A young man once challenged me about the Sacrament of Confession in a semi-public forum.
“Why do I have to confess my sins to a priest, when I can just go directly to God?”
“A good question!” I replied back. He smiled waiting for a cop-out answer of some sort.
But I honored his question by saying, “Technically speaking, God doesn’t need confession to forgive your sins.” A bigger smile came over him.
“You see,” I continued, “Sacraments are outward signs of God’s grace in the world. They are OF THIS WORLD. Sacraments are not FOR God. Sacraments are for US!”
Now it was my turn to question him. “Let me ask you something. If I said that you never had to go to confession again…”
Again a big hopeful smile.
And then the kicker, “How often would you ask God for forgiveness?”
A hush came over the room and no eyes would meet mine. Save one. The young man who asked the original question looked up and replied, “Honestly, probably not often. Probably only if I were really desperate or really upset about something I did wrong.”
“And how often, would you examine your conscience?”
“Well, maybe a bit more…but again, not that much,”
“Let’s take God and Hell and all those things out of the equation for a moment. How often, would you say someone should look at all the wonderful things that they do and then also look at the ways that they don’t measure up? And how often should they make a plan to improve themselves or to rectify something really awful?”
Someone else piped up, “As often as it is helpful!” Which I thought was a great answer.
How often might the owner of a business look at their profits and losses?
A Wall Street banker in the room replied, “We’re bound to do this by law each quarter really.”
“Shouldn’t we…at least try to do the same thing with our own profits and losses?”
Everyone nodded and smiled a bit. But it still made them uncomfortable.
I pressed further, “Let’s get beyond confession. How often should we think about God, give God thanks, ask God for forgiveness.”
I looked to the former smart answerer and she said, “Yep, as often as it is helpful.”
“Right–we can over-do the forgiveness part especially and beat ourselves up way too much.”
But if we were left undeterred…how often would we take the time to do that?
One person said it perfectly, “Well, it’s not like I don’t want to do this. I just forget or run out of time or it just doesn’t cross my mind because I’m pretty busy and caught up in a lot of my stuff.”
Again silence. We all agreed that this was a huge problem.
“St. Ignatius was smart and he knew of the demands of the world. He also knew how easy it was for us to get distracted. So he told us we should practice this exercise TWICE a day. The daily examen is a way to keep reminding ourselves to search for God and to notice our feelings and the rhythms of our lives. The church asks us to go to mass once a week at minimum–we probably should go more often, because it’s really easy to lose one’s course isn’t it?”
“But we try to hide from the fact that we need God. We try to push that away and become more autonomous beings in the world. It’s a value that far too many people hold much too dearly. So many people value a solitary achievement, as opposed to teamwork. We value solitary prayer over communal ritual as well.”
One person nodded and said, “How many people say ‘I can pray alone, I don’t need to go to church to do that.'” I agreed and even admit that I too fall into that trap from time to time.
But God finds His way to work at pulling the strings of our hearts, calling us back to center. Calling us home to be with us, bringing us out of hiding. Offering us tender forgiveness for the sins that are so obvious in the light of day. Helping us to get to the heart of what is going on inside of us. ”
Friends, we can hide but at the end of the day, we are not going to fool God. We are in need of deep reflection and we often can’t do that alone. We need others feeding things back to us and helping us to become better people.
Perhaps we need that help about once a week? And perhaps we need to spend some time really thinking about the occupations of our day every day? And maybe about once a month, we can look into our hearts and ask ourselves how we can most improve our efforts?
Do we need the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) to have God forgive our sins? No! But it helps!
Does God need us to go to Sunday mass? As an old English teacher once told me, when I refused to do an assignment, “So punish me, don’t do it!”
She was wise enough to realize that the assignment benefited me alone. It only created work for her, for she already knew the material. In doing the assignment, I would be looking to her to tell me what I didn’t understand, what I understood well and how I could take steps to improve my grasping of the material.
I think God often says that to us, “So punish me, don’t do it!”
The issue at play here is that so many people have stopped going to mass and confession because essentially they have not found them to be helpful to this kind of deep discernment.
Perhaps there is nothing wrong with these people, but rather something wrong with those of us that are responsible for the “performance of ritual?” That is well worth looking at to help us engage and re-engage those who clearly need reminders of God in their lives.
And God says to us too, “So, punish me, don’t do it!”
Today I pray, that I Lord might be just a bit kinder to those who come to seek you at our masses. That I might take just a bit more time to talk to these that you have given to me. I pray that I might have the courage to look at my own shortcomings and ask God to help me improve and that I might notice the graces given to me in my life more readily because I am in tune with the rhythms that bring me true joy and help me see God in all things.
Just because God is around all the time, doesn’t mean that we should take that for granted.
So this summer, let us commit ourselves to what we at least need minimally: daily prayer, weekly mass, monthly confession. And let us do these with the joy of knowing God’s love and mercy. Amen.