NEW YORK, April 6, 2013 ― Ahhh, the confessional box. You walk in a sinner and walk out cleansed ― until you sin again. That will be two minutes later, when you call the guy who cuts you off in traffic an, er ― well, since this is a family paper, let’s call him a “casserole” and let you make a couple of spelling changes.
The confessional, and confession in general, are perhaps the most titillating aspects of religions that have them, including Catholicism. People spill their dirty secrets, hidden hatreds, and lustful fantasies. (Have you ever lusted after someone while in church? That’s a good one to confess!) Of course, most confessions probably consist of everyday moral transgressions, like a wavering faith in God or thinking your sister is an idiot. Either way, all of this can make for a really intense five-minute conversation.
I happen to like the idea of confession. The idea that, if you are truly sorry and confess the sordid things you’ve done and thought to a priest, you can be forgiven for your sins is awesome. You confess your sins, say the Act of Contrition, and go about your day. It’s a burden lifted off your shoulders, and who doesn’t love having peace of mind?
My moments in confessional boxes across the tri-state area have been mostly comforting, pleasant times, but some of my confessional experiences have been a little more interesting. Once, my mother and I went to confession together, and when we chatted after we said our penance I learned that she was given five more Hail Mary’s than I was. And I thought I had some good stuff to confess that day!
Even better (or much worse) than that was a confession I made as a very hung-over student on Ash Wednesday in college. The priest asked me to describe the sexual experience I was confessing in explicit detail; I told him the details were none of his business. While that is a funny tidbit to share around the Catholic campfire, bizarre episodes like that are really not the norm. Ninety-nine percent of the time I’ve gone to confession, I’ve been met with love and kindness from the priest, not prurient fascination.
As a teenager and young adult, I confessed things for which I was not really sorry; perhaps, I thought, I don’t need to feel sorry for failing to honor an absent father. I’ve stopped doing that now that I’m in the latter half of my twenties; if I don’t believe that something is sinful and struggle to remove it from my life, I’m not confessing it. This may put me at odds with my community, but it makes no sense to me to ask for forgiveness if I don’t feel repentant. For instance, I no longer believe that consensual sex outside of marriage with another adult, perhaps even someone you love, requires confession; I don’t think it’s wrong. (I know, I know ― Jezebel!)
While there are things many of us feel obliged to confess even though we don’t think they are wrong, there are things I definitely do struggle with and for which I’m truly sorry, and I am very grateful to have the opportunity to seek forgiveness for them. For me, those things have mostly centered around moments that I’ve felt I haven’t treated people with as much kindness and love as they’ve deserved, and a chance to start over in that way with myself and God has been a true blessing.
I’m sure there are countless others who have had to confess much worse, and for whom confession has been a literal lifesaver. That said, I have to admit I don’t employ the service as often as I probably should, and most Catholics I know don’t either. Maybe we should; it’s nice to have a clean slate, even if it’s going to get dirty again later.
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