Busted Halo
feature: religion & spirituality
June 10th, 2011

A Newbie’s Guide to Confession

Why doesn't the Church sell this?



Trying to explain Confession (the Sacrament of Reconciliation) to non-Catholics reminds me of that old cartoon by James Thurber where a woman is in the middle of a room, nervously expecting electricity to leak out of the sockets. She knows it’s there — she realizes it “works” — but she can’t explain it, and it is also a tad frightening.

Before my conversion I heard vague rumors about confessing with a priest. I wondered, “What an odd thing! What do they do? What do they say?” (Those strange Catholic people…) I didn’t experience Reconciliation until just before the Easter Vigil on the year I was officially welcomed into the church.

All of my old sins clanked around like tools in a too-full toolbox, knocking against the edges of my soul: things involving probably a rather larger amount of alcohol than was good for me, and also involving a tighter involvement with unmarried men of my acquaintance than was good for me. Actually, I was damned nervous. But a friend who had taught our RCIA group helped me by saying, “Annie, this priest has seen and heard everything. There is nothing new you can tell him, trust me.” So I did, and Reconciliation was like nothing else I have ever experienced.

If I told you that Reconciliation is like a combination of therapy, sex and religion, would you believe me? Here’s how it goes: I draw up an interior list of things I have done that set me apart from God’s love, and which also separate me from the best parts of myself. (Sometimes I scribble notes on a notepad and keep it nearby during the sacrament.) I go in, sit near my priest (in this first case he is sitting opposite me on a comfy sofa in the living room of the rectory), and confess that I don’t know the words to “Bless me father, for I have sinned,” but that I do know I have, in fact, sinned. He beams softly at me, encouraging me to go on. Which I do, accompanied that first time by floods of tears and by an emotion I don’t usually let in — shame. How could I have let myself behave in those ways? How could I have let God down in such a warty fashion?

Reconciliation is like a combination of therapy, sex and religion. It is unbeatable. I don’t know why the church doesn’t sell it. No one else is offering the same thing.

After going through my list, which stretched back over years before my marriage, I sniff, blow and tuck sodden Kleenex up the sleeve of my sweater. My priest sits quietly for a moment, looks at me compassionately, and asks, “Is that all, Annie?” I nod, appalled and stunned by my revelations, by the sense that I am little better than a toad. Actually a toad is better than I, for he is true to his nature.

Then, my priest puts his hands on either side of my head (I am way beyond worrying if my hair is stiff from gel or somehow strange and repellent) and pronounces that with the authority vested in him by the Catholic Church, my sins are forgiven. We say a prayer together, I cross myself, and he blesses me.

Holy God. I stagger to my feet, almost unable to walk. Something has happened so powerful that it’s knocked me sideways, and yet — and yet — I am flooded with peace, joy and a sense of the everlasting arms beneath me. I can almost feel them bearing me up.

So that is why I say Reconciliation is like a combination of therapy, sex and religion: you have the relief of talking about the darker parts of yourself; you feel the same surge of endorphins that comes after good and loving sex; and you feel your heart expanding with God’s mercy which is wide and deep as the sky. It is unbeatable. I don’t know why the church doesn’t sell it. No one else is offering the same thing.

When you are done with the sacrament, you are, of course, not really done. It continues to work in you over the next days, weeks and months as your heart, newly softened by mercy and forgiveness, opens to God’s word and inspiration. That is why Jesus says to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you. Go (and) from now on do not sin any more.” (John 8:11) I don’t know about the not sinning any more part, but I can surely go forth and try to be the person God has created me to be, not some shadowed, broken version of myself.

The Author : Annie Turner
Ann Turner is a passionate convert to the Catholic faith, who is also passionate about life in general, small dogs, food and wine, friends, nature, and the blessing that comes from just showing up and being a witness with other people. Follow Ann's faith journey & more at: itsthegodthing.blogspot.com. Ann is also the published author of over forty children's books. She loves to hear from her readers.
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  • Tina Estrada

    Thanks, Ann. This article spoke to my heart.
    I want to go back to confession now, it´s been eight years since i have been. It is a jumpstart for my heart!

  • Susan

    This is a beautiful article and it makes me realize how we need to return to this sacrament. For years I stopped going and am now back after hearing my cousin state that it was his favorite thing about the Catholic church. That made me think.

    Yet it’s sad that a lot of Catholics I know have stopped going as they see confession (reconciliation) as passé. Sin’s not passé. If I do talk to a Catholic friend about confession and we mention how clean we felt afterwards, those memories – probably from childhood return. It is such a blessing.

  • Tina

    Thank you for this. :)

  • Margaret

    Thanks, Ann!

  • jedesto

    A wonderful story from Fulton Sheen tells of someone who came to confession one Saturday afternoon and told the priest that they were not going to confess any sins but were just going through the motions to please their family, and promptly exited the confessional. The priest asked every other penitent to pray for a special intention of his and he remained in the confessional until he was reading and praying slone in the silent church. Late in the evening he heard footsteps approaching. He dimmed the light in the confessional and heard, “Bless me, Father, I told you this afternon that I was just going through the motions.”

  • Steve

    Congratulations, Angie.

    Gary, I’m so glad that you didn’t let the poor behavior of one confessor spoil the whole sacrament for you! Unfortunately, we often forget that priests are human just like us, and can have bad days or just be unpleasant in general.

  • Angie

    So very beautiful! Today was my confirmation in the Church and I had my first confession last week. I was so nervous, but you nailed it on the head. This whole experience has been profoundly transforming and that was no different.

  • Gary

    When I was 14 I had Told my priest that it had been more than three months since my last confession. He said, in the confessionL, I ought to kick your ass.

    It was many years. Before I went back to confession. I used his experience to justify leaving the Faith.
    My conversion and return to the Faith over the many years has been one of the educational (slow and continual) variety.

    I participate in frequent reconciliation and am amazed at the kindness, love and compassion I receive through and from my confessor


  • Katherine

    Succinct, concise, and powerful. When I began my journey back to the Church, I had a similar experience.

  • Julia

    What I was told in RCIA was, “It’s just like going to the doctor: he’s seen lots of sloppy bodies in his time; there’s nothing new about yours.” Someone else added that if everyone went to confession, it would put psychiatry out of business, except for those who are truly insane.
    For my own part, I’ve found that naming my demons helps to release their hold on me.



  • Cynthia

    Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. You’ve captured it perfectly. Thank you.

  • Ann W. Turner

    Anita, that is a fabulous quote! I’m writing it down in my journal. Thanks, Tanya.

  • AnitaH

    Carl Jung commented one time that very few of his patients in Vienna were Catholic. “They have confession,” he said, “so they have no need for me.”

  • Tanya

    This is the most beautiful article about confession I have ever read. Thank you.

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