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To Whom Do You Confess? | Catholic Life

To Whom Do You Confess?

Yet another (serious, and not sarcastic, though of course I can rarely resist making a few jokes here and there) post in my ongoing consideration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I have been incredibly blessed by the comment so far, and after letting this post sit for a while I now look forward to comments on it as well. It is perfectly fine if you have a different experience or view of the God we Catholics worship, and I am interested in how this plays into your experience of confession in a sacramental space.

Edith Stein divided up the prayer of the Church into the public (liturgy and Eucharist), and the private (solitary dialogue with God). My prayer life is incredibly lopsided toward the former. One of the many downsides of being so warped is that no matter how much I know about God, in fact no matter how much I know God, I am still mismolded by the Church’s imperfect language.

The Church’s public liturgy is not obsessed with God as male, but its poor wording naturally leads to misunderstanding in the deepest sense possible. My own soul contains the problem of the day, and God is conflated with Father.

This problem is no where more obvious than when trying to live out the acts of the penitent. A good examination of conscience is impossible for me when I only think of confessing to God as Father, because such a limited view of God shrinks my conscience and my awareness of my relationships and responsibility. When I think of God as Father, I think of a loving, just, and merciful God who created me in HIS own image, allowed me to be born with the stain of sin, knows all of my weaknesses, and sent HIS only son Jesus to redeem me. I think that HE graciously provided the Church so that we can have the sacraments here on earth as means of grace our our way to finally live with HIM in heaven forever.

I know all of the rules set forth by the Church, and I obey them. I never knowingly disobey them1. I even maintain the appropriate Catholic sense of guilt for not doing quite enough, without it mattering what exactly enough is (um, that part was a joke. Laugh. Haha).

With this understanding of God in mind, I have very little to confess. And when the Holy Spirit somehow breaks through and gets me to confession, priests are often quite ready and willing to remind me that God is Father. God is Father. Father is pleased with me for making a point of knowing what should be on the checklist, and then checking it off.

And priests are busy. They do not have time for people who don’t understand that God is Father; for people who do not understand that only those sins that violate the Father’s commands need to be confessed. If one does not have the most fearsome of universally mortal sins to confess, then one should start out every confession with “bless me father for I have sinned. It has been 11 months and 30 says since my last confession.”

If reconciliation simply means confessing my sins to Father Priest who sits in the place of Jesus as mediator between me and Father in heaven, then it is of incredibly little use in my life. It is, in fact, a complete puzzle why God should have chosen so many amazingly wonderful sacraments, and then tossed in one that is all but pointless. After all, the only people who need to confess to Father are those who are so far from God that they would never bother to confess.

I first realized the extent of this problem two years ago during Advent. I knelt in Church examining my conscience, and finding nothing. And then I looked at the crucifix and saw a sister hanging there. And instantly I felt it all: the knowledge of my sins, the perfect contrition, the complete awareness of my utter brokenness and horror at how I had broken the God who loved me through death.

Last night I realized it all over again. As I said my act of contrition, I realized that despite the happily generic word “God,” I was saying it to Father. I had sought reconciliation because I had been given an understanding  by a God who transcends such human categorization, and in fact demands more words in order to not be trapped by that one male word. But, going through the motions of confession, I was once again returning to the limiting understanding of God which keeps me away from the grace of reconciliation.

And that, I suppose, was one of the reasons that my stomach remained tight, even as I left the confessional amazed at God’s grace. The Holy Spirit was clearly present, but was being quenched even as I said the words for the purpose of accepting the sacramental grace into my life.

I have been formed to confess to Father, and unless I actively counter that tendency, confession is meaningless in my life. There is the grace to overcome my inclination, but every day I must accept it instead of absorbing the limiting understanding pressed upon me by miserable language.

To whom do you confess? Do you share my tendency to confess to a loving, just, and merciful Father?  If so, do you find it helpful or harmful? Has your understanding of reconciliation radically changed, and if so, how has it changed the way in which you embrace the practice?


1. That was true when this was written a month or two ago. It is no longer unambiguously true, but that is the subject of another (hopefully forthcoming eventually) post on reconciliation.

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10 Responses to “To Whom Do You Confess?”

  1. Claire 25. May, 2011 at 7:58 am #

    Language is really tricky. There have been seasons when I cannot pray, think about or even believe in God because the words used by others have gotten in the way. So I understand what you mean, at least a little. The funny thing is, “Mother” is more difficult for me and that has been pretty humbling. Without going into it in detail, it is 100% because of my own experience of motherhood (I mean that I have a mother and that I now am one). My definition and understanding of motherhood has had to expand and to be re-shaped because it is, as you said, too limited.
    I mean (and I am not sure how to express this well) that rather than feeling that we need do away with, or to “transcend,” gender in our conceptions of why God is Father or Mary is Queen of Heaven or Jesus is Son, we need to ask for help in going MORE deeply into it. Revelation has always come through and within human culture, history and through and in human bodies.

