The sacrament of reconciliation is indispensable to me in my quest to grow in holiness–to be made perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect. The Catholic Church considers it to be so important that she requires everyone go to Confession once a year (during Lent) at a minimum, but strongly encourages people to go at least once a month. Practicing Catholics typically make a point to visit the confessional during Advent and Lent, and Catholic parishes make doing so easier during those seasons.
Sacramental confession is also one of the more misunderstood aspects of Catholic belief and practice, so I wanted to share candidly about it not so much to defend it as a sound Biblical practice (many apologists have already done that), but to give some insight into the experience itself. What does the process look like? What does it feel like? What is the actual impact on one’s life?
Sanctification: where our intent meets the road Those of us who are Christians all profess a belief that we come into this world as fallen, broken people carrying inside us sin that truly mars and debilitates us, and even goes so far as to make us abhorrent to God. To make matters worse, we cannot on our own do anything about that sin. The only hope we have lies in the fact that while we still sin, God loves us anyway, and rescues us. He gives us faith which we express by believing in Him, and we also declare our sincere intent to turn away from sin and entrust our lives to Him. This is salvation.
Then our pilgrimage towards heaven really begins. We tend to think of heaven as a really nice place we (who have obtained salvation) get to go to after we die, almost as if it were a geographical location (though inaccessible until death). That view of heaven isn’t necessarily wrong, but I think it is very incomplete. I view heaven more as a term used to describe a spiritual state in which a soul is completely joined to and united with God. When a soul reaches that state, it is “in heaven” regardless of whether the body associated with that soul is alive or dead. The general observation is that most people die with much to be desired in terms of complete union with God, so we tend to conclude that reaching such a state is impossible for those of us still living. But there have been souls who have by God’s grace achieved very near complete union with God while still on earth. The Church canonizes them as Saints and holds them up as examples for the rest of us to emulate.
But they didn’t start off that way. They were born with the same original sin we all inherit, struggled with the same boring old personal sins we face daily, and it took them the greater part of their lives to go from being ruled by sin to being truly purified of sin and instead ruled by and in perfect love with God. In other words, their sincere intent to turn away from sin which they declared at the initial moment of salvation became an actual daily practice of turning away from sin (and then walking far away from it) and directing themselves instead to the ways of God. Their intent to entrust their lives to God also turned into an actual practice of yielding to God’s will on a moment by moment basis in every aspect of their lives. Rather than being their own boss (or at least thinking of it that way), they surrendered that privilege to God. At first it was awkward and difficult and very limited, but as they learned and grew, it became more natural to them and God made good on His claim on their lives at ever deeper interior levels.
We think of this process as sanctification or the road to holiness. It is a very real process, and it produces real transformation. This means the person undergoing this process is being changed from a broken sinner into a truly holy saint in ways that are noticeable. Interior transformation leads to physically observable exterior change in the way the person lives out his life and conducts her affairs. It also means this person is objectively less of a sinner further along in the process than he was at the start.
This is an important point because for many today, faith seems to be primarily an intellectual exercise. We tend to view it as adherence to a particular set of doctrines. For example, in the Protestant world if you believe in predestination, you’re a Calvinist; if you believe in free will you’re Arminian. These differences in perspective tend to be viewed as “nonessentials” in the sense that no one can really know for sure because Sacred Scripture doesn’t spell it out in a way that lends itself to categorization. And so it goes with a number of beliefs about the way sanctification works.
All these beliefs become meaningless in the face of going through an actual process of sanctification. At that point you’re going to believe as true what you are actually experiencing. In other words, it is very likely that endless opinions and arguments about how the process works is a symptom of not actually being involved in such a process, or at the very least, not fully engaged in it. And I believe that stems from a belief that such a process doesn’t actually happen, is not real beyond how our brain wants to define it. My point is that it is a real process. It is a real experience. It does change a soul in real and tangible ways. It is transformative. If you are a Christian and it’s not happening, then you may be missing something, and should take that to prayer.
Now that we have established that sanctification is not a mind game, but a Very Real Process which significantly changes us on the inside with that transformation making a noticeable impact on our external behavior, the question then becomes how does it work?
