Saturday, January 12, 2008

Finding True Reconciliation

Hey. I’m the new guy. The one contributor to this blog I’m sure I know invited me to write, which may have been a mistake. I don’t know; I’m not sure I can live up to this new role, although I read these posts often and comment when I get particularly inspired. I’ve come relatively late to the faith and am far more opinionated than I am well-read. Bad combo. I was baptized Catholic as an infant, then raised by a fallen-away Catholic and an … atheist? agnostic? … who in reality is one of the more “Christian” men I know. I took a degree in anthropology, focusing on human evolution. I came back to the church when I met my wife, got confirmed after the birth of our first child when our priest announced the two of us as new youth ministers. (We had told him the week before we were interested in helping out …)

I have far more questions than answers.

So during the past week I’ve been commenting on two posts: the first one regarding under what circumstances Communion should be denied, and the second regarding examination of conscience and receiving Communion unworthily. I have a story to tell that ties these posts together, I think.

The first 10 years of married life I spent in a constant state of serious sin. Coming late to the church and with a questioning mind, I found that I didn’t agree with all the Church’s teachings (still don’t) and was unwilling to submit to them simply because I was told to. When I came back to the church, our priest told me that God had given me the head on my shoulders, so as long as I was using it to examine my conscience and discern the truth, I would be alright. I took him at face value: I’ve always believed that remaining willfully ignorant is also a serious sin, and so I continued, with my wife, Catholic friends, seminarians, and priests, to dig into these teachings and try to make them make sense to me.

It wasn’t until many years later, however, that things began to click—not that I completely agreed with all the Church’s teachings, but I could see her wisdom and admire what she was trying to do. I had never confessed my deviance (and that of my family) from one particular teaching, but I began to think seriously about doing so, and prayed in earnest for understanding and humility, believing that to confess a sin with no serious intention to reform would be an even greater sin.

Finally I reached a point at which I thought, There is wisdom in this teaching, and although I may not fully understand, I may find the understanding I seek in submitting to it. Because my own confession and reform would impact my family, I told my wife what I was going to do. She was struggling with the same issue, but was perhaps not as far along at that point – nevertheless, she encouraged me.

So I did it: I confessed the sin, and the fact that for a decade I had disregarded the Church’s teachings as misguided, and the fact that I had never before confessed this sin. I shared my other sins, as well, and told the priest of my personal struggle to understand, and my willingness to try to lead my wife and family to reform. It felt great – the weight of 10 years of uncertainty and good old-fashioned Catholic guilt drifting skyward. The priest talked softly to me about letting go—about relinquishing the control I feel that I must have over my life and yielding to God’s will as revealed through the Church. I told him I would do my best.

Then he said, “As far as absolution, I’m not sure …”

I was shocked. He proceeded to tell me that he needed to be certain I was committed to reforming my life, and that he simply wasn’t there.

I didn’t know what to say. What else could I do, besides confess 10 years of sin and silence and tell him I was willing to change my own ways and lead my wife and family as best I could?

We spent another 10 minutes rehashing the discussion – and I got steadily angrier, until, when he finally did offer me absolution, I had no doubt already sinned again.

It was 18 months before I returned to confession. My rationale during that time was that I knew in my heart, well before the priest had finally said my sins were forgiven, that I was absolved – so what had I gained? A grudge, against a priest I admired and respected (still do).

I returned to the sacrament, not because of my “usual sins” – the thorns and weaknesses each of us has – but because the lingering anger over this conversation left me feeling unbalanced. It certainly helped: this is the first time I’ve shared this story and not felt an ache in my chest and hot blood in my ears.

But the question remains for me, where is true reconciliation found? I’m glad to have reunited myself with a sacrament I’ve always loved – but to this day, I feel as though some of my truest and most sincere confessions occur within me, while my worst, by far, happened with a priest and by the book.


Joshua 24:15 said...

JThorpe, thanks for sharing part of your story, and for your candor. It sounds like you are still struggling with the efficacy of Reconciliation. I believe this Sacrament is the most difficult to take advantage of, because it requires the most effort on our part. I don't know you personally, and obviously have only a few posts to gauge where you're coming from, theologically. However, it does seem to me that you're not yet ready to accept the Church's teaching on Confession, which requires that you make an honest effort to confess the number and kind of your mortal sins, to a priest. Perhaps this was sensed by that priest earlier? But maybe I'm not reading you correctly.
I would share that my inner dialogue with God during prayer seems to be like poetry dripping with honey, while my verbal confessions to the priest during Reconciliation can be clumsy and awkward.
I would urge you to continue to take advantage correctly of the Sacrament as often as necessary, and perservere even if those confessions to a priest leave you feeling uninspired. If you confess sincerely, and receive absolution from the priest, then rest assured your sins are forgiven. I would urge you NOT to fall into the habit of confessing to God directly, as a proxy for the Sacrament. I believe this is a sort of pride that ultimately can unravel your faith.
One resource you might already be familiar with, is website of Catholic Answers Live radio. Keyword search confession and you'll get tons of great material to review.

I'll pray for you.

J. Thorp said...

Joshua 24:15 -- you may be right to an extent; since I'm late to the confessional, so to speak, I may not fully understand the sacrament. As I said: far more questions than answers.