    Finally, I’m going to argue with you a bit. When you say that “confession is meaningless in your life” and that the Spirit is “quenched” because you go leave Confession without an understanding of what you are saying–it’s just not true! It’s one of the main differences between a sacramental and non-sacramental Church. We are not always given answers when God invites us to participate in the sacred mysteries of faith—but always grace.

    • Rae 25. May, 2011 at 5:44 pm #

      I think that this is a very difficult point, the going more deeply into the mystery of God as Father etc. Because, if one is to avoid heresy, then going more deeply into it must involve the realization that God is not male. And so there is a tremendous breakdown between the way that our language works and what must be a mysterious truth. I am sure that I would have as many issues with “Mother” if that were the dominant language, but it is barely if ever touched upon in the public prayer of the Church.

      I am curious as to what you think it actually means to quench the Spirit. I know that I have expressed myself poorly in this post, but if I read you correctly, then you think it is impossible to receive Sacramental grace incompletely? That the grace of the Sacraments cannot ever be partially absorbed etc? I am not disagreeing yet, just trying to make sure that I actually understand the view behind what you’re saying.

  2. Claire 26. May, 2011 at 7:40 pm #

    Well I am sure I don’t know exactly how exactly the sacraments confer grace! I was kind of trying to get at the principle that sacramental grace is superior to mental prayer and intellectual efforts alone in restoring us to full communion with God and to wholeness of person, because the sacraments were established by Jesus Christ (for reasons we don’t fully understand). But I think I see my Protestant Reformed roots starting to show so this girl needs to take herself in for some touch-ups. (I mean: that’s really my issue and not yours so I am not sure how much it applies in your case.)

    Still, that we are desperately in need of divine help is the whole reason to go to Confession in the first place so I would still quibble with the claim that it is a “useless” practice just because of a conception of fatherhood that is troubling. So that’s a first question: I thought, and maybe I misunderstood what you were saying, that you meant that approaching God as “Father” was difficult for you because you equated a father figure with a sort of strict kind of accountant. Is that not what you meant?

    The issue of God-in-Revelation as male is still important, though I am sure I don’t understand why. I mean, God-as-a-human-person—the Word of God–was a man, and He called himself “Son” and then taught people to call God “Father.” This must mean something! I agree that God must somehow transcend gender and not be limited to it, but if the Incarnate was a man and not a woman, does this mean that the nature of God is somehow now male, in the very way that the rest of us are? Is a better way of looking at it that God actually IS gendered and that approaching him as Father is the way to know Him? That our “male” is only a shadow of the reality of “Maleness.” (Now am I heretical? I don’t know.)
    I am thinking of St.Paul’s writings on marriage and how “it was a profound mystery, but he meant Christ and the Church.” And all of this is making me think of Maximilian Kolbe and how he liked to talk about Mary’s relationship to the Trinity and I’ve wondered what in the world he meant by that.

    Now I am in way over my head. Theologians and other smarty-pants, please take over.

    • Rae 02. Jun, 2011 at 5:56 pm #

      After a lot of thought I *think* that we agree on your main underlying quibble. And please do correct me if I am misunderstanding. I think that you are reading me as holding up the idea that the grace of confession depends on our intention/understanding, and you are countering that the grace of the Sacraments is more powerful than that. If so, the I agree.

      Part of my problem with communicating is that I am dancing around two separate issues/points:

      1. When the Sacrament of Reconciliation is misunderstood and there is an incorrect focus on God as only Father, then the sacrament is of little use to those who live good lives of which their Father would approve. I don’t see Father God as a strict Accountant. I see God the Father as the perfection by which we judge all human fathers, and the only way that we can know that human fathers are imperfect. I see God the Father as not only just and all-knowing, but also loving and the perfection of gentleness. So, of course HE understands all of my faults and how hard I try and then I feel no need to go to confession. When the Holy Spirit somehow corrects this, priests who believe in this version of God fill in the role of the kindly father who thinks that it is cute that I am trying so hard, and who think that I just need to be reminded to take it easy.

      With this (I believe incorrect) view of God and confession, confession is of limited use because it is the incorrect sacrament. If those who see God this way are correct, then I should have been going to Mass all the time, but only going to confession once a year. And it matters that we utilize the correct sacraments for their correct purposes.

      2. Oh wait, I already started touching on the second point in my last paragraph. Apparently I just can’t keep this separated. Anyway, intention and openness to grace does matter for routine reception of the Sacraments. even though God can obviously overcome human limitations at will, it isn’t standard. We have to work on being properly receptive, we have to seek out the appropriate sacrament. For at least some of the sacraments we have to have the right intention/understanding.