We Catholics believe that Jesus gives us the grace and the support we need to embark on this interior road to holiness through the Church. The sacrament of reconciliation is one of the helps He gives us, and it works in the context of everything else He offers through His Church.
One priest compared administering the sacrament of reconciliation to taking out the garbage. To explain how this works means to back up and talk about how the process of refinement works.
Refining the gold I regularly prepare stock out of chicken bones for my family. The process is fairly simple. First, all the ingredients (bones, onions, celery, vinegar, salt, water) are added to the stock pot and allowed to sit at room temperature for an hour. Then I turn on the stove and bring the mixture to a boil. In the process of boiling, many impurities come up to the surface and appear as a brownish foamy substance. I take a spoon and skim off this foam. The closer the mixture comes to a full boil, the more foam shows up on the surface, and the more I have to skim it off. Any impurities I do not skim off will just go back into the stock once it reaches a full boil and at that point it will become part of every meal that I make with the stock.
Sacred Scripture compares the soul to gold and the sanctification process to the fire raw gold must pass through in order to be be separated from all the impurities found in the ore.
So combine the gold in a hot furnace analogy with the stock analogy. Imagine molten gold in a giant stock pot with the various things that are not gold (rocks, leaves, sticks, dirt, other metals, whatever else is typically found in gold ore) bubbling up to the surface. Then imagine someone who is impervious to the heat of the fire with a giant broad spoon or ladle skimming off those impurities and getting rid of them. Once those impurities are skimmed off, they are gone from the gold forever. But those impurities which get reabsorbed back into the liquid are still there and will need to come back up to the surface and get skimmed off at a later time. Unlike the stock where the cook can never truly rid it of all impurities, imagine the gold refining going on for as long as it takes until the absolute last impurity has been removed, so that what remains is pure gold. Finally, to make the combined analogy more interesting (as well as accurate) imagine that in some mysterious way, the gold has a say over the skimming process, even gets to decide which impurities on the surface will be skimmed first as well as decide that it would rather hold onto other impurities (in which case they will resurface at another time).
In the above analogy, the gold is the soul in the process of sanctification. The fire represents those things in life which tend to bring sin to the surface–usually some kind of suffering. The impurities are the sins, and until the soul is exposed to the refining fire, those sins are so deeply joined to the soul as to be impossible to separate. The heat (suffering) is very important to the process. The heat separates the sin and draws it to the surface where the soul can see it. Jesus is the man holding the ladle. The sacrament of reconciliation is the ladle itself. Jesus uses the sacrament of reconciliation to skim off the sins which we bring to the confessional. When He removes those sins in that way, they are gone forever and will not trouble the soul again. Verbally confessing specific sins to the priest essentially gives Jesus permission to remove them.
Any kind of discussion about sacramental confession tends to bring up questions and objections from people who do not believe it is necessary for the forgiveness of sin. I want to address some of them here. Again, I am not an apologist or theologian so no one should take my thoughts to be exhaustive of what the Church teaches; however I do believe what I say conforms to what the Church teaches.
Why is confessing to a priest necessary? Doesn’t God forgive my sins the first moment I repent of them? I honestly believe that God has already forgiven all my sins, every last one of them, even before I committed them. When I first discover a sin in my soul, it is no great news to Him. Not only has He known I would commit it from the beginning of time, He has already forgiven it. In a sense, telling me I’m forgiven is a mere formality. So of course I am forgiven from the moment I first express sorrow and an intent to repent of this sin. The sorrow for sin and intent to repent of it is what prompts my visit to the confessional in the first place, and yes by the time I get there, God has already forgiven the sin.
When Jesus was being nailed to the Cross, He asked His Father to forgive all those who were party to His murder “for they know not what they do.” His forgiveness of them was unquestionable and available to every last one of them. However Scripture records very few people who actually received his forgiveness–the thief who stood up for Him and the centurion who pierced His side. Both of them received it through using their words to speak the intent that was on their heart–either asking for it outright (“Remember me when you enter into your kingdom,”) or simply acknowledging the truth of who Jesus is. Words are important. They bring to life the intent of our soul. God Himself used words to create the world, though I’m reasonably certain He also thought about it.
