A friend wrote me this evening asking about confession. The conversation began:
ummm, okay. what can you tell me about confession? I mean, I've been to confession and stuff before, but I feel that I don't go enough, as it is a sacrament and all, and all sacraments are important, but I don't really know what to say when I'm in there, and, well, you probably get the picture
Unfortunately, I do get the picture. Only too well: to be honest, I hate going to Confession. To be fair, I don't take exception to it as a sacrament - it's just that my ego can't stand having to admit my faults and failings!
Posed over AOL Instant Messenger, my response as I gave it to him is more disjointed than I would want to reproduce here, so I'd like to offer a few thoughts on how I approach this sacrament.
Keep in mind that the sacrament of confession is one of healing. It is a chance for us to pose to ourselves the question, "Self (or, if your name is not Self, insert your name here), where am I broken?" This is a key question: often enough, we go to confession to talk about THINGS we did. Acts. These are important, yes, but dig deeper: what is broken within you that allows these acts to flow from you?
The moment we start asking this question, we are in for a battle. If the dark spirit has taken hold of our hearts, it won't give up without a fight. So we'll hear a little voice saying, "Oh, there's nothing wrong with you! It was just a one-time occurrence...it'll never happen again." "Really? Is it that big a deal? Everyone else is doing it..."
This is a common temptation, so be prepared for it! Follow the sound of this seductive voice and throttle it about the head - it is lying to you! It is speaking from the dark recesses of your heart, speaking its honeyed words to lull you into complacency lest you investigate too fully, lest you discover its wretched presence and attempt to pry it out of yourself. The Dark Spirit makes an appearance as Martha Stewart telling us that our hearts are in order, that "it's a good thing" when, in reality, Elvira and the Crypt-Keeper have taken the whole place over!
Yes, follow this voice. You will eventually find its source and, when you do, name it! Do not mutter its name under your breath, do not make a mental note of it and decide to tend to it later. Speak it! Say it loudly! As the words escape your mouth, the evil wretch will sting you with shame and embarrassment...but such feelings are the result of its death throes. Know that it will pass, shortly, and that any feelings of shame will give way to the refreshing knowledge that your sins have been lifted away and that the chasm that you had felt separating you from God exists no longer...sin does no prevent God from coming to you (that's the beauty of confession) but it does make it difficult for us to approach God.
The beauty of Confession is that it really is like a mini-Exorcism (minus the split-pea soup). With the healing Christ you are guided by grace's light into the dark chamber of the heart where you are girded to do battle with those forces in our life that make us less human, that make us less capable of responding to God's invitation to us to have life abundant.
Confession is not something for old people and pious ninnies! It's for Jedi warriors and members of the noble House of Gryffindor. Confession is a heroic act of calling upon our courage and our Christ in order to face the darkest and most awful force of nature: our sinful self. But as we are on the side of the Holy Force, the outcome is assured - no evil, no dark spirit, no sin will carry the day over us. The true hero is not the one who feigns total innocence but is, rather, the one who has the courage to name his brokenness. For it is only in naming that darkness, realizing that "that-which-would-rather-not-be-named" (sin) loses its power and its luster the moment we name it, when we ask for help in grappling with it.
When people say, "I don't need to tell my sins to a priest" there is a part of me that nods in agreement! But, then again, I guess don't need a guide to see Venice, either. But doesn't it help and enrich the experience to have a guide to mediate the knowledge and history and experience of the city? Just as having a guide to bring me to a deeper appreciation for my journey so, too, does the priest mediate the wisdom of a Tradition that assures us that the forgiveness of our sins is possible. Confession is less an arena for punishment than it is a training ground, a theater where we can find and take direction from one who is (hopefully) a master. Think of it like Yoda: Yoda *never* claimed to be the Force just as Dumbledore *Never* claimed to be the whole of magic. They were but conduits, individuals who had dedicated their lives to bringing to ever-greater clarity the great and mysterious power that animated their own lives.
This is not an easy task. Often enough we feel as though we are under siege by terrible forces threatening to overtake our very souls! I think of the image from "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers." Recall the scene: Aragorn and King Theoden have retreated to the the keep of Helm's Deep. The king is resigned to defeat - the onslaught of orcs is too powerful for their soldiers to contend with. But in this dark hour, Aragorn looks through a window to see the first glimmers of a new day and he convinces the king to ride out to face the enemy. Ordering that the great Horn of Helm Hammerhand "Sound one last time" they ride out, a few lowly mortals against a sea of evil. To our eyes, the conclusion is foregone: soon they will die. But, lo! Upon the high hilltop the dawn from on high breaks upon the valley and all see Gandalf the White. The Orcs' spears are no match for wave that rushes down, crushing the opponent under hoof. The day is saved not by further retreat against the dark forces, but by rushing out to meet them held only by a promise, an oath, that He would come again.
In honor of SuperBowl Sunday, let me suggest that we re-think our image of confession. Rather than see it as "sack cloth and ashes" let us look at it as the locker room for our Christian lives, where our coaches guide us in living better our discipleship. Just as athletes watch films after games, so too must we take the time to examine our lives and to receive correction, to name our failings in such a way that we can conquer them in order to answer God's call . If, "when we are weak we are strong" (2 Cor 12:10), then our true strength shines forth when we name our sinful reality, when we open our hearts to the pierced hand of the healing Christ, who desires that we have life abundant. Commend, then, your brokenness into those hands, into that lanced heart; believe in the promise made by Christ and know the peace and joy that comes with the words, "your sins are forgiven."