Emotions run pretty high in the sacrament of confession. Not a week goes by that either I or a penitent doesn’t end up getting a bit misty. It’s because hearts are open to God in the confessional and the Holy Spirit doesn’t miss a chance to touch hearts and reconcile the lost sheep.
However, while I don’t mind emotion in the confessional itself, it’s not much good during the actual examination of conscience. Too often the sins we feel most guilty about or most ashamed of are not the most serious sins, while the ones we may overlook altogether or think are not so serious may well be the ones that are most serious.
So, for example, most people feel ashamed and guilty about sins of the flesh. Sins of the flesh are certainly sins, but the amount of shame and guilt one feels may be disproportionate to the seriousness of the sin. On the other hand, forgetting prayers or missing Mass may be a continual sin against God himself which we overlook and under-rate. Furthermore, if we had prayed more and got closer to God we may not have fallen into the sin of the flesh in the first place.
It is good to remember that a mortal sin is not necessarily the sin we feel terribly ashamed of and guilty about. It is just as easy to commit a mortal sin and not feel guilty or ashamed at all. Just because the emotions are high as we remember a sin or commit a sin does not mean it is the most serious sin in the book. We may lose our temper, have a terrible fight with our spouse or kids and our heart may be beating and the tears may be running and the voices may be raised, but despite the high emotion it may not be a mortal sin. It might just be a fight.
On the other hand, to gossip and talk badly about others, to complain and grumble all the time and to be bitter and negative habitually may be far more serious because we ignore it and pretend we’re not doing anyone any harm. At least with the big fight we feel bad and know it is a sin. With the casual gossip, back biting, nasty comments and negativity we often come away actually feeling better about ourselves.
So a very objective and clear approach to the examination of conscience is what we need. Pray for guidance and a clear vision. Go through the questions. Make a list and leave emotions for when you actually get into the box.
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