God does honor our intent–the unspoken resolve that lies in our soul. However, He invites us to speak our intent. In the case of sacramental confession, we speak of our resolve to repent of the specific sins on our conscience.
Words are also powerful. People who struggled with fear of a certain worst case scenario (losing a job, having a friend think poorly of them, etc.) have experienced a remarkable deliverance from the fear from the mere act of verbally expressing the fear. I had that experience recently where I was afraid of something and as soon as I verbalized that fear to a friend it sounded absolutely ridiculous to me, even in the middle of expressing it. In a similar way, verbally confessing sin strips it of its power over us. Sin is an agent of darkness and as such prefers the darkness over the light. Naming that sin out loud brings it to the light. Once it is brought into the light, it can be removed. Jesus has already forgiven every sin that we confess; but the process of confessing sin is the way that He removes that sin from us, skims it off the surface of our soul.
Can’t God remove my sin without me going to confession? Sure. He’s God. In the gold refining analogy, God is the one with the ladle removing the impurities. Can’t God remove the impurities with His bare hand? Sure. He’s impervious to the heat. But God invented the ladle and prefers to use it. If He absolutely has to, He may use His bare hand. The Catholic Church refers to the normative way God acts while leaving room for the possibility of God operating outside of the norm. But is it really our place to demand that God go outside of the normative way on our behalf, just because He can? That strikes me as similar to the second temptation satan put to Jesus while He was in the desert, which was to throw himself off a cliff and expect his Father to defy the law of gravity (which He created) to save his life. Yes, God has done that at times, but it’s really something we should leave to His discretion.
So why does God prefer to use the ladle? I’m sure the apologists have many more answers for this one, but here is why sacramental confession has been so effective for me. We believe the very first act of disobedience came out of the sin of pride. God created the angels to serve Him and follow His commands, and one third of them said “I will not.” They clearly thought they could do things better than God. God told Adam and Eve to avoid eating from a certain tree. They succumbed to the temptation to become like God (in their way, not His) by eating the forbidden fruit. Pride is the most deeply rooted and insidious of all sins. It lies at the root of all other sins. Fundamentally, all sin is the result of us in some way refusing to yield to God because we think our way is better than His way. For this reason, purifying us of sin is as much about laying the ax to its root cause as it is about removing the specific sin that gets confessed.
Our pride is like this enormous tough tree root which is deeply embedded inside our soul. It has grown into our soul so much we hardly ever see it and instead consider it part of who we are. There is only one way to get rid of it, and that is to destroy it. But it can’t be destroyed in one fell swoop; it takes many many strikes with the ax to chip away at it. And if the ax takes too much time off from striking, the tree starts to grow back together and then the ax has to start all over.
Much of the sanctification process is about chipping away at that pride. God will use any and every means at his disposal to strike our pride. The most common form of suffering a soul endures is humiliation–that feeling you get in an embarrassing moment. Yes, God allows those embarrassing moments to happen so that He can use the humiliation to take another blow at our pride, and the circumstances of our lives often provide Him with ample opportunity. All we have to do to take full advantage is to yield to Him as the one who wielded the ax in the first place.
But He has also built into his ladle, sacramental confession, the perfect opportunity for us to present our pride to Him for a good blow or two. If yielding to His use of the ax of humiliation on our pride is the best way to work with Him to effectively rid us of it, then what better way to yield to such an ax than to voluntarily present ourselves for its blows? In other words, of our own free will and volition, present ourselves for humiliation. And what better way to do that than to verbally speak of our sins to another real live human being, and then accept God’s absolution through the same real live human being? Trust me, it goes against my deepest sense of pride to verbally confess my sins, to submit myself to sacramental confession. When I go I’m nervous enough that I have to read my sins from a list I’ve created ahead of time, and I forget my Act of Contrition which any other time I can recite from memory. It is very uncomfortable and I really do not enjoy it. But every time I go, whack, whack, whack… my pride takes a few solid hits.
