It was Friday afternoon, the end of a long and grueling week, and I couldn’t wait for the closing bell to ring. My co-worker, Joe, peeked into my office and said, “It’s almost over.” I sighed gratefully. And then he asked, “What are you doing this weekend?”
“The usual,” I replied. “Pick up my shirts at the cleaners, maybe do some yard work at my wife’s request, have the car washed, go to dinner and then rent a movie if I can find something good rated PG-13. I’m getting too old for R-rated movies …. Oh, and I have to go to confession.”
There was a stunned silence, more like a confused silence, and I looked up at him from my desk and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Confession? You go to confession?”
“Sure,” I responded. “Don’t you?”
He sort of smirked and smiled at the same time and said, “The last time I went to confession was about 45 years ago.”
“Are you proud of that?” I asked. “You must have committed a lot of sins to confess since then.”
“Not really,” he responded. “I don’t know what I’d say if I went to confession.”
This time I was the one who succumbed to a stunned silence. What was especially disconcerting about this discussion wasn’t that he hadn’t been to confession since he was a teenager, but that he didn’t think he’d sinned during those 45 years.
That attitude, of course, is a sign of the times. Confession, in some quarters, particularly among “self-enlightened” Catholics, is not fashionable. But Joe’s condition was a bit more insidious than the usual response from people who avoid the sacrament because, as they say, “I confess directly to Jesus. I don’t need a priest.”
What was troubling was that Joe didn’t see any need to go, PERIOD. His definition of “sin” was probably confined to misdeeds and felonies like murder, rape and grand larceny. And to his thinking, if you didn’t do any of those things, you didn’t need to be absolved.
(On the other hand, there are many people who commit grand larceny, fraud and similarly heinous crimes who don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, either. Another sign of the times.)
The amazing thing about confession, I’ve discovered, is that the more you avail yourself of the sacrament, the more attuned you are to the many manifestations of sin; the greater is your appreciation and understanding of how you missed the mark in big ways and in small. This, I believe, is the effect of grace.
You become more spiritually perceptive and more sensitive to the moral pitfalls in our secular society, where things once considered sinful are now socially acceptable – everything from using Jesus’ name irreverently to malicious gossip and Internet pornography.
A lot depends on how finely tuned your conscience is. A person who doesn’t think he or she sins is usually deluded or hasn’t spent sufficient time examining his or her conscience and praying. At the end of the day in the silence of my room, on those occasions when I remember to examine my conscience, I usually come away with a new assessment of myself. Very often, I’m discouraged because I realize exactly how much I’ve missed the mark.
You have to take the time to review your day and ask the Holy Spirit to give you the insights into what you could have and should have done better. One of my favorite prayer books is Blessed Be God, which was published in 1959 and reprinted in 2010. Among the night prayers is “An Examination of Conscience,” which lists some of the likely transgressions that we commit each day. There is also an evening prayer that says, “O, my Lord Jesus Christ, Judge of the living and the dead, before whom I must appear one day to give an exact account of my whole life, enlighten me, I beseech You, and give me a humble and contrite heart, that I may see where I have offended You, and judge myself now with such a just severity that then You may judge me with mercy and clemency.”
If we ask to see ways in which we’ve offended God, he will enlighten us. Just simply pray, “Heavenly Father in the name of Jesus, help me to understand how I’ve offended you.” You’ll be sure to get an answer. All you have to do is ask. And as painful as the truth may be, it’s a lot better than living ignorant of our sins.
I tried to persuade Joe to make the time for the sacrament of reconciliation, and I even bought him a pamphlet titled, “How to Make a Good Confession,” which detailed the process and explored how the Ten Commandments apply to our lives. He took it and said, “Sure, sure.”
I figured he wasn’t going to do anything with it, but you never know. As they say, “With God all things are possible.”
J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.