This week I went to confession, after not going for years.
Years? How did that happen?
Because at the Sacrament of Reconciliation, overworked parish priests haven’t had time to sit there and figure out what-all I was rattling on about. Naturally, this must be unnerving for them, and they would try to say something brisk or humorous to snap me out of it. Then I’d come away feeling more despondent and confused than ever. (This is why good confessors and their good counsel have stayed so clear in mind over the years, long after the Church has kept them moving on to parish after parish.)
A few years ago, yet another good confessor was transferred out. By then I didn’t have the heart to start over trying to explain things again to someone new. Weeks and months slipped by as I figured that since priests are such busy souls, I should leave them in peace to minister to the people in really dire straits. Right?
But meanwhile, there’s this ticker tape running in my mind.
It’s like the stock market machine Gomez Addams had in his living room, only the news isn’t good. Mine keeps chattering out decades of mishaps and mistakes that made life turn out, well, despondent and baffled. It even runs in my sleep. Like, one time I dreamed that an abrasive co-worker loaded all my failures on to PowerPoint slides, and treated our entire department to a comical folly show.
The other night the ticker tape woke me up at 1:00 and chattered until dawn. This time the slide show crystallized as the same mistake in one sad story after another. By morning the only straw I could grasp was a phrase from the Slavonic Creed: прежде всех век, or “before all ages.” In the context it meant that Christ looked down at our troubled little planet before all ages, meaning long before I ever started sabotaging my life around, and he decided to make the trip here anyway.
Over the years, people have said to me, “It’s not possible for anybody to be that sad for so long. You must have a grievous unconfessed sin.” It made me wish I could figure out what the sin was, and go resolve it. But after that rough night it dawned on me: Maybe we can have sins that are all confessed & forgiven a bunch of times, but are still really disturbing us.
Next day, one priest’s name came to mind. He had never heard of me and he is a fast-moving over-booked super-competent organizer who ministers to active young adults. I emailed him asking for an appointment. Then right afterwards it occurred to me that before this confession I had better write up a comprehensive inventory of faults from the ticker-tape parade. Before I could email him again and postpone the idea of meeting, he emailed right back: Come in today!
At his office, Father started us off with a prayer. Then I told him the major socially illiterate tectonic fault in my life, and how I’ve confessed it over and over but the memories keep coming back. I braced myself for his questions about magnitudes and motivations and frequency and WHAT Were You Thinking?
But he didn’t ask. Instead he said something like this.
“It’s natural that even sins long forgiven are going to leave vestiges of hurt and guilt. But the issue that I’m hearing is doubt. Doubt in God’s mercy and grace, and doubt about the power of confession and the absolutions that you’ve already received. I believe that you have not experienced the actual healing in this sacrament. Maybe you’ve thought that you really don’t deserve forgiveness. For you, these doubts are a temptation. They’re an attack! And not an attack like black smoke and spinning heads in a movie; it’s a lot more subtle than that.
First, there is a phrase for this that we Christians don’t use often enough. Repeat after me:
Go. To. Hell.
Because hell is where the doubt comes from! Satan hates this sacrament, the very idea of God’s forgiveness and reconciliation.
Second, call on the Blessed Mother. She has incredible power against attacks like this.
Third, have these thoughts kept you away from confession and communion? Yes? Well, don’t let them do that!
Fourth, go to Father N. when he administers holy anointing at the church on Sundays. People don’t always realize it, but that’s a powerful sacrament too.
Fifth, you don’t need to confess this again. Not unless you really need to talk about it. God has already forgiven you!
Sixth, keep in mind that God’s grace brought you here today. You mentioned going to 5:30 Mass tonight. When you get there, offer him a prayer of thanksgiving for bringing you back.”
Then he asked, “Is there anything more that you would like to talk about?”
“One more worry,” I told him. “Do you think this particular misfortune in my life proves that God is punishing me because he’s still angry about –”
“Aha! THAT is another doubt!”
Then we prayed over it, and Father gave me absolution. “I wish I could to go that Mass tonight too,” he said, lighting up at the thought. “But I’ve got a football team to go take care of right now.”
It was a complete surprise to walk back out to the street and experience how different my life looked and felt then, and still does now. It’s like when people talk about cataract surgery, how all of a sudden they get colors and lights that they didn’t know they’d lost. I practically ran to Mass that day and the days since, and I mean to go back to confession again soon and to keep going.
But after Mass, walking down the street, a new thought tugged at my sleeve: Hey wait, stop right there! Father gave you absolution ONLY because you didn’t write a proper inventory! He doesn’t know the examples about how bad things got. You made a bad confession, and that’s a serious sin. This sacrament today didn’t count at all!
And at that very moment, all the lights on the street went out. 40,000+ of us in the city had no electricity for the next two hours. (Dear Neighbors: Oops! Sorry!)
But after a few minutes of fluster in the dark I finally remembered to say “Go to Hell!” and then prayed Hail Marys walking all the way to the bus stop in the dark.
Now every time the ticker tape starts up, I tell it “Look, I don’t get to hash this around any more. It’s out of my hands. I’m absolved now.” It’s like a glass safety wall between me and a smoking valley of ashes.
And yes, I can still learn from those times and make amends and be more careful and empathize with people in the same kind of trouble. But absolved is absolved. And that’s it.
“When you stand praying, burdened with many sins and overpowered with despair, begin to pray with hope, with a fervent spirit, and remind yourself that ‘the Spirit Itself maketh intercession for us with groanings, which cannot be uttered”! (Romans viii, 26) When you remember with faith this action of the Spirit of God within us, then tears of emotion will flow from your eyes, you will feel in your soul peace, sweetness, justification, and enjoyment in the Holy Ghost, and you will cry in your heart ‘Abba, Father!'”
— John of Kronstadt, 1829-1908