The National Catholic Review

How close is God? Moses told the Israelites,

For what great nation is there
that has gods so close to it as the Lord,
our God, is to us whenever we call upon him? (Dt 4:7).

 

So God is closer than any supposed gods might be. How close is that?

Saint Augustine of Hippo opens the work, which we call his Confessions, with that question. He starts by saying that humans have an instinctive need to praise God, but he wonders:

How shall I call upon my God and my Lord, when by the very act of calling upon him I would be calling himself into myself? Is there any place within me into which my God might come? How can the God who made heaven and earth come into me? Is there any room in me for you, Lord, my God? Even heaven and earth, which you have made and in which you have made me—can even they contain you? (I.2)

 

Interesting perspective, about room inside ourselves for God. Prayer is calling upon God, but where exactly, if heaven and earth cannot contain him, are you supposed to meet God? What does it mean to call God into one’s self?

For Saint Augustine, bewilderment about where God is to be encountered keeps growing until he asks the great question, “What are you to me?” And then he writes, “Have mercy on me, so that I may tell you” (I.5). In what follows, Augustine encounters God. And where does he find God? Not beyond the universe, or beneath it, not even within, for God exceeds all that. Augustine finds God not in nature but in history, in his own story, in his recollection and recitation of his life. Hence the title, Confessions.

We have a sacrament we call Confession. Many Christians have no idea what it is or why it exists. We didn’t help when we starting calling it “the Sacrament of Reconciliation.” It’s a terrible title. Why? First, because our reconciliation with God is accomplished by, and within, Jesus the Christ. Second, because there is no single “sacrament of reconciliation.” Every sacrament is a sacrament of reconciliation. We never do baptize, communicate, confirm, ordain, wed, or anoint the sick without celebrating the reconciliation won for us in Christ. You can’t have an efficacious sacrament without reconciliation.

No, call it what it is: confession. It’s telling one’s story. If people understood the importance of that, they would understand the need for the sacrament. Failing that, they think the sacrament is some sort of celestial car wash for souls, and ask, why not hose down the Chevy yourself?

Confession is exactly what Saint Augustine called it. It is prayerfully telling God about our lives, so that, in the sound of the story, we see where God has been all along. We see that God has been stalking us, even through sin and sadness.

Think of Confession as the sacrament of story. You come to tell God your story. You ask God to make sense of your life. Sin has sown confusion, separated you from the very meaning of life, which we call God. As any therapist knows, the very act of gathering your story to share it with another already begins to impose meaning upon it. Grace builds upon nature. In Confession, your act of telling your story opens the way for God’s act of forgiveness. Put another way, we gather up our words so as to be gathered into the Word, the Word of God that is Jesus the Christ.

Prepare for the sacrament with these questions: since the last time you came to confess, what’s happened? By the way, that’s the purpose of telling the priest how long it’s been since your last confession. You’re not paying a utility bill. Precision isn’t the point. You’re giving the confessor the first glimpse of your soul. Hearing, “about a month since my last confession” prepares the priest for what’s coming. So does, “Father, it’s been many years.”

So what is your story? Do you feel closer to God or more distant? Why? Is there greater, or less, satisfaction for you as you survey your fellows? What do you think has been happening in your life? Why?

Thinking of Confession as "the sacrament of story" answers another question that many people have: how often do I need to go to confession? The answer is: do you have a story? Do you suspect you have story? Then it’s time to confess. When sense starts to seep out of your life, it’s time to tell your story.

Some folk come to Confession without a story. They think they’ve come simply to enumerate all their sins. Here’s the problem with that picture. No one can do it. Even the person who painstakingly lists everything hasn’t really reproduced the complete past, and the Lord doesn’t ask of us what we cannot give. If you can’t remember lunch last Thursday, how can God expect you enumerate the many sins of that day?

Confessing one’s sins is not liking scanning items at the grocery store: an item is stolen if it isn’t scanned. In Confession, you come looking for the Lord in your life and that’s where you will find him, in your story. Fine, be scrupulous and say, “And for all the sins I may have forgotten.” Truth is, that’s most of them. And what about the ones you haven’t even recognized yet!

Concentrate on your story. That will help you to recognize the deadly stances that underlie the sins. It will help you see the attitude beneath the individual acts. Remember, Jesus said that

nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;
but the things that come out from within are what defile (Mk 7: 18-20).

 

When we say that a sin deliberately not confessed is a sin not forgiven, we mean that the Lord won’t break open a door we’ve locked. He won’t do that. In love of our liberty, he waits for us to come out and to tell our story.