Just to be clear, I will say that the priest who hears my confessions is in no way given license to add to the humiliation of confessing sins. The priest adheres to some pretty strict boundaries and he knows his role is that of transmitting God’s healing and grace to the penitent. Most of the time the priests I have confessed to have been very affirming and encouraging. When I refer to the humiliation inherent in sacramental confession I am referring specifically to that associated with the act of confessing sin itself. The entire experience of going to confession is an upbuilding one, as one would expect when it’s about the complete removal of sins.
Once I have finished going to confession all the sins that I confessed are gone and I am truly free of them. This means that they will not resurface or weigh me down ever again. Sacred Scripture tells us that God removes our sins from us as far as the east is from the west, and that is really true. Once a sin is confessed and absolved, it is gone, over, done with, never to return.
Fixing up the fixer-upper Then what happens? At this point I have to bring in a different analogy–that of a master builder finding the perfect home to live in. But the home has fallen into disrepair and will need much renovation in order for him to fully live in it. He will move into the house upon taking possession of it, but it will be rough–more like camping–at first. However, as he works on fixing it up, it will over time become more and more of a true home for him.
The actual process of remodeling the home, things like retiling floors, replacing drywall, knocking out a wall to build an extension, or cutting out a piece of the wall to add a window, is analogous to the process of spiritual growth, those components of being made holy that aren’t always directly related to the removal of sin, but are more focused on the repair and restoration of the wounds of our soul caused by sin. In other words, the spiritual equivalent of knocking out a part of the wall and installing a window is not the same thing as removing sin, though it often involves removing sin–it’s remaking the structure of the soul itself.
In this case, the sin is like the trash that accumulates when the renovating work is in full swing. It can be former parts of the house that are taken off, or it can be trash brought in from the outside. In any case, over time the trash will accumulate and clutter the place up, and if left too long, will actually interfere with the master builder’s ability to continue with the renovations.
Going to confession is like taking out the trash. The sanctification process shakes loose a lot of the deeply ingrained sin, and though it has gotten shaken loose, it is still inside the soul cluttering up the living space, and interfering with the renovation process. Part of the master builder’s job is to regularly take out the trash. Sacramental confession is the set of tools he uses to take out the trash. Just like with the gold in the previous analogy, in this case, the house gets to decide (under the influence of the master builder but never by force) when it’s time for trash removal.
Like clutter sin bogs down the process of being made holy. Even if we know what it is and we’re truly sorry it’s there, if it’s not removed it’s going to get in the way. Going to confession frequently is like having a basically well ordered home that is often policed for trash and clutter. Going to confession rarely is like having a home where trash removal is this epic and massive task, and where many months might have gone by where further renovations were made impossible by the sheer accumulation of trash. Think of the “Hoarders” reality show.
This brings up an important point which is this: the recognition of sin is not the same thing as the removal of sin. Many Christians will refer to situations where they were convicted about a particular sin by the Holy Spirit. This has often happened to me, and it’s a beautiful and important thing. The logical next step at this point is to take that sin to sacramental confession so that it truly goes away. If you don’t go to confession, you might still make great strides in not succumbing to that sin, so you’ll see some change. However, it’s not totally gone until it’s confessed. You will still be working around it, tripping over it, or it might eventually get reabsorbed into the gold (or home) and then need to be exposed back to the surface in the future. It’s a bit like removing a moldy piece of drywall, then propping it up against a different wall for an indefinite period of time. Yes, it’s wonderful that the moldy drywall no longer makes up part of your home’s actual structure, but it’s still in your home, and it’s likely its mold will continue to contaminate the house, possibly causing the need to replace the brand new drywall much sooner than you’d expect.
I personally am a pragmatist. Once I’ve had a sin exposed, I really don’t want to keep having to deal with it over and over again. I want to get the job done so I can move on to the next stage. I want that particular sin gone because I know it has many more companions lurking behind. In other words, I want to get on with it, especially the parts of the road to holiness that are more interesting and pleasant than garbage removal.