      I think that there is a difference between confession becoming meaningless in my life (my words) and the sacrament being “useless” (my understanding of your words). Isn’t this part of the reason that we seek to catechize rather than just let children be with the grace of their baptisms? And it seems so clear to me that many people who (I presume) have valid sacramental marriages receive so little grace from them. God doesn’t force grace on us (at least typically not in the common sense), even when we encounter the sacraments. The sacraments are never useless, but the Holy Spirit can be stifled. Whatever that means.

      And I think the last half of your comment needs its own post (which may or may not be my way of getting around the fact that I can’t yet hash this all out clearly). I think the first part of what you say is perfect, and the last approaches heresy, but that is actually helpful for me in thinking through things. And now I really have to read Kolbe, because I was more familiar with people pulling out the fact that he thought the Holy Spirit was Feminine in the same way that the Father and Son are Masculine. But I’ve never read him at all!

  3. Claire 03. Jun, 2011 at 5:22 pm #

    I am so glad you responded finally because it turns out that I really DIDN’T understand the post very well at all to begin with and so my comments re: distorted view of Divine Fatherhood are completely irrelevant. Too bad I have already taken up too much space in this combox because your two points as summarized in your most recent comment are really interesting.

    Also: I too am glad for my near-heretical comments because they’ve gotten me thinking of the nature of God, the nature of masculinity & feminity, the Trinity and marriage (phew) in new ways. What I meant to say was not that God is gendered, but that somehow God “encompasses gender” in the sense that both male and female are “in His image” somehow. But that’s not what I said because I was, in fact, becoming very confused. I think that both femininity and masculinity proceed from and together mirror the Divine nature, rather than God being gendered and each of us (as EITHER male or female) only being shadows of a Divine Gender–which would be totally wrong. (I think, ha ha.)

    Last month I finally got my hands on Alice von Hildebrand’s “Privilege of being a Woman” and Gertrude von le Fort’s “Eternal Woman” both of which have unfortunately confused me even more. If you ever write that other post you mentioned, I’d like to read it. I hesitate to dive into Edith Stein because I understand that many of her ideas were later rejected so if you can recommend other reading, please do.

    • Rae 04. Jun, 2011 at 3:48 am #

      I am sorry that it took me so long to respond (and I know that I still need to respond to the discussion on your blog!) but this really has been good for me. And I’ll still try to do that post, but I agree completely with your last summery of God and gender. The thing that stinks about talking about all of this is that so much can be true in a sense, but be wildly divergent from Christian orthodoxy when taken out of that sense.

      I haven’t read “Eternal Woman,” but I will post my thoughts on “Privilege of being a Woman” in hopes that you will comment. It is one of the worst books I’ve ever read, though I appreciate that for those women who are like AvH it can be a great blessing since they honestly need emotive gushing more than reasonable arguments.

      Also, I can’t carefully recommend Edith Stein, because I don’t know anything about which aspects of her writing were rejected. Is this something that has happened in the last few years (I really have been quite thoroughly out of the loop). My understanding is that she is widely misunderstood by those who grab little pieces out of context, but that JPII was a complete fan and would have declared her a Doctor of the Church if it weren’t for the ecumenical backlash that hurt Jewish-Catholic relations due to her canonization as a martyr. But maybe you know about something else that was found in their review of her writings? I would love to know simply for curiosity’s sake, though it might also be good to correct some of my errant views. :-)

      So I think that I’m the one looking to you for recommendations at this point!

      And thank you for your patience with all of this. I do appreciate the irony of the fact that you’re actually much busier than I am.

      • Anshu 30. Jul, 2014 at 6:49 pm #

        I do believe that we are comnig close to the end times Our Father in heaven will have to intervine this world has become so sick i am not afraid after all we r only in this world for a very short trail compared to the eternity in heaven that Jesus promised those who remain faithful. So dear friends reach out to as many people as you can if we have seen the light we need to help our brothers and sister to come to know Jesus too. We can do this if we have a close relationship to God through prayer quite time and in being compassionate and forgiven to our fellow man. God bless you all see you in heaven i sure hope to go there as soon as my Saviour wants

  4. Claire 04. Jun, 2011 at 2:11 pm #

    Ok, I just need to say that I am cracking up about your comment about the “Privilege” book. I was trying to be nice saying that it confused me because I honestly could barely get through it because it’s just so awful and I kept having to take breaks to explode to my husband about how silly it was. The writer had a PhD in Philosophy?!?

    All I know about the divergence of Edith Stein’s thought from JP II’s was that apparently she believed in a “feminine soul” and he did not. I look forward to your posts on this!

  5. Rae 04. Jun, 2011 at 7:03 pm #

    Is this (if you have time to scan it) close to the sort of thing you’re thinking about re Stein and JPII?
    http://www.crvp.org/book/Series01/I-35/chapter-12.htm

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