Are there things you’ve done—that you wish you could wipe the slate clean, and begin again?
I went to my Catholic faith’s tradition of reconciliation Thursday. Friday morning I woke with the words, wash yourself clean on my mind in that place between sleep and awake.
There are many ways to start anew. I’ll speak of the one I just practiced, and encourage you to do the same: Examine your conscience. Ask for forgiveness. Make amends.
There was something in particular that was bothering me. Something I had done. I didn’t understand its significance at the time.
I was sorry about it. Because it was a spiritual problem, I decided to practice the Catholic faith tradition of confession, also known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation or the Sacrament of Penance.
Here’s a description about the belief and process.
The Belief of Penance
Penance is an outward sign of an inward grace.
The act of confession is a judicial process where the one who has come to ask for forgiveness is the accuser, the person accused, and the witness. The priest pronounces judgement and the sentence.
The grace that is received is an act of being set free from guilt and the eternal separation from God in the case of a grave error against God’s law.
Confession cannot be made in the secrecy of one’s heart, nor to a friend, or advocate, or a representative of human authority. A confession must be made to an ordained priest who has been given the right to rule and guide the church of God, and has been given the power of the keys.
The Power of the Keys
Matthew 16:19, “…and I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
There were three things that were required of me as I made this confession.
- I was truly sorry
- I confessed these errors fully in kind and number
- I was willing to do penance and make amends
Examination of Conscience
I did this on Wednesday evening. I wrote down all my errors in a file on my phone that I could access and read while doing the confession. I hoped for heightened computer file security–no flukes in cyberspace, please! There’s a significant vulnerability when laying it all out there. See more fears of a confessor below.
I kept it succinct without going into explanation or details. I said this prayer for a good confession.
I found a local church offering reconciliation the next day. I was nervous.
This reconciliation would be very different than my earliest ones. It would be thorough, thoughtful, and self-reflective. There was preparation rather than a quick consideration of what I might say in the moment.
The Fears of a Confessor
- Fear of embarrassment. I woke up quite early the next morning. On the drive to the church, I lapsed into the fear of embarrassment while I imagined reciting my list to the priest. I had a cringe worthy list of things I had done all the way back to my teenage years.
- Fear of being judged. I chose to think this instead: I’d give this list to God through the priest and he would not judge me. If he did, it would be his problem, not mine.
- Fear these would be the worst. I once heard a priest say he’d heard everything. I imagined I wouldn’t tell this one anything new. It took courage to write it and courage to read it to another.
- Fear I wouldn’t get it right. I was afraid after I went through this effort I wouldn’t find the right place. The priest wouldn’t show up. It wouldn’t happen.
- Fear I’d get in trouble instead of being forgiven. Conviction. Condemnation. Separation.
Fortunately, there was a man in the church straightening out the hymnals early in the morning. I asked him where the priest did confessions. He pointed me to the back to a room with a door.
Asking for Forgiveness
I waited for the priest to come. Someone had gone in before me. When it was my turn, I walked into the small room. I was thankful to see the priest sitting behind a partition.
I could see his feet. He had donned his white vestment for this sacrament. The partition between us was made of cloth. I knelt down on the kneeler.
… and he began like this
Priest: In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Me: Bless me father for I have sinned. My last confession was 40 years ago.
Priest: Welcome back.
Me: Thank you.
I recited my list and when I was done,
… I am sorry for these sins and all the sins of my past life.
Although I realized later it had not been 40 years, my examination went back 40 years to things I had never said in the past. I had a different understanding of what reconciliation meant now.
Penance and Making Amends
The priest was tender. There was no gasping, nor did he faint, or spontaneously combust. We discussed the story of the prodigal son.
He asked me a few questions. He gave me some advice and direction. It was part of his “judgement and sentence” which was not judgmental at all. He assigned a penance.
The assignment of penance can be something like this:
- Prayers: 4 Our Father’s
- Prayers: 1 Glory Be
- Stay for mass and receive communion
- Spend some time in the Adoration Chapel
A pile of the Act of Contrition was written out and place on the kneeler, cut up like handouts to take. He invited me to say it.
Then he said the prayer of absolution. This is always the sentence. Absolution. Forgiveness.
The Clearing of Punishment
In Roman Catholic theology, one’s sins are forgiven by God once they are confessed and absolved through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The practice of reducing or clearing one’s earthly or afterlife punishment is called an indulgence. After one has confessed and received absolution for her sins, there are indulgences—further actions to greater freedom.
The conditions for an indulgence are reciting certain prayers, the performance of some good works, or some practice of piety. They are defined and made clear by the Church.
There are two types of indulgences, full and partial.
A partial indulgence includes one of these works.
A plenary (full) indulgence begins with these three things
- Participating in the sacrament of confession
- Going to communion
- Prayer for the intention of the Holy Father (Pope)
and adds a sincere heart to sin no more, and a specific work.
One of the plenary indulgences includes time spent in the Adoration Chapel also called Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
In the church, this is a place where the Eucharist is placed. To sit in this chapel, is to sit in the presence of God.
After Making the Confession
I said the prayers the priest gave to me, stayed for mass, and went to the Adoration Chapel. There is a time for the conviction to be over and instead be filled with forgiveness and the love of God.
As I sat in the chapel, I erased the list I had written in my phone. There was no need to keep a tally. I could begin to let that all go. None of the process was as scary as I imagined. None of my fears came to pass.
This is the practice of washing yourself clean in the Catholic church. I wrote about it to understand it better myself. Is there something you’ve done that you’d like to clean the slate and begin again? What will your practice be?
image credit: Confessional Naples by Nicola; Flickr CC