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.