But *every time* (minus one) I've gone to confession I emerged feeling as though I've been challenged and received a great gift. I love it -- I don't want to fall away from it.

What inspired me to share this were two questions raised by previous posts, around the issues of under what circumstances the Church might deny a sacrament and how often one confesses. This priest challenged me specifically on whether I was committed to reforming my life -- which, to me, underscores this issues underlying both of those questions, namely, how can anyone but you and God take the measure of your soul?

Humility and mercy should balance judgment. Of course, I realized after 18 months of anger and non-confession that I needed to work at this notion, too. Pride can be a terrible thing ...

Germanicus said...

In reference to the article I emailed to you. This struggle is part of your ongoing conversion. As such I hesitate to say more than that. An example may be helpful.

Prior to our family examination we all pray that the Holy Spirit will enlighten our mind to know what we need to confess. I tell my children that from that point onward I will not answer any of their questions. Anything they wonder they ought to write down and bring up in confession.
I do this for several reasons the primary being that I believe God answers prayer. I believe that the moment we pray “enlighten our minds” it begins. The questions are part of the enlightening process. Giving them a quick answer may stop that process. So, I let them struggle with the questions for awhile.
I know one of my failings is that I think all questions exist to be answered. I am beginning to appreciate the state of perplexity and the virtues it brings.

J. Thorp said...

Germanicus, I love that example. As a father, I think about how to cultivate self-awareness and discernment in my kids. This is a great approach!

Serviam! said...

I remember once my wife and I were on our way to a wedding, I was driving and she was riding, when I drove past an intersection my wife thought I should have turned at. I told her that she was wrong, but she insisted that I missed the turn. The ridiculous thing was that the wedding was for one of my cousins and I had been traveling up that way for as long as I could remember. I didn’t miss the turn, I knew it – and of course let her know it too.

Each time she told me I was wrong and asked me to turn around I got more annoyed to the point where I would no longer talk about it. After traveling along the path I was sure was right for a half hour, I had to accept the unthinkable. I wasn’t going the right way, I had missed the turn – and we missed the wedding.

It’s funny how our view of reality can look so different than someone else’s. I was so sure I was going the right way, but my wife knew I wasn’t and tried to let me know. I have to believe that this has something to do with why God choose to include and work through a priestly "third party" when it came to confession. It’s so easy to convince ourselves that we are traveling down the right path when we’re not.

I would also say that while absolution through a priest for mortal sin is the ordinary method, but I don’t think it’s the only method. For example, say someone confesses their sins and is truly sorry but the priest refuses absolution for whatever reason. Is this person stuck in a state of mortal sin because of this? As St. Thomas wrote, though we are bound to the visible Sacraments, God is not. His grace is His to give freely as He chooses. So while Sacramental absolution is what we the Church are bound to, God always reserves extraordinary methods to grant mercy and grace.

Even to those who stubbornly refuse to listen to their wives when they tell them they’ve missed a turn.

J. Thorp said...

And naturally, this whole discussion has served to remind me, again and again, that this priest *did* absolve me -- so my anger was, without a doubt, excessive.

Thanks, all, for helping me along ...

Mike E said...

JThorpe - I would say sometimes God works in mysterious ways. Maybe the priest was challanging you to look deeper. My wife once had a bad experience in confession with a priest, and was angry and also scared at times to go back, however - after months of thought she released that the priest although rather harshly helped her release she should change something about herself.

Based on reading back on the comments - that with 18 months of reflecting and reaching out to other brothers and sisters in Christ - you have taken another step forward in faith. Maybe you needed some extra time to think long and hard about what was said. Based on what I have read, I would say you are open to God working in you, and good things happen when you allow God to speak to you - even if you need a long time to reflect on what has been said!

I kow that has happened to me many times!

J. Thorp said...

No doubt you are right, Mike E -- and I appreciate the very personal responses to this personal story.

On the flip side, I'm still very interested in how this example relates to the two previous posts that sparked this whole thing.

How does one know the state of one's soul? And if it's difficult for each of us to know ourselves, how can anyone on the outside hope to? Seems like mercy should prevail that vast majority of the time -- in reconciliation, communion, marriage, life ...

Anonymous said...

Fr. Groeschel said something to the effect of: The most important part of confession are the words of absolution. That's what you came for. So what if the messenger was a tad rough? Or dimissive? Or didn't take you seriously? What you need is the absolution.

I find praying to Jesus that he somehow speaks through the confessor has pretty much always worked. Got tough advice when I needed and gentle assurance when I most needed that.

Two personal observations:

Confession is as much a confession that you really believe Jesus is who he says he is as it is a confession of sins: that is he really can forgive your sin no matter what it is.

When you try to stop sinning through your own efforts alone, 9 times out of 10 that sin becomes a stumbling block. Always right there in front of you. But when you admit that you can't stop without Jesus' help, there is healing that makes what seemed so hard much easier. Let him work through the sacrament. Like everything else we have to humble to accept the gift of grace that heals us and helps us to move towards the mark (God) instead of missing the mark (the real meaning of the word sin is to miss the mark).