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By Fr Chris Saliga, OP
The sacrament of reconciliation is one of the least appreciated sacraments today. After all, isn’t confession just a legalistic “smack down” by which basically good folks like you and me are pressured into confessing things we actually find to be pleasurable? What if I am not hurting anyone else? What’s the big deal? Why bother?
If one were to stop there, one might never return to confession. Why do people go to confession? In response, I offer an analogical reflection upon the healing effects of sacramental confession.
Our analogue is a realistic case involving a 45-year-old man named Jack who experiences chest pain. In brief:
(1) As Jack’s more-or-less accurate self-assessment of his chest pain gives rise to his free and informed decision to seek expert medical help from a physician, so “my” more-or-less accurate recognition of personal sin gives rise to “my” decision to seek expert sacramental help from a priest.
(2) As Jack’s free, reasonable, and loving decision to actively seek expert medical help allows objective diagnosis, surgical intervention, and post-surgical rehabilitation unto better cardiovascular health, so “my” free, reasonable, and loving decision to seek expert sacramental help from a priest involves diagnosis, real healing, and post-confessional rehabilitation unto better spiritual and relational flourishing.
(3) As Jack’s improved cardiovascular health has the additional benefit of “feeling better,” so “my” improved spiritual and relational flourishing has the additional benefit of “my” “feeling closer to God and neighbor.” In the end, the sacrament of reconciliation is properly seen as a healing event grounded in a truly excellent future goal.
On a hot summer’s day while mowing the lawn, Jack notices something familiar: burning chest pain. He has had similar episodes in the past. And yet, he notices something new–the pain is radiating up into his jaw and through his back; he is short of breath; he is weak; and then, he experiences dread as he drops to the ground in a cold sweat with “crushing” pain. He knows that “this isn’t indigestion anymore.”
Fortunately, a neighbor sees Jack and rushes to his aid shouting, “Jack! Are you OK?” He replies “No. I think I’m having a coronary or something.” In short order, Jack finds himself in an emergency room being fully assessed for heart attack.
Jack knows that something is wrong and has admitted it to himself. At the same time, he needs expert help to fully grasp the meaning of both what has happened and what is happening. Once his test results are back, Jack discovers that this and his earlier chest pain episodes point to a problem that needs to be rectified.
Like Jack, who knows he is in trouble and needs help, “I,” at least partially aware of sin or symptoms of sin in “my” life, know “I” need help. Like Jack, who had previously failed to accurately identify the meaning of his chest pain episodes, “I” am sometimes unable to fully identify current sin or symptoms of sin in “my” life.
Just as Jack finds himself disclosing to a physician his history of chest discomfort, poor eating habits, addiction to tobacco, sedentary lifestyle, etc., “I” find “myself“ disclosing to a priest discrete sins and failures which form a bigger picture. Jack needs answers. “I” too need answers. What does this pain mean? How can I make it go away? Like Jack, who cries out for healthy resolution of whatever his problem is, moved by some level of sorrow for my sin, “I” desire healing of my damaged relationship with God and neighbor. (See Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), no. 1453 at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s2c2a4.htm)
Like the physician called upon to help Jack more fully understand the meaning of his pain unto healing action, the priest is called upon to help “me” come to a richer understanding of my patterns of sin and brokenness unto healing action. Even the physician who does not perfectly practice what s/he preaches as evidenced by sedentary living and smoking, competently helps others modify their sedentary living and smoking in accord with their best interest. Likewise, the priest who fails to perfectly practice what he preaches competently helps “me” grow in integrity of life (holiness). Suffice it to say that incongruity or perhaps hypocrisy on the part of the physician or the priest does not negate “my” healing. It really is not in “my” best interest to steer clear of confession because “I” suspect or even know that the priest is incongruous or perhaps even hypocritical in his daily life.
With all the test results fully interpreted by the physician, Jack is relieved to find out that he has not actually suffered a heart attack. He is also concerned when he learns that he has four significantly blocked coronary arteries. Finally, Jack is fearful when he learns that his physician considers open-heart surgery to be in his best long-term interest. Jack struggles in his fear. But, in time, he comes to an informed decision to give informed consent to the physician to surgically heal him.
