What was your best experience in confession?
So was posed the question in a blog I frequent. My immediate response? The last one!
The last confession is always the best because it restores me to grace, cleans me up again. Still, I am a new enough Catholic to remember most--if not all--of the times I have been to confession and some times stand out. They are landmarks in my journey of faith and understanding.
First confession tends to be intimidating, if for no other reason than it is the first. There is an overwhelming , wildly inappropriate, desire to ask a cradle Catholic: May I come and listen in to make sure I do it right? There is no way to adequately communicate the anxiety that confession can gin up in those for whom it is a totally foreign practice. Intellectual understanding and acceptance do not--repeat not--mean ease.
I'd actually been to confession fairly regularly as an Anglican, and I remember that first time there with some amusement. After the formula Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, I started explaining explaining why I felt the need to come, in a rather intellectual fashion. You see, in the Anglican tradition, all can, some do, no one must go to confession...so it seemed natural in my mind to try to justify why I was there is, after all, it was not exactly needful.....
My confessor, a friend who knew me well, just smiled. It's a big, holy mystery. Just get on with it.
It is indeed a big, holy mystery. I have been ever since that first time aware that when I come into the confessional that I am there to meet Jesus on intimate, mysterious terms. The unease that I feel--after all, I am going to meet Him to lay bare my soul and my deficiencies-- would be enough to keep me away were it not that I know the joy that comes after when the words of absolution are spoken. Sometimes I need to hear with my own ears, the physical ones, not the ones of the heart, that I am forgiven. I am spirit and body. Sin involves both parts of me; so should forgiveness.
As my friends who are preparing to enter the Church approach Easter Vigil, they too are making confession for the first time. I remember how hard it was to walk into the confessional and speak to the man, the Father in faith who had shepherded my journey, about my sins. I'd prepared as best I could and as soon as I sat down and began to speak, I forgot everything, an experience that would often be repeated, and one that still gives me pause. Rehearse all I want the things I will say, when I am confronted with Jesus in the confessional, I am very often speechless and what comes out can be very different than what brought me in.
And at least for me, I am nearly always tearful. I am so grateful for the gift of Irish linen handkerchiefs from friends. I am comforted by the fact that science supports me in this: studies have proven the tears of women to be unpredictable and the result of joy, sorrow, fear, relief, anticipation, just about every emotion known to womankind....now if I could just get comfortable with the idea that it's going to happen and quit apologizing for it, I would be fine. Anyway, I got through that first confession, made my penance and came into the Church joyfully on Easter (when I cried again, receiving the Eucharist...)
After that, there have been a few stand-out confessions that I recall with great fondness, in part because they poke at my self-sufficiency and my pride, and in part because they are the sign-posts on my journey.
About a year after I entered the Church, I went to a penance service at my parish. Deciding I wanted to avoid confessing to my own pastor (a common, but ultimately futile sentiment), I went into a room marked with the name of a visiting priest. I expected him to be sitting back to the door so that I could choose anonymous confession (the better to spare my pride) but to my utter dismay, there he sat, looking right at me and beckoning me to the chair. I clutched my little orange index card, on which I had taken notes, and started.
And couldn't take my eyes off his, big and brown, that held my gaze as I stumbled through my examination of conscience. It was like looking right in Jesus' eyes, and it wasn't long before my speech dwindled to a halt. I could not stop looking at those eyes.
Let me see your card , he said gently. I will give it back, I just what to be sure to speak to all you've said.
I clutched that card for the very life of me, but then passed it over. He glanced at the notes and then spoke kindly and gently to each one, ending with You've named them. You've claimed them. They are gone. I was still looking into those big, brown eyes, the eyes of a man acting in persona Christi. Looking, in a very real way, into the kind and forgiving eyes of Christ.
As I continued my walk in faith, long forgotten things began to surface, unbidden and unwelcome, things I had done and not remembered--literally--for 30 years. Trust me, when you come into the Church at two score and fourteen and you came to adulthood in the Age of Aquarius, there are some things in the memory closet that you'd just as soon not air out. Such memories sent me back to confession--not because I was uncertain of forgiveness already received for sins forgotten at the time of confession, for I was not. I went because I knew by then that if I left them specifically in the confessional, there they would remain. After a couple such trips, I decided it was time to do a spiritual housecleaning, a thorough general confession, something I had not done all well when I was received.
So I met with a priest and told him what I had in mind. He pulled a book on confession off his shelf, gave it to me to read, suggested prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and fasting as preparation, and we set a date.
This time the list was longer. I sat in the sacristy, unhurried, and for once unashamed to be tearful. It took a while but I got through the whole list, everything I could remember. I'll never forget his words of consolation:
There is always shame in confessing what we have done wrong. And the Adversary will use that shame against you over and over again, try to make you stumble by remembering it. When he does, I want you to remember this: at 4:30 in the afternoon of November 30, you were forgiven.....and there is no more shame.
Now I come knowing a list of transgressions, but working harder to get at what lies beneath them, what really interferes with my relationship with Christ. It is often not at all what I think, and it reminds me of that first confession--I came prepared with my own ideas, but God gave me others. So it is now....I come open and prepared, but I am learning to let the Holy Spirit lead me into what I need to confront, just as I must trust Him help me to move past it. Looking back, I can see the road clearly--and walking it, I saw it not at all. I just knew, because others told me so, that the path lay in part through the confessional.
My best confession? The last one. Because I can look into the eyes of Christ, because I can hear His voice. Because I have discovered my faults, I have named my sins, claimed them, they are gone and I am forgiven. And because it is always the next step in my journey......