I am in my mind’s eye an amateur, a novice, a man sentenced to be an apprentice for life. It is the epitome of grandiosity to believe anything else. There are just too many barriers for me to join the ranks of those considered by men to be held as examples of a devout man, much less than to even consider judgement by God’s expectations to respond to living a life aligned with his desires.
Theological, sociological, psychological, and genetic realities have reinforced my understanding of my imperfections and inability to obtain or much less so maintain sanctification – to be set apart for God’s work, to be truly live a spiritual life in everything I am. I can expound on original sin, on my socio-economic status, my troublesome youth, and my genetic disposition ad infinitum for “causation” of my falling short, for my mediocre, for my deepest failings. At the end of the day excuses, rationalization, or deflection is not mine to give. My apprenticeship does not absolve me from full responsibility for “my thoughts, my words, for what I have done or what I have failed to do this day.”[i]
My greatest accomplishments and must evil acts do not afford me special status in the ledgers of holy acts or Hades hall of fame. I have not been called by God or by Satan to champion the ideological battle of Good versus Evil. I am humbled by many. Everywhere I turn there are people with greater faith than I when I choose to truly look for the warriors of God. I can see and feel the vibrancy of interior peace in many faithful, the unquestioning tranquility of those who have truly surrendered, and the energy of those who perform many acts of service with seemingly tireless commitment. It exhausts me and replenishes me simultaneously.
I have been blessed with a vocation of helping people oppressed by circumstances, homelessness, by poverty, by addiction, or by severe and persistent mental health disorders for 29 years (including two years of graduate school). I have equally been blessed with the vocation of the sacrament of marriage and three beautiful and healthy children. I have also been blessed with personal struggle and immense suffering from an age that included the devastating impact of addictions, family violence, premature deaths, and utter chaos in a very confusing youth. The blessing of suffering has humbled me to be sensitive and compassionate with every human being I encounter.
Without a portrait of my background it is difficult to give weight to the jewel of confession. In essence, what does it matter if I bring my sins to a confessor given my sins and my accomplishments relative to others would not move the Richter scale of human morality in any meaningful measurable direction? I am no St. Augustine or Stalin. I am neither rich nor poor. I am neither exceptionally intellectual, exceedingly dim, or an idiot savant. In an existential sense, I am “being and nothingness” exemplified as is most of humanity.
There is nothing I can bring a priest that he has not heard. There is nothing I have bought to a priest that my God does not already know. And to make matters worse, in my belief, although my actions are important, I cannot achieve any holiness on my own merit without God’s justification or saving grace.[ii]
Furthermore, I dare to say that I have had many a confession that was ill-conceived or perhaps even ill-received! The confessor and the penitent cannot enter into the confessional without grounded intent and inspired purpose. How many confessions of my youth was coerced ritual? How many confessors were limited by systemic rituals from practicing true teaching in the confines of the confessional time and space allotted?
Does any of it matter? Yes.
In the hands of Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino my life story could be transformed onto the big screen into something unrecognizable to me by mere condensing of timelines, sharpening of dramatic events, and adept usage of poetic license to create an inspiring story of coming into one’s own or a depressing comedy of errors and sadness or both. In other words, we do not truly know the impact we have on others during the arc of our short tenure of life. Our stories cannot accurately be portrayed without capturing the offshoots and trajectories of other people’s lives that have been influenced by intersections with our own – for better or for worse. Scorsese, Tarantino, and our very own self-defined sense of our own lives cannot accurately capture and define the individual lives we have led with any degree of certainty.
I remember an old man living in an “SRO” (single occupancy unit) on 28th street in NYC. I saw him daily for a certain number of years before he passed. His name was Eli. Our conversations were never long or deep. There was eye contact and a smile with each conversation that transcended words. I was called one day when he had a coronary heart attack in the hall way. I went and held his hand and looked into his eyes until the paramedics came. I will never know what I meant to that man. I know I knew him and he knew me as if we had a secret club, an unsaid bond. He passed and I never fully knew his life story or how he came to be alone in New York City.
Meaningfulness: The first principle of confession is that we have meaning beyond ourselves and our sense of self-importance or lack thereof. What did I do for Eli or not do for Eli in those years preceding his death? Were my actions aligned with God’s will? How would I know it then or now? When we accept we have a purpose and a meaning beyond our own definition we also must accept a challenge as to how we use our body, our minds, and our soul to fulfill our mission(s) in life.