As fearful as Jack is regarding his upcoming surgery, fear of going to confess “my” sins to a priest can also be profound, especially if particular sins are quite serious. In fact, the “courage of faith” required in such circumstances is possibly even greater than the courage displayed by Jack. Is there any wonder that people often steer clear of sacramental confession? This “courage of faith” involves accepting
“the light of Christ [which] penetrates [my] intimate being with all its hidden corners, to eradicate the ego of shadow and sin that clings to [my] very flesh and bones. This calls for a surgical operation, done in full consciousness without anesthetic. Then, with this light, the very courage of God, the power of the Holy Spirit enters [my] heart and strengthens it against all obstacles and fears . . .” (Pinckaers, Servais, “The Virtue for the Apostolate: Courage and New Life in Christ.” The Dominican Torch 5.1, 31 available at http://3op.org/magazine.php)
Jack comes to trust and hope in his physician enough to courageously undergo heart surgery. Jack’s heart vessels have been hardened and damaged by plaque. “My” heart has been hardened by “my” sin such that “my” relationships with God and neighbor are damaged. It is in “my best interest” to courageously face my own need for forgiveness by walking the daunting path-less-traveled of freely, reasonably, and lovingly submitting “myself” to the metaphorical scalpel of a skilled priest who can help “me” come to realize Christ’s transformative healing. What healing? A metanoia, which is to say:
“A change of mind, a reorientation, a fundamental transformation of one’s outlook and vision of the world and oneself. Repentance, ultimately, means a new way of loving, that is, of loving others and of loving one’s deepest self . . . As we repent we begin to see how sin, by dividing us from God and also from God’s creation, has reduced us to a separated, pseudo-autonomous existence and deprived us of our true freedom and our natural glory. ‘Repentance’ says Basil the Great, ‘is salvation . . . but lack of understanding is the death of repentance.’” (Chryssangis, John, Soul Mending: The Art of Spiritual Direction. Brookline MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2000, 21. See also CCC, nos. 1430- 1433 at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s2c2a4.htm)
After surgery, Jack will wake up in a cured state. After “I” confess my sins, “I” will realize God’s healing mercy when the priest, as God’s merciful instrument, speaks the healing words “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit Amen” and then closes with “Your sins are forgiven, go in peace.”
Although Jack’s healing has taken place “under the knife” in the operating room, he now freely, reasonably, and even lovingly embraces cardiac rehabilitation and ongoing “prudent heart living,” both of which can, at least sometimes, feel un-pleasurable. Like Jack, “my” healing has taken place within the sacrament of confession such that “I” now freely, reasonably, and lovingly go forward and embrace my rehabilitation (penance), which may feel a bit un-pleasurable. Yet, both Jack and “I,” even while embracing our respective rehabilitative courses, experience a deeper sense of joy and gratitude for the healing with which we have been blessed and our new levels of flourishing now unfolding. (See CCC, nos. 1459, 1460, and 1468 at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s2c2a4.htm)
In the final analysis, our analogy, as do all analogies, has its limits. After all, even in the best of circumstances, Jack’s heart will eventually stop functioning. Jack will eventually die. The far more joyful news regarding “my” life of metanoia proceeds out of the ultimate end for which God has created “me” in the first place–face-to-face union with God in communion with all the angels and the saints for all eternity, a union and communion which far surpasses even “my” greatest temporal happiness. (See CCC nos. 1469, 1470, and 1474–1477 at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s2c2a4.htm) Even now, “I” enjoy a foretaste of this ultimate end thanks to “my” ever-deepening relationship with God and neighbor during “my” earthly sojourn, which is to say:
“Metanoia is the gateway to one’s soul, to one’s neighbor, and to heaven. It leads inward, but it in so doing opens outward. One’s realm of consciousness ceases to constrict upon one’s self and expands more and more to embrace the other–the divine Other and all others who are images of Him. Sin has the opposite effect. It blocks the way both inward and outward. To repent and confess is to break free from the restrictions of sin. In my repentance, my world ceases to rotate around ‘me’ and begins to turn toward the other centering on God. Then, everyone and everything no longer exists for my purposes but for the glory of God, in the Divine Liturgy of life.” (Chryssangis, 23)
Is it any wonder why the likes of Mother Theresa of Calcutta and Pope John Paul II never stopped regularly availing themselves of the Sacrament of Reconciliation? Please God give us each the “Amazing Grace” to do the same.