This is My Confession…

I’m on the verge of becoming Catholic. This is a confession new to many of you but it isn’t the purpose of this post–I’ll fill you in soon on the impetus for this conversion. This post is about an actual confession, my first confession, also known as the sacrament of reconciliation.

I prepared for confession in the way that only a Protestant could, by making a list of my sins and checking it twice. Actually, this makes it sound easier than it was. I actually had a hard time making the list because I wasn’t sure what I thought sin was anymore.

You see, for the last few years I’ve spent time in Christian contexts that didn’t talk about sin, at least not on a personal, individual level. I attended and graduated from a United Methodist seminary, but sin was rarely a topic of conversation unless we were critiquing church doctrine on sin or talking about the fact that we weren’t talking about sin. And for all the church hopping that I did during my first five years in Atlanta, I was hard-pressed to hear a sermon about sin and repentance. So I lost sight of sin and proceeded to live life unfettered by it. I’ll admit it was liberating to live a life not bogged down by the concept of sin. Oh the places you’ll go when sin isn’t weighing you down. Oh the people and things you’ll do too. But the moment I found out that I had to go to reconciliation, the sheen of my so-called liberated life wore off quickly.

As I inched toward the day of confession I was conflicted. I spent a lot of time trying to eke out a definition of sin using the embedded theology of my Protestant background and the teachings of my soon to be faith tradition of Catholicism. I wrestled with sin as “anything that separates me from God” and how anemic it felt to me because of its highly relative nature. I studied charts on venial and mortal sin, even going so far as to access a website that had a checklist where you can quantify which category you’ve committed more sins in. I journaled about some personal understandings of sin that felt generative for me. Finally I read an examination of conscience for single young adults as well as a general examination of conscience and jotted some notes down about the ways I have fallen short before God, myself, and my fellow human beings.

The day of reconciliation arrived and I was jittery with nerves. It was advised that I attend the group reconciliation service where priests from multiple parishes join our parish for a brief service and then offer themselves as confessors for individual parishioners. I was told that the advantage of this service is that one could choose to go to a priest other than your parish priest to confess–in the case that you feel awkward about telling your sins to the guy who sees you every Sunday. I can’t lie, this was compelling to me as a first timer to this process.

The service started with us singing “Amazing Grace” and immediately I felt all of my emotions well up inside of me and go straight to my eyeballs. I was ready for the words “That saved a wretch like me” to hit me like a ton of bricks but it never did. Why? Because in “Lead Me, Guide Me: The African-American Catholic Hymnal” the lyrics are:

Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved and strengthened me.

My mind was blown. I was prepared to proclaim myself a wretch and wallow in the guilt and shame of my sins but God wasn’t having it. How am I supposed to feel shamed and convicted?

The scripture reading for the service was Luke 15:3-7:

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

The priest’s homily focused on the theology many of us were taught about sin, theology that resulted in us measuring our sins and carrying guilt and shame too heavy for us to bear. He encouraged us to reorient our theology around sin in light of this being the church’s Jubilee of Mercy and he challenged us to shift how we approached the moment of confession. He told us not to approach it bogged down by the sins that we are confessing but to confess with the knowledge that God is merciful and we are forgiven. And to keep in mind the parable which shows us that when the lost sheep was found, there was no moment in which the one who found it then stopped to talk about where it had been and what it had done. No, there was just celebration for its recovery and return back to the fold. “He lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.” Mind blown again. Truly I walked in that church expecting that, from the top of the service, it was going to be weeping, mourning, and gnashing of teeth and so far none of that happened.

The homily ended and the music minister played a soft refrain as the individual confessions commenced. The priest and the associate priests of my parish were located in the sacristy and behind the altar, respectively, so I knew where not to go, or did I? As I sat there reflecting on the list of sins I made and of this sacrament I was about to partake in I realized that making my confession to one of the priests in my parish was more important to me than anonymity. If I understand nothing else about confession, I understand it as an opportunity to bind myself to a community through the vulnerable act of confessing my sins to someone God has called, entrusted, and empowered to grant me absolution. Given that, I realized how important it was for me to confess to a priest at my parish as a sign of my trust in him and in the community God has called me to. A community that I fully intend to grow in for the next few years. And so I walked to the front of the room, bowed to the cross, and walked up behind the altar.

Bless me father for I have sinned, this is my first confession.

I wish I had spoken those words as clearly as they are written. Instead I stumbled over my words as the gravity of the moment hit me like that ton of bricks I wanted to hit me during “Amazing Grace.” The priest looked at me and smiled and told me I need not confess to stealing cookies out of grandma’s jar back when I was three. We laughed briefly and then I  went to start on my litany of sins until all the salty discharge that was accumulating in my body since earlier that day finally released itself. My already nervous and clipped speech became fragmented and I could only mutter my words. I managed to get out that I’m emotional because I realize the weight of the moment and it feels very intense. He told me to take my time and I calmed myself down long enough to make my confession.

The sin that concerns me the most are the lusts of the flesh.

Yes, I said “lusts of the flesh.” Don’t ask me where I got that language from. I’m sure it was embedded from my Protestant heydays. I proceeded to tell the priest all that fell under the category of “lusts of the flesh” from sexual temptation and overconsumption of material goods to the sin of comparison and not, always, believing fully in the gift of God within me. He listened carefully and patiently and told me to really think about those things I’ve mentioned, particularly, what of them are roots of joy and what are the empty calories. He provided a moment of levity by telling me that if I want a pair of Louboutins I should have them, if it is within my means, and if I would get good use out of them on a variety of occasions. (I’ll admit, I thought this was random because I didn’t say anything about shoes but maybe I look like a “Single Black Female Addicted to Retail.”) He provided me with another example of measured consumption and then he did something that blew my mind again, he converted my language. In moving toward the issuance of penance he told me that “pleasures of the flesh” aren’t all bad but I must think about the role that pleasures of the flesh play in my life. “Now that’s just some advice, here is your penance,” the priest said. Yes, here it comes, the hard blow of a thousand “Hail Marys.”

I want you to list God’s blessings in your life.

“What?!” I thought to myself.

I want you to start a journal and document God’s blessings in your life as you see them.

I thought to myself, “This is penance?” He prayed the prayer of absolution over me and dismissed me.

Walking away from the altar my mind was spinning from everything I’d seen, heard, and felt within the span of an hour. I walked in the church a mess, bogged down with my list o’ sins, and my preconceived notions of how they should be handled and I walked out reconciled with God and more tightly bound to this blessed Catholic tradition and community I’ve found myself in.