A Talk for the Parish
I never really understood the sacrament of reconciliation and never went that often until this last summer. This last summer I finally got it.
For my 50th birthday Barb gave me a long retreat on the coast, and one of the things that happened on that retreat was that I was forced to let go of some of my addictions: to reputation and position, to television and radio, to all the countless distractions I keep choosing over God even though I know better. And gradually I felt God’s presence coming back to me, sometimes overwhelmingly, ecstatically. And then I realized: this is what sin is. It’s being out of alignment with the presence of a loving God. It’s choosing out of my own free will to believe in the culture or in myself instead of this spectacular and creative Lord everywhere informing the universe.
Ah, that’s it. The reason to go to the sacrament of reconciliation is to get back in sync, in relationship, with all that is beautiful and real and true.
One of the ways we discern the will of God is by looking inside of ourselves, being attentive to our own inner movements and desires. What’s tricky is that God is not the only thing moving down there. We have lots of impulses, lots of instincts, and not all of them are good.
Let me put it like this [Paul says in Galatians]: if you are guided by the Spirit you will be in no danger of yielding to self-indulgence, since self indulgence is the opposite of the Spirit. When self indulgence is at work, the results are obvious: fornication, gross indecency and sexual irresponsibility, idolatry, and sorcery; feuds and wrangling, jealousy, bad temper and quarrels; disagreements, factions, envy, drunkenness, orgies and similar things. What the Spirit brings is very different: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self control. Since the Spirit is our life, let us be directed by the Spirit.
So everyday we should do an examination of conscience to keep track of those moments in the day when we experience the light and those other moments when we experience the darkness--not to let these moments go by or get mixed up with each other. And we go to the sacrament of reconciliation for the same reason, to hone our skills of perception, to keep our awareness sharp. As we keep going, as we keep experiencing God’s forgiveness, we get better and better at this--though at the same time we have to keep going! We keep sinning anyway!
It’s not depressing. It’s not a matter of self-loathing, because what’s underneath us, what’s at the heart of us, isn’t evil but God himself, in his love. To focus on sin is really to focus on the goodness that sin covers up. It’s like untying a knot, really. It’s like sorting a dirty a closet. The result is freedom and purpose and ease.
And, see, the ordinariness of sin is really helpful here. My sins are no better than anyone else’s but they’re at the same time no worse or more mysterious. There are seven deadly sins--pride, envy, anger, avarice, sloth, gluttony, and lust--and they pretty much describe what’s possible to describe, and a tremendous clarity comes when we realize this. It’s like going to get an MRI. That generalized pain, that vague, pervasive sense of feeling lousy, suddenly gets clarified. It’s a disc bulging, just this one, clear, fixable thing. Reconciliation reassures us that what seems so formlessly wrong is actually as ordinary and straightforward and finally small as emptying a dishwasher or mopping a floor. Great. Sort it out, get it done, and move on.
Sin isn’t the mystery. Sin is easy to figure out. It’s grace that is the mystery, it’s grace that exceeds our words and our concepts, and grace is abounding.
It’s the ordinariness of sin, then, that makes reconciliation work, and also its littleness. I’m a post Vatican II convert, and I’ve never wanted to get too caught up in rigorism and legalism and sweating the small stuff as sometimes happens, and that’s right. We shouldn’t be sin-obsessed, because life is too beautiful and God too merciful. But then, on the retreat, I read this passage from James, and it really turned this upside down for me. “Think how small a flame can set fire to a huge forest.” Whoa. Yes. James is talking about sins of the tongue here, and that really applies to me: gossiping, getting angry, being verbally abusive. It’s easy to dismiss sins like this and explain them away, because it’s just words that are involved, just language, and about 90% of the time I’m pretty good anyway. But James’s point is deeply and psychologically right, that this remaining 10% can do great harm to others and great harm to me personally, just as the small rudder of a ship--that’s another of his metaphors--can steer the whole ship.
Take swearing, for example. I’ve always been guilty of this and thought that people were just being prudish and puritanical to be worried about it, and in a way that’s right. But on the other hand, a pattern of swearing and cursing can indicate a certain subtle but important disorientation of the mind, can in fact contribute to that disorientation, can slowly and gradually change our mental atmosphere.
Evil appears as a serpent, after all, not an ugly monster. We’d run from a monster. Sin is gradual. It starts small.
But this is the source of the joy, of the feeling of liberation, because if a lot of sin is the result of small choices that I make myself, if the really big problems are often at root little problems, then I have some control over this. There’s something I can do. I need grace finally, for all the big things--I can’t do any of this on my own, without Christ--but I can certainly turn off the television, I can certainly stop swearing at the dog, I can certainly stop eating that second piece of pie. Self-mastery is possible, and the result isn’t further suffering but, again, that realignment with the one who is better than television and better than pie. Happiness is the goal, not misery.
Sin is just a reality. That’s all I’m saying. And when we deny that, when we try to ignore it, it affects us deeply and permanently. When we name it, when we admit it, we’re free of it.
There’s a final thing I experienced on the retreat that I’d never experienced before, or never knew I had, and that’s the strategic quality of sin, how it seems to actively and deliberately try to trip me up, especially when I’m moving towards the light. St. Paul called it a law. “I find it a law,” he says in Romans, “that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” Yes. Whenever on this retreat I had a breakthrough, whenever I began to feel joy and clarity, almost immediately--the next minute, the next hour, the next day--I could feel something dark and subtle rising up to meet that feeling and try to turn it back. I began to be able to count on it. I’d wait for it.
What I’m saying here goes back to the idea of discernment but it’s more than that. It’s an awareness of some force within us or elsewhere that has to be named and resisted. I’m a little uncomfortable saying this. I don’t like the idea of spiritual warfare in the popular sense of that term, and neither does the Church, because it makes evil seem like it’s stronger than good and it takes attention and responsibility away from our own free choices. But at the same time, I experienced it myself, this immediate counterforce trying to undermine me--exactly in my self-doubt, exactly in my self-loathing. That’s one of evil’s strongest manifestations, this voice that says, you’re no good, don’t believe, don’t trust, you’re bad. But we’re not bad, we’re not terrible. We are, through grace, beloved by God and made in his image and likeness, and whatever tells us otherwise isn’t from Him.
And that’s why we should go to confession, to reconciliation, not to hear God through the priest telling us we are bad but to hear him say the opposite. We are good. We can believe in ourselves, because God does. Because God forgives us. We go to confession to hone our awareness, to become more deft and precise in our discernment of the spirit, but, most of all, to experience the mercy and good humor and embracing love of God, who knows it all already, who has seen it all and heard it all, but who has seen and heard something else deeper and truer and realer still, the love that is within us, too, the love that comes from Him.
That’s why we go to confession. Out of love.