When I initially began exploring Catholicism, the idea of confession appealed to me. As a veteran of several years of therapy, I know the cathartic value of saying the deep, dark, not so flattering stuff out loud. As a veteran of 30 years of evangelicalism, I know the freedom of the forgiveness of sins. The idea of combining these two in a tangible way appealed to me. I remember feeling more aware of myself, of my behaviours, of my heart and thought life in those first days of exploration, thinking, “oh dear, I’d probably have to confess that to a priest if I was already Catholic.”
And then, as time wore on, and RCIA wore down my enthusiasm for the process of conversion, I began to dread the idea of confession. I understand the theology, and even accept it, but as someone who has had decades of walking with Jesus, of speaking directly to Him in prayer to confess my sins, it admittedly felt like a bit of an extra step. I was less enthused then ever as I had several encounters with a priest who was less than compassionate about my particular challenging family situation as I enter the church, the priest I knew I’d probably be expected to see as confessor before being received into the church at Easter.
I worried the situation over in my mind, knowing I wasn’t comfortable with this particular priest as confessor, but not sure how to get around the situation. It’s awkward to call or email a priest a parish that isn’t yours, and try to explain that you don’t go to their parish, but you’d like to make an appointment for a first confession since you’re not comfortable taking that step at your own parish. I talked it over with trusted friends, with my RCIA sponsor, and my spiritual director. I tried ignoring it in hopes it would go away and I could just forget about that particular item on my pre-Easter checklist.
Ignoring it didn’t work, and so, the last time I met with my spiritual director, we addressed the situation all over again. This time I had her prepare me for the process (because RCIA didn’t cover that). We talked about theology, about mortal and venial sins, about what needed to be confessed, about examination of conscience, and acts of contrition. And then we discussed my thorny “how do I find another priest and explain that even though I’m in RCIA at one parish, I don’t want to confess to the priest at that parish” issue. I was ever so thankful when my spiritual director quickly solved it by recommending a priest, and then making the initial contact on my behalf. And so, with much trepidation, I emailed back and forth with the priest she recommended, set up an appointment, and tried not to panic that this was becoming a reality!
I spent a good chunk of Monday afternoon wrestling my way through a couple different examination of conscience documents that I found from various sources, prayerfully considering what needed to be covered in that first confession. (I also read the entire section on confession in “Catholicism for Dummies”!) Let me tell you, folks, my baptism didn’t seem that distant until I started preparing for a first confession. Suddenly those twelve or so years stretched far and wide and I almost wished I’d postponed the baptism another decade or so! I typed a list, considered it, edited the language I’d used, added a few things, read the ten commandments, googled examination of conscience, sat in prayerful silence, and eventually decided that what I’d covered in the list was a thorough accounting of the sins that I’ve battled most of my life, and particularly in the years of adulthood, since my baptism at age 18.
Tuesday morning as I got ready to head to the appointment, I sent a few panicked texts to friends, asking them to pray for courage, and that I would be open to meeting Christ in a way that felt foreign and odd. (I’m so glad I have friends that happily receive texts like that, and pray!) The bus I took dropped me off earlier than I expected, and I spent ten minutes or so walking around in the neighbourhood near the church, praying, trying to work up my courage and fight off a panic attack. And then, well, I went in and met the priest. He was gracious and kind, we chatted a few minutes, and then he kindly walked me through the process of making the confession.
There had been some discussion in our emails about whether I preferred to meet with him face to face, or behind a screen in the confessional. I debated, polled a few friends, and ultimately decided that face to face felt less odd, and less intimidating than the confessional. I’m thankful for that choice. Because of it we were able to chat before we began, to break the ice of my nerves a little, to make this seem just a bit less out of my comfort zone and a bit more pastoral.
I’ve been thinking about the experience for the last twenty-four hours, rolling it over in my mind a little, seeing how it settles into the corners of my soul. My first thought is that it seems surreal that 24 hours ago I walked into the office of someone I’d never met, chatted for five minutes, and then read them a decade long list of transgressions including things I’ve rarely acknowledged aloud. My second thought is that if I was expecting a profound “strike of lightning” moment, I was disappointed. What I found instead were whispers of grace, a quiet holiness that settled into the office as we moved from what was general chatter to the deeper things. And finally, as I woke at one point early this morning, and my brain began to churn over an issue that I’ve berated myself about lately, I was surprised to find a quiet whisper that remained – you don’t need to beat yourself up about that – you’ve confessed it, received absolution, and you can rest in that.
And that quiet whisper is what has stayed with me the most as I’ve thought about the experience of making a first confession. I can rest in it. There is something tangible in having said those things aloud, and hearing someone speak words of forgiveness on behalf of Christ. And while that tangible something doesn’t make the idea of confession less odd, more comfortable, or less terrifying, it definitely makes it worth doing.