiveness of my sins, and I keep kneeling there. “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been ... since my last confession.”
Catholic social activist and writer Dorothy Day put it plainly: “‘I have sinned. These are my sins.’ That is all you are supposed to tell; not the sins of others, or your own virtues, but only your ugly, gray, drab, monotonous sins.”
She says: “Going to confession is hard - hard when you have sins to confess, hard when you haven’t, and you rack your brain for even the beginnings of sins against charity, chastity, sins of detraction, sloth or gluttony. You do not want to make too much of your constant imperfections and venial sins, but you want to drag them out to the light of day as the first step in getting rid of them. The just man falls seven times daily.” (from the book The Long Loneliness, 9-10.)
Even the Pope goes to confession, daily. In my better years, I have made monthly confession a habit, like taking my car in for regular maintenance instead of waiting until serious problems occur. In my worse years, I have not made it a habit until I have some bigger transgression on my soul and then there is major work to be done and as soon as possible if I want to be in full communion with my brothers and sisters as well as with Christ. It's so easy to forget that everything I do affects all the members of the body, for ill or for good.
Acknowledging one’s sins is a longstanding tradition. From the Old Testament, “Be not ashamed to acknowledge your guilt, but of your ignorance rather be ashamed” (Sir. 4:26).
In the early church, “Many of those who had become believers came forward and openly acknowledged their former practices” (Acts 19:18; more examples in Jn. 4:17, Lk. 5:8, Mk. 5:33).
“If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing” (1 Jn. 1:9).
After I've told my sins, I hear a gentle voice giving me spiritual counsel; and sorrow, contrition and overwhelming peace invade my heart. I want to be better and I know God's grace can help me. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, there is a metaphor of St. Peter, or a priest, holding two symbolic keys: one that unlocks the gate of God’s mercy to us, while the other is able to twist out the root cause of sin from our hearts and enlighten the mind. I am aware of both happening in the confessional.
After giving me a penance, the priest says, “Now make an act of contrition.”
When it’s all done, I listen intently for absolution as the priest says, “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
I step out into the light and am free! Sometimes I come out of the confessional with a broad smile, other times with tears of relief, always with grace abounding. “As long as I kept silent, my bones wasted away; I groaned all the day. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength withered as in dry summer heat. Then I declared my sin to you; my guilt I did not hide. I said, ‘I confess my faults to the Lord,’ and you took away the guilt of my sin.’” (Ps. 32:3-4).
So there you have it. I love the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I love the privilege of being Catholic. But actually going to Confession, owning up to my sins, swallowing my pride, and making a monthly habit of it, will be a struggle of the will as long as I continue to need it.