Anyone who’s ever tried to make a change can tell you that the trick is knowing when to start. While January might seem like the best time to change a fitness routine, Lent is the ideal time for a spiritual reboot. Forty days of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving provide space to take a good look at our soul and ask ourselves if the words we are saying and the actions we are taking will get us to Easter with an open heart. Like boot camp, Lent strips off excess and gets down to what’s essential. As penitents, an essential habit of our Lenten practice is the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Confession is something I’ve struggled to do habitually. While I try not to make a habit of doing things that should land me in a confessional, my habit of convincing myself that I don’t really need to tell a priest about the rotten things I’ve done dies hard. That said, I love the divine wisdom behind this sacrament. I know I need Father Confessional, acting in the person of Christ, to forgive my sins and restore me to a right relationship with God. Pondering the goodness of the sacrament, however, isn’t always enough to get me moving. So, last Lent, in an attempt to melt the spiritual sludge, I made three changes that helped me make a habit of going to confession: I kept a journal, found a new place to confess, and scheduled time for confession in advance. Here’s how it went:
Keeping a confession journal
The hardest part of a “confession journal” is actually having one. Mine was yellow. While “Confession Journal” was not written on its cover, it did contain the things I needed to confess — with specific references to persons, places, and all. One day after confession, I left it in a pew, cheerfully detectable to anyone walking by. Going forward, I kept my journal on my Google drive. In addition to keeping my sins between me and Father in the confessional, my e-journal made it easier to track matters of the soul. Like food journals that keep track of calories, confession journals focus on what with less emphasis on why or how. Reflection questions, like those in this guide, are clear and direct and help me to realize what I’ve done and how many times I’ve done it. Praying the Daily Examen also helped in showing how I turned (or failed to turn) my gaze to the Lord. If time was short, I’d jot down at least a few words to capture the day. Over time, even just a few words can reveal truths. Having a journal full of these reflections armed me with what to say and prepared me to take the next step of getting to a confessional.
Finding a place to confess
Finding a place to go to confession was the second step of my three-step routine. Since my struggle was getting to confession regularly, the familiarity of my home parish did not provide the atmosphere I needed for change. For the record, I love my parish community and its priests dearly. However, confession isn’t about the things I love and want to maintain. Going to confession at other parishes and nearby shrines made me feel less self-conscious. The anonymity of the confessor helped me to talk more freely about the things in my confession journal and better prepared me to receive the mercy and forgiveness I sought.
Creating a confession schedule
The last piece in my struggle to confess regularly was finding time to go. I began with blocking off an hour on my calendar at least once a month. While the grace that confession imparts is not dictated by schedule, I never found myself not needing to go by the time my confession appointment rolled around. Sometimes, I even found myself going more frequently than I had originally planned. Scheduling the time in advance assured me I could go if I needed. It also safeguarded against things I might have done instead had I not set aside time in the first place.
While I still can’t claim that I go to confession every time I should, keeping a journal, finding a place, and scheduling a time to go are habits that have made the Sacrament of Reconciliation an indispensable part of my Lenten experience. Surprisingly, they also helped turn confession – something that I dreaded doing – into something that I actually looked forward to. Time will tell how well I will keep these habits up, but so will other things. When we make steps to improve our physical body, our efforts are measurable. When we apply similar habits to matters of our sacramental life, the results are not only visible but radiant and eternal.