I always considered myself a good Catholic Christian, but I didn’t live it. Although I have been described as a “good guy”, “nice”, “kind and quiet”, I gave myself over to sin in one form or another, especially in pride. My friends from school tell me that they thought of me as a good Christian, so I must have masked my sinfulness pretty well, or it just got covered up in my shyness and insecurity, or I just blended in with the rest of a culture that doesn’t really see many sins as being sinful. I look back and see an arrogant narcissist, pre-occupied with my own wants at anyone’s expense, yet too insecure to let it make me into a snob, and only able to really hurt those who were closest to me, or who trusted me with their emotions. I can honestly say I did not hurt all the people in my life, but there those that I did, and making amends has been a process that has spanned years, and will probably never end.
My friends in school were few, but the friendships were strong, and they were with people who approached me, because I was not the one to approach anyone; whether for shyness or pride is anyone’s guess.
My memory will always be seared with the reminder that I completely abandoned most of my childhood friends when I was in high school…not because I didn’t like them anymore, but because I was too insecure to reach out to people, and too full of myself to change that. One of the many examples I recall is a great and fun girl who lived immediately across the street from me in grade school. By the time I was in high school, I bet I never said one word to her…not even a “hey”, until the very last day of my senior year, at least not that I recall. Why not? Because I didn’t truly have “life” in me. I had been baptized into the Life of Christ, the Bible way, but in my choice to sin I had turned my back on that grace of supernatural life. I had effectively taken the gift God gave me and said, “thanks, but I’ll just put this aside for now because the world has things for me that seem more appealing, and I’m not brave enough to live the life you want for me right now”. That’s not what I literally said, of course. But it’s what I *effectively* said through my actions. That was the reality of what I was living. We cannot serve God and mammon, and I was serving mammon in one form or another.
One day, perhaps my second or third year of an 11-year college “career”, just out of the blue, I felt a sudden urge to “come clean”. It was shortly after a night of “smoking a little pot” and recollecting some of the horrible decisions I had made, and knowing that these things were not compatible with a Christian life. I sat myself up straight on a breakfast barstool, and squared myself with my parents. “Mom and Dad, I don’t want to lie anymore, and I want you to know all the times I’ve lied to you. I want you to know everything about me.” And then I let them have it…telling them things that no parent wants to actually know about their child’s behavior. I don’t remember if I told them *everything*, but it was closer than anyone would ever want to come to putting it all out there, and then some. I laugh when I remember the look on my Dad’s face. Heck, it’s making me laugh just writing this. But the point is, it was cleansing. It felt good, despite the humiliation of publicizing it all. The relief of telling it to another person helped me understand why God set it up for us to tell someone else our sins. I had already told God what I had done, and He knew it long before I confessed it to Him. But the relief I felt didn’t come until I had told the people that had been hurt by my actions. This helped me understand what I would later read in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, and in James’ epistle. (Cff. 2Cor 5:17-20 and James 5:13-16.)
After this experience I began to really explore my faith. I learned how to pray and how to communicate with God. I learned how to approach Him, not only in humility and reverence, but also as a Father and as a God with whom I have a real relationship. I realized that I could never have a deep personal relationship with ANYONE while I was attaching myself to sin. So, I gradually began working to put off sin from my life and learned to turn to God for all my needs. This was a long process that continues to this day, and will continue to my death. I call it “living one’s faith”.
Fast forward a few more years. I had gotten involved in the parish at the university I was attending and I was getting ready to give a talk on Reconciliation to a group of retreatants. It occurred to me that if I were going to give a talk on the subject, I had probably better go experience it the way God had planned for us. It had been 7 years since the last time I had gone to Confession, and even that time might not have been genuine on my part. So, I made an appointment with a Priest and gave him seven years-worth of my worst choices in careful detail, along with the half-hearted confessions of the years past.
Here, I feel I should make a special note. There may be some of you Catholics who have made a poor confession, or flat-out told a Priest that you weren’t contrite for your sins, or that you didn’t personally view those things as being sinful. If you did, you probably (hopefully) heard the Priest say, “I cannot absolve you at this time”, or something like that. This happened to me in my Junior year of high school at a LIFE retreat, during Reconciliation which had been offered as part of the retreat. I told the Priest that I didn’t think I really had any sins to confess, so he walked me through the Examination of Conscience. I noted that I had committed a particular sin, but that I didn’t see it as sinful. He then “withheld absolution”. I saw it as a punishment at the time, but looking back I am thankful for it. That was the greatest act of mercy and kindness that the Priest could ever have done for me. He prevented me from falsely believing that my sin was okay just because *I* thought it was. He prevented me from presuming on God’s mercy when I had no right to presume it (as I simultaneously rejected God in my choice to sin). And he forced me to go back later and contemplate what he had said and why my actions would have been “sin”, and figure out why *I* didn’t believe they were. It forced me to look inside myself and look deeper at God’s Law and kindled in me a deeper respect for the authority that God gave His Church when He declared, “…whose sins you forgive are forgiven…whose sins you retain are retained.” (Jn 20:21-23).
Back to my 7-year confession: It took what seemed to be hours (and I honestly don’t recall how long it was), but when we were done, and he had spoken the words of absolution, I felt like a new man, clean, like 100 pounds had been taken off my shoulders. I was refreshed, alive, and on fire with the Holy Spirit. It was wonderful, and it changed my life. I fell in love with confession, in love with God, in love with His Church and His Sacraments, in love with all that He has given me. I was made new, refreshed with the Grace of Christ within me. (As an aside, my talk on Reconciliation was apparently a powerful one according to those who heard it, and those who only heard *of* it. It wasn’t because of me, but because of the Spirit which was now within me.)
That’s not the end, not by a long shot. But that shaped the path for me that I would follow for future trials. I would go on to face spiritual warfare, depression, loneliness and despair, suppressed anger, and many of the other things people go through in life. My faith journey didn’t make me invincible to these things, but it did give me a clear path to walk, with clear directions, and a sure source of comfort and healing and support. It was that Reconciliation with God and His Church that helped me know where to turn for life’s hardships, and the Sacraments that God gives us through His Church give me the strength to carry on to this very day. In a way so much more profound than just the physical, God brought me home to His Body, the Church, and my life will never be the same.
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