Mercy is for Sinners
Steve Skojec July 21, 2017 134 Comments
Elliott Erwitt: Confessional, Poland, 1964
I have a love-hate relationship with confession.
I hate it because it’s never very comfortable to admit the stupid, shameful, ridiculous things I do. I wait in the line with a head full of exaggeration, thinking of myself like a man on death row, waiting for the needle. In my desire to make a good confession, I rehearse what I have to say, how I should say it to be concise but thorough, going over it and over it in my head until I think I’ve got it just right, then herding the stray smaller sins that have scattered away from my attention as my mind has been focused on the main problem areas. Each time the door opens and the next person goes in, I feel both an increase in nervous anticipation and relief. I take a step closer. “I just wanna get this over with,” I think.
I love Confession because the truth is, no priest I’ve encountered has ever been unduly harsh, even if some of the more pious ones have expressed legitimate concern at my failings. Certainly, I’ve never experienced a “torture chamber” in the confessional — I do all the torturing to myself. I also love it because unburdening myself of my sins is cathartic and calming, and because without the graces provided by the sacrament I’m afraid I’d be on a continuous bender of self-indulgence, following my wants and whims on a daily journey away from eternal salvation. Confession not only cleanses, it strengthens. It prunes my selfish accretions back, giving room for my heart to be open to His greatness. And it has the truly incredible benefit of offering a clean slate, every time.
My last visit was no different, the war within me raging as I tried patiently to wait my turn. After several failed attempts to get to confession over the previous week and a half, I had finally made it. As I waited in the back of the line, a wedding party was just finishing up with their last photos. The photographer finally made his way back to the last pew, right next to me, and as he started gathering up his equipment, he suddenly said, “It’s a wonderful sacrament.”
I looked up at him, giving a polite acknowledgment but figuring he was talking about the marriage he had just witnessed.
“Confession,” he said, perhaps sensing my question. “I just went last week.”
He fitted his camera into a compartment inside a large case, and said more quietly without looking up, “To be forgiven…” His tone was wistful, almost incredulous.
He had a point. What a seriously amazing thing it is!
Who Are You to Judge?
There are times, in my various discussions and debates over the topics du jour in the Church — most notably an idea of mercy that requires no repentance or change of life — when I find myself wondering if those on the other side of the issue really think I’m just a cruel, heartless jerk. A sanctimonious and smug monster who somehow thinks I have attained a level of holiness that gives me the right to judge those who do not conform from within the purity of my sinless ivory tower.
I assure you, nothing could be further from the truth.
If you had to have a passport to enter a confessional, mine would be filled with countless stamps. I drag myself there, time and again, embarrassed at how little time has passed since my last visit, chastising myself for bringing with me a litany of the same offenses I always do. The words of St. Peter often echo in my mind, “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” And then, just as quickly, another thought follows, “No! Don’t! Without You, Lord, I have no hope…”
After absolution, I kneel there before the Blessed Sacrament, not infrequently with tears in my eyes, ever with the same plea: “Well, Lord, here I am again. I hope you’ll help me to stop doing this same stupid stuff. Maybe this time’s the charm?”
The prayer of St. Augustine perhaps most eloquently expresses this lament:
BEFORE Thine eyes, O Lord, we bring our sins, and we compare them with the stripes we have received.
If we examine the evil we have wrought, what we suffer is little, what we deserve is great.
What we have committed is very grievous, what we have suffered is very slight.
We feel the punishment of sin, yet withdraw not from the obstinacy of sinning.
Under Thy lash our inconstancy is visited, but our sinfulness is not changed.
Our suffering soul is tormented, but our neck is not bent.
Our life groans under sorrow, yet amends not in deed.
If Thou spare us, we correct not our ways: if Thou punish, we cannot endure it.
In time of correction we confess our wrongdoing: after Thy visitation we forget that we have wept.
If Thou stretchest forth Thy hand, we promise amendment; if Thou withholdest the sword, we keep not our promise.
If Thou strikest, we cry out for mercy; if Thou sparest, we again provoke Thee to strike
Here we are before Thee, O Lord, confessedly guilty; we know that unless Thou pardon we shall deservedly perish.
Grant then, O almighty Father, without our deserving it, the pardon we ask; Thou Who madest out of nothing those Who ask Thee. Through Christ our Lord. Amen
V. Deal not with us, O Lord, according to our sins.
R. Neither reward us according to our iniquities.
Let us pray.—O God, Who by sin art offended and by penance pacified, mercifully regard the prayers of Thy suppliant people, and turn away the scourges of Thy wrath, which we deserve for our sins.
Through Christ our Lord. R. Amen.
Dead Man Walking
There was a time, when I was young, when I thought I was doing pretty well. I was a scrupulous kid, I stayed away from most bad influences, I often spent my free time hanging around churches or with priests, and the Internet hadn’t yet arrived with it’s overflowing cornucopia of temptations. I rarely if ever had mortal sins to bring into the confessional, and I even remember at one point in time thinking, “How is it possible that this petty stuff I do was enough of a reason that You had to die for it, Lord? I just don’t see it.” Maybe I asked Him to help me understand. I probably did. That part’s hazy, but it’s stupid enough that it sounds like something I would have asked.
And He did. He pulled back and let me trip and stumble and fall flat on my face, over and over and over again. He let me struggle to stay in a state of grace, or to even care to. He let me come close to losing my faith altogether.
Later, to my shame, the only thing I could say was, “I don’t remember the last time I didn’t bring a mortal sin to confession.”
