I was raised in the Catholic Church.
In the Catholic tradition, I made my first confession when I was in first grade. I spent hours rehearsing for this momentous occasion. Even at the age of six, I knew it was a big deal. Forty-two years later, I still take confession seriously.
For those who don’t have a Liturgical church background, there are Seven Sacraments in the Catholic Church. Catholics believe the sacraments are signs of what is sacred. From an early age, I was taught the sacraments gave me an opportunity to experience a deeper level of the Presence of God. Through the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation, as it is often called, we learn of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness for us.
In preparation for making My First Confession, I attended special classes, memorized prayers, and went to all the rehearsals in anticipation of my big moment.
The night of the ceremony, my entire family went to church. They sat out in the sanctuary while my sister took me to the confessional area. Nervously I sat and waited for my turn. I rehearsed what I was supposed to say and when I was supposed to say it. Suddenly, I realized I didn’t know what I was going to confess as sin. In a panic, I turned to my sister and said, “What should I confess?” She joyfully responded with what would become my standard confessional prayer, “I sassed my mother and teased my brother and sister.”
When it was my turn I fearfully went behind the velvet curtain and knelt down and looked straight ahead into the screen that stood between Father Ruddy and me. He said a little prayer and then said, “Go ahead, child, and tell me your confession.”
I began by saying, “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession, and these are my sins – I sassed my mother and teased my brother and sister – for these and any sins I may have forgotten, I am truly sorry.” Then I held my breath and waited to see if my sins would be forgiven. Father Ruddy gave me a little advice and asked me not to be sassy towards my mother or tease my siblings. He gave me my penance and asked me to recite The Act of Contrition. Then, he put his hand in the air and blessed me and said, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Go in peace and sin no more.”
And thus became my routine every six to eight weeks as a youth. I went to confession and checked it off my list of things I must do to be a good Catholic, never fully understanding the deep significance and spiritual blessing of confessing my sins to another person.
Around the age of 16, I stopped going to confession because I didn’t really see the need. In hindsight, it is more likely that I knew what I would have to confess was far worse than teasing my brothers and sisters. I wasn’t ready to be honest with a priest, or anyone else for that matter, so I hid and buried my sins deep in my soul.
I was successful at avoiding the velvet curtain for many years, but a tragedy would bring me back to the place where God forgives, cleanses, and heals us of our sin.
Like most tragedies, I was caught completely off guard for what I was about to go through.
Arriving home one day, I had an urgent message to call my mother. As soon as I heard her voice, I knew something was terribly wrong. There had been an accident. My boyfriend was dead. My mother was coming to get me.
I spent the next year mourning my boyfriend’s death. Feeling abandoned, fearful, and hopeless, I wavered in my beliefs about God: was He real, why was He punishing me, why wouldn’t He help me? “My people are dying because they don’t know me” (Hosea 4:6, NLT). I was dying. Perhaps not physically, but spiritually I was totally disconnected from God.
On Christmas Eve of the following year, my sister invited me to Midnight Mass. The minute I walked into the church, I began to cry. Although I tried to stop, I couldn’t. By the end of the service, I felt completely drained but hopeful about the future for the first time in a long time.
For the next several months, I went to church every day. I didn’t know what was happening to me, but I felt safe and comforted when I was there.
As Easter approached, there were specific services for the Sacrament of Penance. After ten years of avoiding the velvet curtain, I knew I needed to go to confession. The night I went to church, the lines were tremendously long, and I knew I’d be there for hours. But I was determined to confess my sin, and so I waited. As the hours passed, the thought of telling another person my faults, failures, and struggles began to weigh heavily on me. I was nervously shaking and sweating as if I’d just run 10 miles. Finally, it was my turn. I walked over and pushed the velvet curtain to the side, stepped into the confessional, and knelt down. Looking through the veil at the old priest, whom I was about to tell my deepest secrets to, I began to regret my decision.
He said a prayer and said, “Go ahead, child, with your confession.” Suddenly, I was a little girl again, and everything I had ever done came rushing out of me. The more I confessed, the more I wanted to confess. It seemed to go on for hours. Finally, I reached the end of my confession and said, “And for these and any sins I may have forgotten, I am truly sorry.” The priest gave me some advice, my penance, and then put his hand in the air and blessed me and said, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Go in peace and sin no more.” When he said those words, something in me shifted, and I walked out of the confessional with more freedom than I’d ever felt in my life.
Although I wouldn’t fully understand the importance of confessing my sins to another human being for a few years, that confession remains one of the most profound moments in my spiritual journey.
Since then I’ve come to realize most people struggle with confessing their deepest hurts and actions to someone else. I believe it’s because we don’t really understand what confession is and why it’s an important part of our spiritual life.
In the New Testament, confession means “to say the same words.” Obviously, that implies there is someone else saying the words to you, and you are simply repeating them back to the person.
At my first confession, I asked someone else (my older sister) what I should confess as sin. I agreed with her, and said the same words to the priest. The problem wasn’t my confession; the problem was I went to the wrong source to ask what I needed to confess.
In the Greek, it is built into the definition that the words we confess come from God. We ask, “Lord, what do I confess?” We listen and wait. Then we repeat back to God what He says to us. In other words, confession is a listening prayer exercise between God and us.
It seems simple enough doesn’t it? We listen, God talks, we say back to Him what He has just said to us. We listen, God talks, we say back to Him what He has just said to us, etc. Yet, most people continue to avoid confession. Why? Because deep down we fear God and doubt He will forgive us for what we’ve done.
Throughout the Scriptures, God tells us He will forgive us if we ask Him to. He says, “if you confess your sins to Me, I am faithful and just and will forgive you, and cleanse you of all unrighteousness” (That’s my paraphrase of 1 John 1:9). With the assurance of forgiveness and cleansing, we continue to hide our sin from others and more importantly, we hide it from God.
King David, who realized it was impossible to experience a deep relationship with God and not confess his sin, wrote: “Generous in love—God, give grace! Huge in mercy—wipe out my bad record. Scrub away my guilt, soak out my sins in your laundry. I know how bad I’ve been; my sins are staring me down. You’re the One I’ve violated, and you’ve seen it all, seen the full extent of my evil. You have all the facts before you; whatever you decide about me is fair. I’ve been out of step with you for a long time, in the wrong since before I was born. What you’re after is truth from the inside out. Enter me, then; conceive a new, true life” (Psalm 51:1-6, The Message).
David learned the lesson we must all learn: Confession of sin brings grace, mercy, truth, and life. It sets us free and opens the door for us to be reconciled with God.
The Cross, the place where all confession of sin happens, is where we admit the sins we are guilty of and take responsibility for them. This is where we experience the great exchange: our sin for His forgiveness, His righteousness, His Peace, His love, and His power. In fact, all that Jesus is, we become at the Cross. As this great exchange takes place, we experience a deeper level of His Presence.
I want to encourage you to make going behind the velvet curtain a spiritual discipline. Sit with a priest, a pastor, or another believer and confess your sins. There are times in each of our lives when we all need to hear another person say, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and The Holy Spirit, your sins are forgiven. Go and sin no more.”