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It's always good to start with a prayer, so Lord today I am praying that this week I will be inconvenienced in the confessional. Inconvenienced in the sense that when I come to confess at 4 p.m. on Saturday I will not be able to get right in, that there will be a line waiting in front of me to get in. Lord, if we understood the gift of the confessional it would look like You were giving away concert tickets in there. We would show up with our lawn chairs and camp out the night before to get a place at the front of the line.
Why don't we go to confession? It's not that we are afraid to confess, or that we don't know how to confess. Our public, for-profit "confessionals" are full to overflowing. We will confess to the tabloids, we will confess to the talk shows, we will confess to the book publishers, we will confess to the internet chat room, but we won't come and confess to You. We won't come and confess to You in the privacy of the confessional because if we confess to You, You just might tell us to go and sin no more. When we make our public confessions, we can wallow in our sins a little longer, relive our adulteries and our robberies and our blasphemies a little longer. When we confess our sins in public, the public asks for a sequel. When we confess our sins to You, we just might feel the weight of the sin, and feel the harm the sin does, and we might strive to avoid a sequel.
We also don't confess to You because we might not want to tell all, or at least exactly all. We'd like to be able to bring a good spin doctor into the confessional with us. Hide something that doesn't fit the opinion we want You to have of us, or that we want to have of ourselves. This is silly on the face of it because the confessional isn't for You. You already know what we did. It's for us, a gift from a merciful God, who wants to free us from our sins. God is the Ultimate Doctor, and confessing is like telling Him what he has permission to treat. So why would we cover anything up, leave anything untreated? It's as though we were in the doctor's office and we were telling ourselves, "Okay, I'll tell the doctor about back pains and the swelling on the knee, but I want to hang onto those headaches and the blurry vision a little longer."
Every creed and moral code known to man has limits on human behavior, things you cannot do, and punishments for stepping beyond the limits. Humans, left to their own devices, have demonstrated to everyone's satisfaction the ability to punish each other. There's no salvation there. Our God, all just and all merciful, says, "You are unclean, but here is some soap and clean water. You have an infection, but here is an antibiotic. This cure is available for free, for the asking. We of course refuse the cure and live with our uncleanliness, our disease, a little longer. Think about that. Does that make any sense to you? Let's say you were cleaning a paintbrush and you got paint thinner on your hand. Would you just say, "Oh, it's just a little acid, I'll just leave it there," and then go into your home and pick up your children with those hands, and eat dinner with those hands? Of course not. You would scar your own skin, and you would spread that acid to everything you touch, so of course you would wash off that acid right away.
But in the course of living, we sometimes spill the acid of sin on our soul, and we say, "Oh, it's just a little sin. I'll just leave it there," and then we go about our business. We do it all the time. And everything we touch gets a little of our sin on it. Sometimes it is obvious. Let's say I am angry when I leave work, and I fight the traffic all the way home and I'm angry when I get home. My sin is still there, burning away, and let's say my two year old races to the door to meet me. But because of my anger at something that happened an hour ago in another place, I pick her up more roughly than I should, or I push her away altogether. She will file that moment away forever, and there will be just that one fraction of a step distance between us. She will have a little of the acid of my sin on her skin, and it will leave a little scar.
And it's not just anger. Name any sin, and the effect is the same. If I overeat (yes, I have done that before) the effect of my overeating can be felt in my attitude, in my willingness to play with my kids or work around the house, or any of a thousand other moments. And everybody will be touched, however lightly, with the sin of my gluttony. Or my lust, or my greed, or you name it.
In the confessional, we can get our distance from sins. We see them for what they are, we say they are what they are, and in naming our sins we begin to feel the impact they have on our lives. The priest, acting on God's behalf, extracts our sins from us, and frees us from them. The penance we do completes the process. In my penance, I contemplate three things: how I felt when I was carrying around the sin, how inadequate of an indulgence the sin was in comparison to the graces I give up to indulge in it, and finally, the wonderful feeling of being freed, even just for now, from my sins. It is such a liberating experience, I have taken to writing things down that I need to confess to make sure I get rid of them all in the confessional. What a gift we have in the confessional!