I love the story “First Confession” by Frank O’Connor. As you might imagine, it is about a boy going to confession for the first time. He is terrified. His depressing CCD teacher, bratty sister and mean aunt don’t help him to feel any better about his upcoming judgment day either! But Jack has a wonderful experience “in the box,” while his sister Nora has a terrible time. The difference was in their approach. Here are two tips based on my experience both as a confessor and a confess-ee. These are things that have helped me confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help. (Heb 4:16)
1) How often? It is a “precept” of the church to confess once a year, but, as with most rules, this is really a minimum. My guess: We all need to go more than that. Isn’t this the better question: “When do I need to go?” We need to confess “grave” (Latin for “the heavy stuff”) sins right away, since they hurt us so badly! But other sins? The sins of omission, of speech, of avoiding prayer, the family fights, the lustful glances, judging others and everything in between? Well, when do we need to go? When we need to! When the burden is too much, when we need extra help or when we are hurting too often. Then it’s time. It can help to set a rough timetable for how often you want to return, but I guarantee that if you go before you really feel your need, it will probably be humdrum. We can receive God’s mercy daily in many other ways, but confession is about coming to God ready to talk about the deep stuff. Confession is about coming to God sick and tired of being sick and tired. When your spirit has said “Uncle” to the challenges of life. Perhaps you do really want and need to go to confession weekly, but maybe that just isn’t enough “brew time.” For myself, I find that confession every 8-10 weeks is about the time it takes for me to gather up the hurt of life and really be able to share from my heart. I have learned that going sooner is usually not enough time for me to say what I need to say, but waiting longer (usually because of fear) is always to my own heartbreak. The sacraments always offer grace because God is never boxed in, while we are. We have limits to our understanding and receptivity. Respecting those limits actually opens up more possibility for this sacrament.
2) Openness When the blind man came near, Jesus asked, “What do you want?” He replied, “Lord, I want to see!” (Mk 10, Lk 18) Jesus’ question echoes in confession. The more specific we are, the more intimately we will experience God’s love. We can, of course, simply say, “I had bad thoughts”. But that will make it hard for the priest, who Jesus is ministering through, to go and offer healing in the place of sin. That blind man could have just said, “I want to be better,” but then Jesus could have simply said, “Love God and neighbor.” That wasn’t what he was looking for, but how could the blind man complain about bland advice if he hadn’t been specific. I would imagine that, for most of us, when we come to confession, we actually would like to feel God specifically forgive us for certain sins. Well, God will only come as close to us as we allow. He stands at the door and knocks (Rev 3:20), no more no less. If we hide from Him, how will we find ourselves in His embrace? Confession can be the hiding of Eden all over again, or it can be Jesus touching our eyes and making us see. Confession can be God saying, “I forgive you” or it can be our believing “I am forgiven.” Have you felt that difference before? You know how sometimes we can hear those words, but don’t really take them in? To doubt? We go a long way toward believing in forgiveness when we have absolute honesty. To utter our worst stuff …and for the world to not explode. That’s reconciliation. Far from a world exploding, it’s a new creation.
Father Matt Marshall, Associate Pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish and Roncalli Newman Parish, La Crosse, Chaplain to the Hmong Community in the La Crosse area and Chaplain at Aquinas Middle and High School