By Susannah Ritchey
Unavoidable anticipation, accompanied by anxious thoughts and a quiver deep in the stomach, pervade your body as you wait patiently for your turn to approach the Priest. Brilliant robes of varying hues, deep red as it is currently Lent, garment the man who has up until now been a friendly face, a sometimes dinner companion, or even a regular friend. Now, however, he is the foe. When your coworker asked you what you were doing for Easter, you told them of the services for Holy Week. You told them of the breathtaking hymns, the pervading scent of lilies, and of course, the profound depth of experiencing the Crucifixion and resurrection together with our God. Accidently, you also mentioned that you were going to your yearly confession. That feeling of guilt, residing in the far-most corner of your mind where you had summarily beaten into submission for many years now the whispered voice that beckons, “Come and share with me.” Unfortunately, that voice, calm and soft, had been overcome by the louder voices, “You do it because God told you too! You do it to get to Heaven! It’s just something that we have to do.” This louder voice, condemning and berating, sounds suspiciously like your mother’s and you have grown used to shouting back, “It is my choice, and I promise I’ll at least do it for Easter!” Well, Easter has arrived, and the quiet voice, the voice you can barely hear anymore as you have become content to argue endlessly with the louder voices, goes largely ignored. Suddenly, as you wait in line, sweating a little now and glancing repeatedly at your watch in the vain hope that church will start before Father has time to hear your confession, the voice of your coworker comes unbidden into your mind. “In my church we don’t do that. What is the point when God already knows? And don’t you hate being judged all of the time? I thought Christ was our only judge.” You shake your head, privately agreeing that your feelings align with your coworker. ‘Why should we be different? Why should our religious life be about penitence?’ Church has started, and you jump out of line, making your way to your pew, and sigh with relief. The soft, calm voice of God which beckoned, “Come and share with me,” drifts back into that small recess of your mind, perhaps thinking, “maybe next year.”
Here we see yet another victim of the culture of damnation. Our culture has consumed the act of confession with shame and misery. A dark alleyway where the filth of a soul goes to wallow in its muck. Christians have become so obsessed with the fearful wrath of God, that they have entirely forgotten that we pray to the God of love and mercy, to the God who became man so that damnation and death would no longer control their lives. We need to be reminded that life and love and living through Christ will enable us as followers of God to act and embrace freedom.
Confession has become synonymous with judgment and hell, and the ways in which we can label a sinner as the most damned, the most ridiculed, the most shamed. Young Catholics are not persuaded to go to confession, they are scared into going. Without confession, life leads to hell, with it you know exactly what you did wrong and how to be punished. Where, in this formula of the damned, are we to live out the love, peace and joy that God gave us? At chrismation, we are sealed within us the Holy Spirit. God, who is love in nature, inexpressible in awe and wonder, the pinnacle of beauty and perfection, resides within us. To live is to let out what is held within. By living, the precious gift of God is not expressed through penitence. Penitence is the discipline to come back to Christ. Acting out love and beauty is living.
Why do we fear so much going to a priest and confessing what has already been done? Is it that some part of us recognizes that a series of actions come together to create a life? Do we, in our hearts, or perhaps our souls, know that it is our nature as baptized Christians to live a life of love and beauty? Are our hearts more knowledgeable about our role as creatures; that we are meant to reflect the God of all? Is that why we are afraid to admit to another person that we have turned away from light? That, maybe, we in fact let our series of actions betray a falling away from Him who knows all? Why is saying out loud what we have done so much harder than thinking to ourselves or even speaking to ourselves our sins?
Deep in the heart of this fear lies a remarkable truth. Words have a great, and largely unrecognized, power. God spoke the world into existence. His breath created us. The first touch of our Father’s power came through the spoken word. It is His word that we have taken and formed into the scripture. It is by His word that we stand together as Christians two thousand years after He sent an angel to ask a young woman to carry Him in her womb. The greatest events in the universe happened when someone took action and replied to God when said, “Come and follow me.”
After baptism our souls have come alive. We are not imprisoned in this death and damned state of being. We are not dead. We should not fear death. We are prisms, clear and beautiful, filled with an incomprehensible light. To live with love and kindness and joy is to be a prism which refracts the wonderful light of Christ, emitting beautiful rainbows and majestic beams wherever you go. Your life touches so many others. God walks with you and when you follow Him, acknowledge Him, the world becomes renewed.
Where in this wondrous existence of ours do death and fear play a part? To be truthful, it is when we leave God’s side. He never leaves us; we push Him back into the far corners where He is reduced to whispers. We like to listen to voices which shout of judgment and wrath, and we miss entirely the miracle of the Crucifixion. God gave us every tool to be with Him, to be saved by Him. Yes, the great and powerful tool of salvation is confession.
No, do not be afraid of the word! A priest spends his life training to forget what we confess, and council his flock. In the sacrament of confession, he is merely a conduit. You stand before the icon of Christ in confession because it is He who you are talking to. But what good is a conversation if it is one sided? God, in all His power and wisdom, created the Church. He told us as a people to take care of one another and form a structure that would provide all that is necessary to be a saved people. He gave us the clergy. He gave us people who seek to live as God would have us. And most importantly, would not God give us a way to communicate with Him, especially in our greatest need? A priest simply allows the Holy Spirit to speak to you about all that you have ignored concerning the forgiveness of your sins.
What do you fear from confession? Why is opening your mouth to another human to express guilt and sorrow so difficult? It is because we have judged ourselves so harshly, that we have bought into the lie of fear and damnation that the man who has dedicated himself to God will hate our acts as much as we do. We hate and judge and demean ourselves, long before we can give another person a chance too. We are so used to the world acting just like us that we think to ourselves that confessing in our heads is enough, that aloud to yourself is en
ough. What is stronger, I ask you? If you think a compliment to someone, or speak a compliment to the air, does the air benefit? Does the person you admire gain joy and peace from your thoughts? Are we so arrogant to believe that it is enough to say to God in secret, I am sorry, then to go to the place He has set out for you, to go to the person He has trained to help you? How are you to be given aid if you never seek the physician? How are you to know that the horrible things you think about yourself, about your sins, are nothing other than lies insidiously spread by the devil to cause you despair? Be healed! There is a volunteer who says, release me from myself, and let your light and love shine through me O my God, and guide your people home.
Who are we as Christians, if we do not take action, if we find a brief solace in the lie that if He already knows my faults, why do I need to act? God knows all from before you and well after you. He also loves you. He has reached out His hand with a wisdom greater than yours and said simply, “Come and see Me.” Live out his beauty. Walk bravely up to the priest. Let the shame and judgment we give to ourselves go. Stand before God, and listen to what He says. It is never “I hate you.” It is never “I condemn you.” Through confession, it is always, “I love you, thank you for coming to speak with me. Here, I will set you free.”