By OSV readers - OSV Newsweekly, 3/27/2011
A few years ago, I was stuck with a sin and wasn’t too keen to actually change anything and really try to overcome my temptations, but still went to confession out of habit. This one time the priest listened to me, asked me questions about this situation and told me to get a grip. He was really strict with me, didn’t sugarcoat anything and gave me advice on what to do. I left feeling very embarrassed, but his words hit home. Things actually changed because of this confession, because his honesty and tough-love approach made me face the reality of my situation for the first time, and that eventually led to a deep conversion. God bless him.
I was away from the Church for 20-plus years while I wandered in the desert of increasing alcoholism. I was married, employed, a father and functioning — barely — in life, but I was far from my spiritual rock. Shortly before I finally surrendered my disease to “a power greater than myself,” I was led (unknown by me) by the Holy Spirit to pick up Matthew Linn’s book “A Healing of Memories” (co-written by Dennis Linn), which deals with reconciliation after a long time away. I read and reread the book just prior to entering a three-week program for recovery.
After finally detoxing enough, I asked to speak with a priest. The next day I was called out of one of the endless meetings and was met by a tall, thin, newly ordained priest from the neighborhood. I told him what I needed/desired, expecting a major examination of conscience and a lengthy discussion, perhaps a return visit from his to prepare my wretched soul for the task at hand. Instead, he simply said, “OK, let’s do it.” I was shocked and apprehensive, but there was no turning back now. I looked down to gather my thoughts as he burdened himself with the purple stole of penance and reconciliation. When I looked back at him, it was no longer this stranger-to-me priest, but Christ himself sitting there, telling me my sins were forgiven. The knot I had in my chest — and had had for years — disappeared. I knew I was truly forgiven; the slate was wiped clean and I was home.
That was more than 20 years ago, and I have remained sober and faithful ever since. Anytime my faith wavers, I just go back to that little room, so far away now in time, and I get a jolt of Holy Spirit that never fails to revive me. God is good and merciful indeed!
My daughter’s choir was invited to sing at an evening Mass, so we had to arrive early. Confession was available, and the line was short. For several years, I had been troubled by an experience that I described as a “rat’s nest in my soul.” There was sin involved, but most of it belonged to some other people, which had resulted in deep pain for a close friend. My contribution was a nasty attitude, which resulted in dark ruminations, hardness of heart and the “rat’s nest.”
I gave the priest a two-sentence description of the six months of anguish, handed him the “rat’s nest” and asked for guidance. What he said included details of my experience that I hadn’t told him. I was utterly startled. Then he gave advice that was utterly brilliant. Fortunately, I had a notebook with me, and I wrote down everything he had said so I could share it with my friend. The next morning, her “epiphany” was intensely healing. Intensely. All the rats left both our houses.
My most memorable experience comes for the time I was in elementary school — 40 years ago! Granted that, at that age, I did not have any of the “big ones” to confess (I think things may have changed a bit ...), but the feeling of lightness that took over me after confession is something that will be inscribed in my mind forever, and it is, for me, a physical testament of the grace of God.
My most memorable experience was after having come back to the Church. I had been praying a lot, but would start allowing myself to doubt God and to complain against him when things didn’t go my way. I told the priest that I was guilty of a lack of faith. He corrected me. He said I was guilty of ingratitude. He told me that if I prayed for water, and only got an empty glass, I must thank God for the empty glass and assume that the empty glass is what I needed, not the water. I can’t thank that priest enough. He helped me to see that my ingratitude to God was preventing me from seeing the answers to my prayers because they weren’t coming the way that I thought they should, but the way that God knew I needed them to.
I went to the National Shrine of Divine Mercy, and I was hesitant to make a confession of an act I thought was truly horrible. I had been to confession before, but this one I had never mentioned, out of fear, and it was something from a long time ago.
