There has been a fair amount of conversation recently about the mercy, love and healing found in the confessional. The emphasis is on the sacrament being welcoming and not causing undue anxiety and stress. The sacrament of penance is undoubtedly a generous outpouring of God’s forgiveness. It is a sacrament of healing that meets people where they are at. However, the sacrament of penance is also the sacrament of conversion, and conversion does require some discomfort.
Patheos blogger Elizabeth Duffy demonstrates this perspective on confession in a recent post titled, "An Editor for the Soul."
How appropriate! In the confessional, we approach the priest, in the person of Christ, who guides us to put away sin and take on virtue, to make a firm resolve to change.
In her post, Duffy describes her painful yet rewarding experience of asking a fellow blogger to review a piece of her fiction. She asked him to "be brutally honest," because she wanted the piece to be the best that it could be. And he was.
"I was glad to know I wasn’t getting away with anything," said Duffy. "Or maybe glad is not the right word. I was annoyed that I was going to have to get back to work and write better, but glad that someone cared enough to show me ways in which to do it."
Shouldn't this, perhaps, be the attitude in the confessional? A priest who cares enough to show us the path to perfection is a great blessing, not a burden. Duffy recognized this when she next went to confession. Similar to her feelings after receiving feedback on her writing, Duffy was relieved when her priest "didn't try to soften the blow." This had not happened to her in a long time. Instead of downplaying the seriousness of sin, the priest gave her challenging penance.
Duffy said she received the three things she came looking for: "mercy and absolution, yes, but also reparation — a way to do better."
The penance was hard, as it required more than just a few moments in the pew. Duffy's struggle to perform the penance in the coming days led her to reflect on the need for change in her life. She acknowledged how she sought out shortcuts in the spiritual life, and even that she had never really desired to be a saint.
This is a great example of what confession can be in our lives. God calls us all to be saints, to strip ourselves of sin and attachment to this world, to ourselves, and instead to grow in holiness and love of God and others. As Duffy says, "at some point in the spiritual life, you've got to make a sincere effort to mend your ways."
The sacrament of penance can be a powerful tool to do just that. In confession, we receive special sacramental grace, which is absolutely necessary to our sanctification. We can never do it alone. By examining our consciences daily, focusing on virtue and finding a priest who can challenge us, we can receive the help we need to follow Christ more fully.
Reflecting on confession typically brings to mind the story in John 8 about the woman caught in adultery. We often hear the words of Jesus admonishing the crowd: "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." That is the invitation of confession. But it's easy to forget what Jesus tells the woman at the end of the story: "Go, and do not sin again." That is the call of confession.
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Jennifer Rey is the web editor of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing.