It’s Lent. Almost Easter. And I haven’t been to Confession in around 7 years. Catholics are supposed to go at least once a year. I’ve decided to go tomorrow, because my local priest is offering extended hours. It’s time.
I’ve been avoiding it for so long because it’s not a fun thing. For those who have never experienced Confession, here’s how it goes:
You enter the church. It’s usually pretty quiet; people aren’t there to be social. You join the queue of people waiting outside the Confessional (if your church has one; otherwise, you join the queue of people waiting outside a small, private room).
Once it’s your turn, you enter the Confessional, which is a tiny, dark room with a kneeler and a wicker screen through which you can usually see the outline of the priest’s profile. You kneel down. If you’re attending Confession face to face, you’ll probably be seated across from the priest in a small but well-lit room, in full view of one another.
The priest will open with a quote from Scripture. Then in response, you say, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It’s been [however long it’s been since your last Confession].”
Then you start talking. You tell him all the crappy things you’ve done. When you’re a kid, you probably end up confessing to disobeying your parents, fighting with your sibling(s), skipping church, that sort of thing. As you get older though, the sins become more shameful and more difficult to own up to. Masturbation, swearing, drunkenness, vicious gossiping, jealousy, emotionally abusing your friends, you get the idea. The habits and memories that you’re not proud of, and probably spend a good deal of energy trying not to remember. Once you’re done telling him about these things, he will (kindly) give you spiritual advice on how you can change your behavior and thought patterns to better align with Catholic values. Or sometimes he will probe a little to gauge how sorry you really are, and then counsel you appropriately.
Then the priest gives you a penance assignment. This could be a real-world task, such as going out of your way to demonstrate kindness to someone you’ve gossiped viciously about, or volunteering in your community more. Or it could simply be to say ten Hail Marys. It depends on the priest and on the severity of the sins.
Then you recite the Act of Contrition prayer (some churches kindly tape it to the elbow rest in front of the screen, or you can bring a printout of it into the Confessional or private room with you). And the priest says a prayer over you and tells you that you are absolved, and that you should go forth and avoid future sinning. Then you are free to go.
This maybe doesn’t sound too awful to some people, but to me, it can be anxiety-inducing. It’s a strange thing. The priest usually takes a neutral tone with you, and he won’t usually judge you—they just let you know why what you did was not OK in the eyes of the church, and they give you advice on how to avoid making those mistakes again. I guess it’s the prep work that I have to do beforehand that I dread.
I have to examine my conscience before I go, and internally own up to the ugly things I’ve done, and then be prepared to list them all off in one sitting, with another human being listening. And I haven’t done myself any favors by putting it off for years on end, because now the list is pretty long and pretty ugly (and I have to include “skipping Confession for seven years out of shame” to it), I feel pretty bad about myself, and I’m a little apprehensive about what he’s going to tell me. I don’t really want to discuss any of it. I want to be told what to do to get myself back in God’s good graces and move on.
I suppose this is the same reason why therapy can be such a lengthy process… it sucks, dredging up painful memories and reliving and discussing them, and it’s hard to own your part of them and admit that you messed up. The amin difference is that the therapist is supposed to draw these memories, emotions, and revelations out of you over time; in Confession, you have to come to the priest with your mess-ups pre-drawn out and pre-revealed in your mind. You have to come to Confession as a contrite sinner and surrender to the vulnerability of being in the wrong. And you have to ask for forgiveness.
It’s not easy, but then again, no one ever said that it was. It’s a spiritual exercise in humility, but when it’s over, it ends up being a cleansing and cathartic thing. It’s like conquering any fear, really.
It also helps me personally to think of it the same way that I think of going for my annual physical exam at the doctor’s office. I get embarrassed and apprehensive when I have to answer the doctor’s questions about my bowel movements and sexual habits, and when I have to endure the pap smear and breast exam, but the doctor is clinical and professional about it, and then it’s over and done with, and once I’m told that I’m healthy, all I feel is immense relief.
Going to Confession is like going to see the spiritual doctor. Yeah, it’s embarrassing and I have to reveal my ugly spiritual side to him, but like the doctor doing my physical exam, the priest will be clinical and professional about it. And not that this is the point, but I’m also sure he’s heard worse than what I have to tell him anyway. And then it will be over and done with, and I can start working on being spiritually healthy.
This is the thing no one tells you about adulthood. Yes, you get to own more things, like a car and expensive shampoo and the TV remote, but you also have to own your mistakes. We are fortunate to be living in a time where self-care and mental health awareness are on the rise, so there are any number of secular and Eastern-influenced tools and resources available to help adults be mentally and spiritually healthy, and to (hopefully) own up to their mistakes and move on from them. Meditation apps, free YouTube yoga, endless pop psyche articles, print self-help books, etc. Confession is another one of those tools, albeit an old-fashioned, Christian one. Is it the most user-friendly tool? Honestly? No. Is it nonetheless a very effective tool? Absolutely. That’s why it’s stood the test of time.
So this Lenten season, instead of ignoring and dreading Confession, I am going to choose to feel blessed to have been raised Catholic and to have Confession as a resource on my journey toward self-care and spiritual health.