Advent is a penitential season, which means we should take time to reflect, examine our conscience and clean up our act in preparation for the coming of the King.
Confession is one of the dramatic aspects of Catholicism for non-Catholics. People seem intrigued about the idea that a priest sits and listens to all the deep, dark dirty secrets. The general opinion is that Catholics are plagued with guilt and that the Catholic hierarchy heap on the guilt in a cynical attempt to keep the business of forgiveness and mass going on the road.
But what strikes me as a priest in hearing confessions two or three times a week is how untrue this is. Yes, there is the occasional penitent who feels unhealthily guilty and there are many who are confused about the seriousness of their sin. Shame and embarrassment sometimes clouds people’s understandings of sin, but for the most part I am impressed by the simple, open and almost cheerful way in which many people come to confession. I don’t mean they are not sorry for their sin. They are, but they’re not morbidly “woe is me I’m a miserable worm” guilty. There is often something breezy and healthy about it all, and I’m reminded of the healthy consequences of regular confession. I know we do not go to confession simply for the therapeutic benfits, but nevertheless there are some very practical and wholesome benefits in making a regular confession.
The first benefit regular confession brings is a very sensible realization of one’s need of help. You can’t learn anything if you think you know everything. You can’t get help unless you first realize you need help, and it’s too terribly true that we don’t know what we don’t know. Confession attacks the assumption of self sufficiency right at the root. As soon as you go to confession you are admitting that you don’t know everything, that you need the help of God’s grace, and that there are things you dont’ know and the first step of learning what you don’t know is to admit that there are things you don’t know.
Developing this kind of attitude in life is the surest antidote to that spiritual poison: self righteousness. It is also the antidote to intellectual pride and arrogant ignorance. Once you admit you have faults you are well on the way of curing them. Once you realize you need something you can go and find it. Once you admit your ignorance you can start to learn. Therefore seriously saying “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner” is probably the most cheerfully optimistic thing you can say.
The second practical benefit of confession is that even the most inadequate confession makes you stop to consider God and others. You must ask yourself how you may have offended God and hurt others. This has the marvelous effect of making you turn away from yourself for at least one moment and focus on others. Such a reversal of our usual self centerdness is refreshing and enlightening. Immdiately the soul leaps forward in spiritual progress.
The third practical benefit is that you are given a fresh start. Everyone wants to put their faults and failures behind them and start again. Confession really gives you that opportunity. The sin really is put away and forgiven and you really are given the strength to start again.
Fourth, with a good confessor you might just realize that not even your sins are so cosmically important as you thought. I remember a very pious woman coming out of the confessional with an old holy priest after being in there for some time. She informed me in a shocked and offended tone that Fr.So and So had “fallen asleep during her confession!!” Later she had the grace to laugh at what had happened and say, “It was good for me. I realized that even my sins are boring…”
So confession makes us see things more clearly. Our mistakes are put in perspective and we learn a little lesson of humility. Humility is not grovelling in the dirt, but simply being totally honest about yourself, God and others. Confession therefore helps you to see more clearly. It helps you to assess where you were and where you are going. It helps you to establish priorities.
Finally, this clarity makes everything better. Once we begin to see ourselves more clearly we can see others more clearly. We can cut them a break. We can see them in perspective. Our relationships improve, our sense of humor improves and our prayer life improves.
So next time you get to the confessional treat it like a spiritual workout. It might stretch you. It might give you some pain, but afterwards you’ll be that much more spiritually fit.