If you’ve been there, if you know that feeling in your gut, in your soul, the one that changes when you cross that line and do that thing — whatever it is — that you’re just not supposed to do, and you don’t care, you know what I mean when I say it feels like you’re a “dead man walking.”
It’s an emtpy feeling. Dark. Angry. Disconnected. Like only the slightest temptation will push you right back over the edge into another big sin because your resistance is totally shot. You don’t want to pray. You don’t want to change. You become withdrawn and irritable. You vacillate between guilt and apathy as you attempt to grab hold of whatever grace God is giving you outside of the sanctifying grace that is the life of your soul. Because let’s face it, if He isn’t calling you back to the confessional, you’re not ever going to go. Once you’re gone, you’re fair game to demons on the prowl. Only His protection, His invitation, is going to keep you safe and bring you home.
If you’ve ever felt this feeling, you know. If you don’t come back soon, you’re going to drift further and further away. You’re going to dig a deeper and deeper hole for yourself. You’re going to get to a point where you’re too far gone to care, or make yourself so miserable you can’t bear to live with it.
You’ve got to come back to the land of the living. Nothing else is worth it.
Years ago, when I was on the verge of giving up, He reeled me back in. I was allowed to see the spiritual warfare I was engaged in for what it was, and then, I had something to fight.
But He still lets me fall. Still lets me remember I am nothing without Him, and that I can’t fight this battle on my own. In the midst of this work I’m trying to do for Him, for His Church, He doesn’t afford me the opportunity to be convinced that I’m anything great, but rather, to be chastened by my own weakness — a weakness that repeatedly knocks the foolish pride right out of my head before it can take root. I think here of the words of St. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 12:
For though I should have a mind to glory, I shall not be foolish; for I will say the truth. But I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth in me, or any thing he heareth from me.
And lest the greatness of the revelations should exalt me, there was given me a sting of my flesh, an angel of Satan, to buffet me.
For which thing thrice I besought the Lord, that it might depart from me.
And he said to me: My grace is sufficient for thee; for power is made perfect in infirmity. Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
For which cause I please myself in my infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ. For when I am weak, then am I powerful.
See, the irony of me ever feeling like I’m on death row in the confessional line is that it’s precisely the opposite. It’s life row. For anyone standing in that line in mortal sin, you’re already dead — forever — and you just happen to be lucky enough to still be walking around. You make it to the end of that line, and you’ve been raised from the dead, just as surely as Lazarus was.
Love Demands Repentance
I was never a legendary sinner, but a dead soul is a dead soul. It only takes the guilt of one mortal sin to send you to Hell for eternity. There is no way back from the darkness I’ve just described without repentance. You’ve got to want to stop doing the thing that’s killing you. And if you can’t manage that, you’ve got to want to want it. There are no more excuses. There’s no more, “Well, I already messed up so it doesn’t matter if I give in to temptation again.” There is only that long march to the confessional, where you enter as a dead man, and emerge alive.
For the life of me, I cannot understand why anyone would want to deprive another soul of this rebirth. This cleansing and binding of wounds. For the priest in the confessional is, just as the Good Samaritan did, dressing and binding and curing what ails us. He is healing in the most profound sense of the word.
How could anyone ever tell a person who is living in sin, “You don’t need to stop doing that! God is merciful! He understands the complexities of your life”?
How could anyone ever say, “You might not be able to stop committing that sin, because by doing so, you might commit other ones”?
Why would anyone who loves a soul not see the danger it is in and say, as St. Maria Goretti did, “It’s a sin! God does not want it!”?
Or, perhaps worst of all, how could anyone tell a person living in sin with no intention to change, “You should receive the Eucharist, which is not a prize for the perfect, but medicine for the weak” — knowing that to do so is a sacrilege, another mortal wound on the soul of someone in need of conversion, healing, and Divine Grace? Even if you suspect the person is not fully culpable, the path to Our Eucharistic Lord is through absolution, not indifference. We already know what God wants from us. We return again to Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:27-31):
Therefore whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord.
But let a man prove himself: and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of the chalice.
For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord.
Therefore are there many infirm and weak among you, and many sleep.
But if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.
Even this piece of divine wisdom has been excised from Catholic life. Not once does this admonishment not to eat and drink the body and blood of the Lord unworthily appear in the three year cycle of readings in the “ordinary form” of the liturgy — the Mass that the vast majority of Catholics around the world attend.
Why are we hiding this truth from the faithful? Why are we convincing ourselves that it is merciful to be their accomplices in sin? Why are we content to speak with the tongue of the serpent, who, when Eve told him that the punishment for eating from the forbidden tree was death, responded, “No, you shall not die the death”? (Gen 3:4)
We do not fight against the bizarre provisions of Amoris Laetitia because we are rigid and Pharisaical! We do so out of love — for the souls of those being led deeper into sin, and for Our Lord, who deserves never to have His sacramental presence profaned.
As I reflected on those feelings brought about by the loss of the life of grace in the soul, I was moved to pity for those prelates of the Church leading God’s little ones astray. How can they bear the loss? How can they be so indifferent to their separation from the fires of Divine Love that they not only do not care for their own souls, but wish to lead others away from Jesus? How can they be complacent in their perversions and deceits? We have become so accustomed to opposing them, to calling them to account, even to rebuking them. But we should also weep for them, because we do not hate them; they, like all of us, were made in His image and likeness and created to be with Him forever in Heaven, and they have turned away. And He has already warned them, so the fate they will suffer is terrifying to contemplate.
“But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Mt. 18:6)
May God have mercy on their souls, and on His holy Church! END QUOTES