On the door to the confessional, it had a quote from St. Faustina’s diary to the effect “there is no sin greater than God’s mercy,” so I went in. There a kindly old priest with a gentle voice explained to me that God loves me like a little child. He explained to me that when I am absolved, if I have made a good confession, contritely intending to sin no more, then I am absolved of sins I may have forgotten to mention at the time. If I continued to make frequent confessions I have no need to dredge up memories of sins from the distant past, but continue to entrust myself to God’s mercy and strive to live more in keeping with God’s law from now on. I didn’t have to scour every past move I had ever made; rather I had to continue to open myself to the grace of the sacrament.
It was uplifting as confession always is uplifting, but it was also liberating to know that I could truly start with a clean slate. I felt enriched.
Our two oldest girls are a year apart in age, and they made their first confessions together. That Saturday I went first (as our pastor had requested, so I could remind him that they were coming). Then my oldest went, came out, and quietly rejoined us in the pew as her sister went into the confessional.
A few minutes later, my second-oldest girl came out of the confessional, skipped — yes, skipped! — to the main aisle, genuflected, turned, and skipped all the way down the aisle to join us, com-pletely un-self-conscious (I’m not even sure she knew she was skipping). There were a handful of people gathered for confession and adoration, and I saw lots of grins and heard a few chuckles.
I once went to confession, and I don’t remember now exactly what sins I confessed, but one of them was about doubting God’s existence, and this priest asked some keen questions and got it out of me that I had been sexually abused by an immediate relative in childhood.
I said I just wanted it all to go away.
He said, “I have something important to tell you. Your wounds are never going to go away.”
He paused, and his words plummeted to the base of my stomach. He continued gently, “When Jesus was resurrected, he still had his wounds in his hands, feet, side, head. He has them right now. But the wounds no longer bleed. They no longer hurt him.”
“His wounds are part of his glory.”
After my fairly routine confession (maybe too routine; I really hadn’t put a lot of thought into it) to a visiting Nigerian priest in Washington, D.C., I looked up to see his face framed by the screen. He spoke with a commanding voice as if he were looking into my soul: “Do you believe in God?” “Ummmm ... Yes?” I said, a little surprised by the question. His eyes flashed with fire. “Then why do you sin?” he said. It was a good question. I hemmed and hawed until he suddenly relaxed his posture and launched into a fairly standard “do better from now on” speech and gave me absolution. But to this day the power of that question lingers.
I spent eight years in a Catholic grammar school and went to confession regularly. In eighth grade, confession became reconciliation and became“face to face.” I sat with a new young Filipino priest and confessed that I took something not mine. “That’s nothing,” he said. “When I was a kid in the Philippines, my friends and I used to steal our neighbors’ dogs. Then we’d cook them up and eat them!” Then he laughed heartily. I stayed away from confession after that, and then stopped practicing my faith and finally thought I was an atheist.
Twenty-eight years after that last confession, I received the gift of renewed faith, in an instant, without pining for it, thinking about it and without being in any kind of dire misery. I went back to Mass. I received holy Communion for two weeks. The third week, at Communion time, I was suddenly reminded that I cannot receive holy Communion without going to confession. I waited until the next Saturday and with much fear and trepidation, and also with little expectation of coming out any different after making my confession, I forced myself to go through “the motions.” I went into the confessional, knelt down, and said those words, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been 28 years since my last confession. These are my sins.” Tearfully, I confessed a multitude of sins, some very grave, and then was asked to say the Act of Contrition. I wasn’t sure that I remembered it completely, but I slowly said it as I learned it all those years ago.
Then, I heard those words of absolution, and I cried like a baby. My penance was to sit in a pew and to thank God for this wonderful day, for both me and the priest. I sat there, feeling lighter and more joyful than I ever remembered, with tears soaking me, finally understanding what God’s mercy is. And for weeks afterward, I was overcome with the same sense of joy. I go to confession a few times a year, but those two experiences I will never forget. One chased me away and the other brought me back completely.
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