I have had so many wonderful experiences with the sacrament of Confession, but I will tell you about two of my favorites.
On February 29, 2000 I read St. Therese’s Story of a Soul, had my very first Confession (long, but not very memorable), and was received into the Catholic Church. I left on a pilgrimage to Rome the next day, where I had my second Confession (!), which was amazing.
As soon as I got to Rome I headed to the confessionals at St. Peter’s Basilica. I was full of sorrow for my sins, sorrow that I didn’t think I was supposed to be a nun, sorrow that I would probably never love Jesus as much as St. Therese, sorrow that I would become distracted in the world unless I was shut up in a cloister, which I didn’t think I was supposed to be. The Vatican guard told me the English-speaking priest would arrive shortly, so I went to pray in front of the Tabernacle.
After about 15 minutes, a booming voice echoed through the Basilica, “Who is the girl who needs an English-speaking confessor? I'm ready!” I hurried over to meet a round, jolly Franciscan called Father George. I was tear-stained and distressed, and he immediately began to comfort me. When I relayed all of my fears and sorrows and whatever sins I had committed in the past 24 hours of weeping about not being St. Therese, he spent forty minutes giving me solid spiritual direction, ending with, “God did not call you to be St. Therese. He called you to be Saint Lara.” Then for my penance, he said, “Go sit in front of Jesus in the Tabernacle and tell Him everything. Then listen to Him. Then go out and do fifteen acts of kindness for people.” Never have I had a penance that kept my thoughts off of myself and totally focused on being Christ-like for so long. It took a while, wandering the streets of Rome, to complete that penance, and the whole time I was thinking of others and how I could be Jesus to them.
When I got back from that fabulous pilgrimage and settled into Catholic life, I began going on a weekly basis to a beautiful, holy priest for Confession and spiritual direction. He was exacting, he knew me well, and I would actually stop when I was about to do something I shouldn’t and think, “I don’t want to have to confess this to him again.” He was dry and matter-of-fact, but so merciful and kind; if I left confession sobbing, he would call me the next day to check on me, and I always left knowing how clean my soul was. I knew the unconditional love of God and His absolute forgiveness so much better because of these weekly meetings.
One week, I was feeling downhearted about coming in to confess - yet again - pretty much the same old laundry list of sins. I felt angry at myself for continuing to commit them time after time, and I relayed my frustration to my confessor. I told him I thought I should have conquered them by now, and that I was annoyed with my lack of holiness. He surprised me by answering, “You are being prideful. You do not have the ability to conquer your sins by a force of your will. You need to depend on Christ and look wholly at Him, not at yourself.”
I think I was surprised because I had always thought of pridefulness as thinking too highly of myself rather than being frustrated with myself for not being good enough. C.S. Lewis captures the sin of pride so well in The Screwtape Letters; as the man (whom the demon Screwtape is tempting) is praying in church, Screwtape puts the thought into his head, “By Jove, I'm being humble,” after he has just been judging all of his neighbors while thinking very highly of himself. This kind of pride is obvious to us. But, far from thinking much of myself, I felt I was a failure when I went into confession that day. Thankfully I had a wonderful confessor who was able to direct me well and help me to recognize as pride something that I perhaps thought was virtuous. Father George, too, by giving me that penance, had gently turned my self-obsessed thoughts towards Christ. I certainly didn’t recognize my pridefulness in crying about not being called to be a nun.
This coming Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate Saint John Climacus, or Saint John of the Ladder. This holy hermit and later Abbot of Sinai wrote The Ladder of Divine Ascent, a treatise detailing thirty important steps - virtues we are called to practice - on the ladder to perfect union with Christ. It is good to for me to remember the advice of my old confessor when I read through the steps... I have certainly not ascended very far up the ladder. Satan would love to see me grow angry with myself and focus on all the ways I have failed in holiness, but my job is to keep my eyes on the top of the ladder, on the face of Christ, and just keep climbing. As St. John Climacus says, “It is not the self-critical who reveals his humility (for does not everyone have somehow to put up with himself?). Rather, it is the man who continues to love the person who has criticized him.”
I am not saying we should overlook our sins. We need to be mindful of when we fall - but we ask forgiveness and get back up again rather than dwelling on ourselves. Jesus wants our thoughts on Him all the time. In all we do. He never wants us wallowing. Be sorry, and just as God completely forgets our sins, put them behind you and turn your gaze back to His face as quickly as possible.
For more on St. John Climacus, the icon of the feast, prayers, ideas for celebrating and to download the PDF for the feast day, click here.