There are many definitions of sin. Most of them can be simply be defined as taking us away from our purpose in life – from what we are meant to do. And each micro-aggressions (examples of seven deadly sins: gluttony, lust, greed, pride, despair, wrath, glory, or sloth) against our purpose in life wears us down, deflate our strength, and weakens our resolve. For some of us, the depletion is so complete that we are left with seeking refuge in synthetic intoxications of the worldly life as an end to themselves.
Acceptance: The second principle is that in our fallibility we can easily be consumed and distracted from our source of purpose in this life by both external challenges and internal decay. Where our attentions are our hearts will follow. How many minutes, hours, days, months, or even years of our lives are spent attending to inconsequential or damaging activity that takes us away from our purpose or mission in life? When is our pleasure or joy turned into selfishness or sin by direct action or omission of action?
Right now 1.6 billion people are estimated to have inadequate shelter, 795 million people are suffering from hunger, 208 million people are using illegal drugs, and 450 million affected by Mental Illness. Let’s estimate I have directly or indirectly helped 1300 families achieve permanent housing, 14000 people with access to or support of treating mental illness or addictions, and gave occasionally to various charities and causes. In this context, how much of my life’s activity should be directed at my own pleasure? How much charity should I give? What change opportunities have I shied away from during my life? To put it simply, my work is never done if my true calling was homelessness, world poverty, and serving people with mental health issues. The second principle is accepting my fallibility and even if I was to practice total self-denial I would not be able to end the misery associated with these conditions. Balance and humility is called for at all times.
Informed confession (ACTION): Accepting I cannot live a life of total self-denial, that our collective “sin” currently and historically is beyond my ability to reconcile, and that I still desire to pursue a holy life I have found that self-reflection and informed confession can help alleviate the wounds of our individual and collective failures so that we may continue on to do what we can within our sphere of influence.
An informed confession can lead to “a radical re-orientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away of evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. It entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life.”[iii]
Confession is an opportunity for education and healing. It is a time out to meet with another human being who is skilled in spiritual discernment (Priest) and bring your troubles (thoughts, words, deeds) to God for examination in a manner that allows you to seriously “repent, revoke, and replace” unwanted behavior, actions, or thoughts.
It is different from spiritual direction. It is bringing to God a request to forgive your transgressions, heal your wounded self (as each transgression weakens your purpose), educate and enlighten your actions, and strengthens your resolve and commitment to continue along the road toward sanctification. It can get down to the nitty and gritty of what is in your circle of influence to change. A confessor help ensure you are not deceiving yourself or misguided in your application of theological applications – often to your benefit.
Scorsese and Taratino can take an inconsequential action and transform a characters destiny – imagine what God can do with a sincere and committed confession, however minute the conviction to change.
The third principle is with informed consent going to confession and partnering with a priest and God to make true amends and genuinely commit to ACTION to change as needed with the humble understanding that penance will probably be required sooner than later for similar offenses or new revelations of further refinement is required!
Spiritual Direction: The Jewel of Confession is it informs one’s spiritual direction. What endeavor in life does not require correction, improvement, refinement, and adaptation? Ideally we would all have a spiritual director.
Confession and spiritual direction are not in vogue today. Not every confessor or spiritual director is equal. The Catholic Church holds this sacrament to be vital: “Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from God’s mercy for the offense committed against him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, by example, and by prayer labors for their conversion.”[iv]
The theological and Catholic doctrine on Penance is quite in-depth. As a lay person I have always had mixed feelings about the sacrament of Penance. Today I do not have the same reservations – my reservations today is on what I can bring to the confessional box or room and what the confessor can help with as we are both in dialogue with the Trinity. Alas, it is not confidential. The weight of my faults, the collective weight of our societies failings, and all the messiness of pursuing a holy life can be supported and guided by a thoughtfully and genuinely prepared confession that is meant for sincere dialogue with God.
Done with reverence both the confessor and penitent can benefit and be guided by the mystery of the sacrament and better serve God’s plan on leaving the ancient confessional booth.
We are meaningful in God’s eye and plan despite the existential threats that surround us in the world today. Accepting that each human being is special including ourselves and accepting our fragility as individuals and as a collective we are dependent on both our own actions and God’s saving grace. Knowing this we seek informed correction through confession and pursue sanctification through ongoing spiritual direction despite the immense suffering in the world, in fact, because of the immense suffering in the world!
7 Secrets of Confession by Vinny Flynn