So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
—John 18; 37-38
Another day, another allegation of sexual harassment or sexual assault directed at some worldly favored son. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. And yet, with each indictment, which feels like a long overdue breath of fresh air, I can’t help thinking how awful it would be to have my own missteps and sins brought to the light. I may be wrong, but I think most of us present a good, righteous face to the world and do an amazing job of hiding some of our most ugly, dark features. How often do we willingly lower the veil to others and admit in our humanity, we have weakness, are drawn to sin and have failed over and over?
For years, decades even, I went to church faithfully. I didn’t stop going during college as I’ve heard so many people confess. While there were only a few times I missed due to (ahem) “sickness,” I was merely going through the motions. I went because I understood it to be my duty—the same way I approached cleaning the bathroom. It had to get done, but I certainly didn’t look forward to it with glee. But I showed up and let others, my parents, friends and family know I was going to church. This ensured that they considered me a good, morally upright individual. No skeletons in my closet. No, sirree!
Meanwhile, I had also convinced myself that confession was passé. I’m not sure when it was exactly that I stopped going regularly, but it had to be shortly after my slightly awkward first confession in second grade. Before I went into the confessional I came up with a list of a few things that I could tell the priest. To be fair, I didn’t fully understand the sacrament and instead lied by telling the priest what I thought he wanted to hear. It was probably one of those generic, “I fought with my brothers,” which technically wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t anything I felt real shame for doing. A more difficult sin to confess may or may not have included hiding a prized possession of my brother’s—let’s just say, for the story’s sake of course, a very special comb that he relied on to give his hair that signature Arthur Fonzarelli style from our favorite show “Happy Days.” In an attempt at revenge for some alleged misdeed, the item would go “missing” for a few days and then miraculously, “Look what I found between the couch cushions?!” My mom would rejoice in what a helpful daughter she had and my brother was reminded to thank his sister for her good deed. Wicked brilliance. Those were NOT the kinds of things I told the priest though. Those stories I kept tucked away. They were too shameful. Instead, I kept it generic and was “forgiven” for what I chose to share and sadly walked away without ever truly experiencing God’s real and powerful mercy.
Through my 20’s and 30’s I went to confession occasionally. By that time, the sins were much worse, but I continued to share only what was palatable to me, nothing that would cause real embarrassment. Why should I confess something to some man who probably had much darker secrets on his own soul? That’s what I used to justify my anemic confessions. There was not a whole lot of truth in my list of transgressions, more like truthiness. And meanwhile, I was heaping sin upon sin. I became like Pilate facing Christ. What is truth anyway?
Unfortunately, and not surprising, I think my character suffered deeply. My pride was allowed to grow and became the source of so much trouble in my life. It became habitual. Looking back, I think I would have grown in humility, honesty and authenticity had I faced my sin head-on in the confessional. Alas, I chose to languish.
As I began to learn more about my Catholic faith, due in large part to becoming a mother—if I was going to pass on these traditions, maybe I better understand why we held them—to my astonishment, I began to see that there was a good reason for confession and for real honesty in facing our sinfulness. God doesn’t love us only when we are good children. He loves us just as profoundly when we turn our backs on Him. But like any good parent, He asks us to be honest with Him and admit our wrongdoing. He already knows what we’ve done. But He has instituted this sacrament in order to help us grow in communion with Him and to grow in virtue so we can better avoid sin and hurt down the road. In the same way, I pray that my children will turn to me when they have done something wrong so that I can help guide them through the difficulty. I don’t want them to shoulder the burden on their own. I love them so much I want to help them avoid the pitfalls and the vipers.
I’ll never forget going into the confessional when I had finally summoned the courage to be completely truthful about who I was. Telling it to God in the quiet of my bedroom is way different than admitting it to a real person. I was shaking and sweating. I took it so seriously, I had written down the whole list of sins. I couldn’t remember exactly what I had confessed before and what I hadn’t so, I included everything that was on my heart. It was deeply humbling. But I was honest. In a rare moment, I was completely myself. I came out feeling as if I had sprouted wings. The priest hadn’t yelled or admonished. He was the voice of Jesus. He told me my sins had been forgiven. I had finally interfaced with real mercy and love.
Now going to mass is a whole new experience. I’m no longer going through the motions. I have such profound gratitude for God’s love and forgiveness. In keeping with this honesty theme, I still don’t love confession. It’s absolutely brutal to divulge my shameful character flaws to another human being. I do love, however, the way I feel when I walk out. Every time I honestly express my sins to a priest who is “in persona Christi,” or in the person of Christ, I am deeply unburdened. I am unchained. It’s also a great deterrent. How many times I’ve thought, “I don’t want to have to confess that one again!” But to be rewarded with such infinite mercy! It is such a help on the road to holiness.
I wonder if any of these serial harassers have ever considered confession? I can’t help wondering what a better world we would be living in if everyone had the on-going humility to admit they are far from perfect. While being honest is hard, it’s the hard things in life that provide the greatest reward. Let’s bravely turn the light on and step out of the shadows. As we approach the Advent season, give confession an honest consideration. God is waiting with His arms open wide ready to forgive. For my non-Catholic brethren readers, if you’re interested in learning more, check out this link for further explanation of the sacrament of reconciliation.