Monday, June 01, 2009

I don't need to tell my sins to a priest!

Two responses to my last post on the Mass mentioned the sacrament of confession. When composing the post, it did occur to me to mention this sacrament but, given my desire to be somewhat brief, I thought it might be helpful to offer a reflection on confession in a stand-alone post.

Saint Augustine, I believe, offered the following remarkable description of the sinner as one who is curvatus in se: turned in on oneself. When we sin, we don't do grave damage to God. Rather, we do terrible damage to ourselves insofar as, through sin, we cut ourselves off from the source of light and life. 

Humans are like gym socks. Much is expected from them and both are prone to get dirty. Proper care of gym socks involves frequent laundering in order to make sure they last, to ward off athlete's foot and other maladies, and as a courtesy to one's neighbors (as one who's going to teach high school boys after gym class, trust me that we're going to be having a conversation about 'care of neighbor' when it comes to hygiene!). We live in a dirty world and, as so often happens, the harder we play it often seems that we just get dirtier. Were we all gifted with the rare form of the superstar athlete, I reckon, we'd be able to stay clean. But imperfect performers, we get soiled and icky. And when this happens, we know to throw the socks in with the rest of the laundry to be cleaned. 

But think of what happens to sweaty gym socks when they are improperly cared for. If, after a long run, I ball up the socks [curvatus in se] and throw them into a dark corner, they will soon grow stinky and moldy. They will be unfit to be worn and, if they are worn, they will be offensive not only to my sensibilities but also to others. On those occasions when we do find a pair of our socks we seem to have neglected, we head again into the laundry room but, given their nasty condition, we reach for the bleach. We soak the socks with the hope of killing the mildew and destroying the dank odor. In such moments, we hope that the bleach is strong enough to rescue our socks for another run. 

It seems to me that we have, as a Church, too often neglected that sin is gross like the (visible) mildew or (invisible) athlete's foot fungus that grows on balled-up gym socks. When we are burdened with sin, we simply cannot perform to the best of our ability. When we are caked in the mildew that grows when we've been turned in ourselves for a very long time, our own spiritual health suffers as does the spiritual health of those around us. And, truth be told, we are very good at concealing bad odors: scented candles,  Febreeze, mouthwash, cologne. These work, at least for a while, but after a time the smell returns. If we don't address the root cause of the odor, we'll be condemned to an unending struggle to cover it up.

So what do we do when we have the experience of finding that our favorite gym socks have become covered in mildew, or when we see that our wedding dress has been stained? We take it to the cleaners! So, too, do we turn to the Martha Stewart of Sin and seek counsel and aide when we realize that our own spirits have been damaged. Sure, it is embarrassing to admit that we've messed up or that we've not taken care of our things. On one level, we should be embarrassed about our sin - it's healthy to have some degree of shame. On another level, this embarrassment seems to me to be a ploy of the evil spirit, one that coaxes you to "ignore the problem. It's not so bad, after all. Just act normal and no one will be any the wiser." The voice of the dark spirit encourages things to remain as they are, to remain turned in on oneself, whereas the spirit of life encourages us to open ourselves up to the assistance of another. 

It's an imperfect image, but what I'm getting at is this: Confession to a priest is not meant to be a traumatic event, one that impresses upon you that you are a sinner. If you're going to confession, you know already that you are a sinner. What you are to hear (please God) is that God loves you, that God could not stop loving you, and that it is God's desire that you run in your favorite socks, or walk down the aisle in an immaculately white dress. When we confess our sins, when we open ourselves up and air ourselves out in the light and love of Christ, we are renewed and restored. When we hear the words of absolution, the mildew and grime that has covered up parts of our spirit are eradicated by God's own Bleach (much better than Clorox) and we are made new again. In confession, the stain we thought would never come out is cleansed and we are given, again and again, another opportunity to run again.

So why a priest? Because our sin is NEVER simply between "Me" and "God." If we take seriously our belief that we are the Body of Christ, what affects me affects also my sisters and brothers. When I am suffering from sin, those around me are suffering too: just think of stinky feet and how they are a problem not only for the owner of the feet but also for those around him! In the priest, I meet with a brother in Christ, one who stands also for the whole community, who celebrates my return to communion with others. The priest is there as a support and as a celebrant, one to support us as we open ourselves up to clean air and one to celebrate with us as we are cleansed. And it is his words that return us to the community, to begin again in efforts to live in and love Christ. 

The Celebration of Confession is often looked at as a punishment. But like any athletic training, regular celebration of this sacrament encourages us to strive harder to live closer to Jesus. In our lives, we'll often struggle with certain sins and we'll certainly hit plateaus in our efforts. But as we are training in this life for life in God's Kingdom, we should challenge ourselves to continue to grow. Regular confession helps us to refine our lives; even elite athletes watch film of themselves in order to learn how to shave even 0.1-second off of one's time. 

If I may use one final analogy, consider Confession to be like a Weight-Watcher's scale. It holds us accountable in our pursuit of our goal. When we have lost weight or hit a new target, we have a supportive community who celebrates with us. The Weight-Watcher leader (like the priest) knows something of dieting and the struggle with weight loss (sin) and is able to celebrate with you, challenge you, and encourage you. As we approach our target weight, it so often seems to get harder and harder to lose that stubborn 0.5 pound. But we are encouraged by those around to persevere, and we encourage others to do the same. Whether one comes in to Weight-Watchers hoping to lose 20 pounds or 200, we realize that we're in this together and we are to support and challenge one another as we journey toward the goal. So, too, in the Church must we feel emboldened to encourage and challenge each other, celebrating triumphs and being supportive as we journey together toward life in God's Kingdom. 
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