Saint Augustine ends his Confessions—about four hundred pages in my English edition—writing,

What human can empower another human to understand these things? What angel can grant understanding to another angel? What angel to a human? Let us rather ask of you, seek in you, knock at your door. Only so will we receive, only so find, and only so will the door be opened to us. Amen (VIII.38).

 

Deuteronomy 4: 1-2, 6-8  James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27  Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Comments

Dawn Tedrow | 9/6/2015 - 7:21am

Thank you for an extremely well-written, thought-provoking article about a sacrament that I continue to struggle with.
I agree that once again (most never stopped) calling the sacrament confession is helpful, especially to the 2nd grade children who are trying to understand the word reconciliation. It is so difficult to come up with a laundry list of sins, when most of the sins that I am concerned about are systemic sins of omission. Ignoring the plight of Syrian refugees, ignoring the imminent cataclysm that climate change is ultimately going to impose on my children and grand children, hoarding my possessions and money rather than sharing with those who have little. I can go on and on.....when I try to talk about these issues I'm afraid the priest seems kind of overwhelmed. Hearing that I curse too much and missed Mass last Sunday is so much easier to handle. But if I try to tell my story a little at a time, maybe that will make entering a confessional a bit less daunting. Maybe I'll try. Thanks, Terrance.

Bill Mazzella | 8/30/2015 - 6:14pm

Terrance, You must know that auricular confession did not exist at the time of Augustine. Unfortunately, that form has too often been a form of control like in Ray Donovan where the priest demands that Ray goes to confession than excommunicates him for not going. http://www.sho.com/sho/ray-donovan/home
Secondly, did Augustine ever confess his sin of requesting the Roman General to use force on those who disagreed with him?

You are right that reconciliation covers the whole field of Redemptions. As does the Eucharist and baptism. If you want the Sacrament to work right you will set up occasions where priests will sit down and confess their sins with everyone else. This is where the parish becomes a community instead of where once a week sacramentalists dispense magic.

Beth Cioffoletti | 8/29/2015 - 9:16am

This is interesting. But I still haven't made peace with Confession the way it is currently done in the Catholic Church. Every few years I try again, always coming away feeling slightly "weird". Even Pope Francis' example didn't help. I can be reflective, I can tell my story and look at my sins and shortcomings, but there is something about going into a little room with a priest (usually a stranger), laying it all out, and then being "forgiven" that doesn't click for me. I feel like I've somehow sacrificed my God-given integrity and played into a hoax, like buying an indulgence. Maybe it is faith that I am lacking, or humility. Maybe I need a shift in consciousness or maybe something is still off in the way this sacrament is being sold.

Robert Helfman | 9/12/2015 - 6:37am

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alan macdonald | 8/28/2015 - 7:15pm

Anne, just wondering why you think it is appropriate to write in to a Roman Catholic magazine and casually dismiss a central tenet of our religion like a fly away from your food?

Robert Helfman | 9/12/2015 - 6:35am

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Anne Chapman | 8/27/2015 - 7:56pm

Think of Confession as the sacrament of story. You come to tell God your story. You ask God to make sense of your life. ... As any therapist knows, the very act of gathering your story to share it with another already begins to impose meaning upon it......In Confession, your act of telling your story opens the way for God’s act of forgiveness

The concept of confession as story is a good concept. Going to God to tell your story is an an excellent notion. Sharing your story with another can be very helpful, since it is very often hard for us to see ourselves objectively.

Where the article goes wrong is in assuming that people need to go to a priest to share their story. Most prefer to tell their story to someone they know well, to someone they trust implicitly, someone they know understands them as an individual instead of just the next person in the confession line, someone who, based on close personal knowledge and friendship, can give good feedback, solid insights and guidance. Then one can go to God directly and, since God knows the story better than we do ourselves, ask for forgiveness. No human being in a Roman collar is necessary to receive God's forgiveness.

Lisa Weber | 1/2/2016 - 10:45pm

A priest can offer spiritual direction, an understanding of your story in light of your spiritual journey. Most friends are not able to offer spiritual direction. Confession offers confidentiality - something that is not necessarily guaranteed in conversations with friends.

Whether in confession or conversation, priests can offer women insight into how the world works. The world runs by masculine rules, most of which women do not know. Most masculine rules are against feminine rules. Women who hope to accomplish something in the world are handicapped by their lack of knowledge of the rules that govern the community. Priests know the culture of leadership and they know how to teach it. If the church developed a leadership school for women that was taught by priests, the church would find many women interested in being students. But then, women who knew leadership skills would know how to develop an effective leadership structure for women and that cannot be allowed. So we will have to stumble along, being angry with priests for leading by rules women don't understand. If priests did have a leadership school for women, frequent confession would be part of the curriculum.

Recently by Terrance W. Klein