Early last year a relative of mine died and I was asked to do the funeral. The night before the funeral, as you know, the coffin is often brought to the church. There used to be the custom in my home parish that, after the coffin was received, the priest would hear confessions for anyone present who wished. Bereavement can be a moment when people feel more vulnerable to God. I hadn’t been at a funeral in my home parish for many years, but I offered just the same to hear confessions. Sorry to say, no-one came. Anyway, after about 15 minutes, I went to join the others outside. A man in his fifties who was there, but who didn’t know I overheard him, said to another person, “there’s no way I’m going to confession with all the things I’ve done.”
To be honest, I’ve heard similar things before and, I have to say, I find it very sad that someone would think that way. Don’t get me wrong, I do understand it. I can appreciate that people may feel shame and find abhorrent the idea of telling a priest about the wrong they have done. Sometimes, they just don’t know what to say, how to find the right words. Just the same, it gives me great sadness, for all kinds of reasons. For one thing, it means that people carry the burden of their shame and guilt for a longer time than they need to, even for a life time. And the thing about guilt and shame is that they don’t just go away on their own. They get heavier. They can also affect your mood, your self-esteem, your temper and even your health. People often turn to unhealthy things to try and cope with inner sorrow. Inevitably, all this also affects your relationships, with family and friends and probably also at work. Above all it makes you shy away from God, from an openness to Him and to His priest. Shame and guilt can literally kill joy, rob you of peace and even disturb your sleep.
And, sad to say, it can get worse, because the tendency to fall back into the very thing that caused the guilt and shame in the first place is very easy. Worst of all, there can set in the most dangerous of all coping mechanisms which is to try and justify the wrong done in the hope that it will root out the guilt and the shame. You hope that by denying something is wrong that will be enough for the guilt to evaporate. When you start doing that, you are in grave danger of moral and spiritual death.
St. Paul says in one place: confess your sins to one another and you will be healed. It is vital for good spiritual and psychological health to tell someone you trust what is hurting inside. Sometimes it will be wrongs done to you by another, sometimes wrongs you’ve done to another, sometimes wrongs you have done to yourself. Humanly speaking, we can’t carry our burdens alone or they will crush us. Even common wisdom tells us that a problem shared is a problem halved.
But the dilemma for us can be: to whom do I open up? Mixed with the fear of shame there can be the fear of rejection. Then there can be the fear of trust: can I be sure it won’t go further? Another fear is the loss of the sense of self-reliance, independence and the stiff upper lip image of self we like to project of having it all together, of having no problems or worries. And yet, who does have it all together? No-one! Least of all the person who says he has! And so, the drama for so many, many people is that they are hemmed in by all these fears of unburdening themselves to the point that their lives become closed in a cul-de-sac, where they dare not even think of their shame, their sin, their past. And that is itself literally a crying shame.
There is a way out of that cul-de-sac that is not death. It is to heed the words of Christ: “Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart and you will find rest for your souls.” Yes, you could go to a psychologist, and he/she will help you understand your feelings of guilt and shame and where they come from and why they feel as they do. And that is a wonderful thing, a good thing to do if you can afford it in terms of time and money. But the psychologist cannot take away the root of your guilt and shame. Neither can you. Neither can the stranger on the train or bus or plane, or that you meet in the pub, and to whom you tell more about your trouble than you would even your own spouse or closest friend. There is only One who can take away your sin, all of it, all of them, in all their complexity and ugliness and intensity, root, stem and branch.
And that is Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and therefore your sin as well.
Your sin is not alien to Him. He knows it and feels it more deeply than you do yourself, for He took it on himself, into his flesh and soul and Sacred, wounded, Heart.
He is not scared of your sin, for He has destroyed it and will let you share in its destruction if you confess it to Him.
He is not scandalized by your sin. If anything, He is hurt that you would not bring it to Him for destruction in his merciful and eternal love for you.
But he will overlook that hurt, because it’s you He wants. It’s you in all your guilt and shame and pathetic self-righteousness and foolish claims of independence: it’s that you that He wants so that He can pour on you the balm of his divine and crucified love to purify you, to restore your peace, to make you rejoice once more heart and soul, to heal you in the calm and strength of humility of His Heart. Jesus wants you to bring your burdens into Him, into the depths of his gentle and humble Heart. In the furnace of that Heart, He will separate you from your burdens, destroying them and recreating you. All He wants to do is to restore you to your true dignity, to the joy of being who you really are, to the peace of being able to look Him and everyone else in the eye because He has taken away from your eyes the shadows of shame, the awareness of guilt and the darkness of sin. He wants you to live to the full, in joy, in loving and life-giving relationships, filled with confidence for the future and blessed with peace of soul, serenity of mind and clarity of conscience.
But, of course, the question now is: how? How do I get all that? How can I be sure that he will definitely do that for me? I do not see Him, nor hear Him, so how can I get access to Him? He says, “Come to me all you who are burdened”, but how am I to come to Him? Am I to die? Is it not cruel that He would promise all this when I have no way of getting it?
Oh, but yes, you do have the way! And no, He is not cruel. Don’t be so unfair! He has given you the way, a sure way, a guaranteed way. It is the sacrament of confession. He does not ask you to stand up in front of the world and proclaim your sins, but to whisper them anonymously to Him present by His power in the priest. Don’t think of the human, sinful man who is the priest. Think of the divine, sinless Man who is in the priest. Jesus could hardly make it easier for you to come to Him. You need only name the sin and its frequency, and resolve as sincerely as you can not to sin again. You need not fear that what you say will go further; the sacramental seal is sacred because the confessional forum does not just depend on the discretion of the priest. No, it is the forum of God, and a priest would die rather than reveal anything confessed to him by anyone at any time. Nor need you fear that the priest will be scandalized or that he will reject you. Firstly, because his personal feelings are irrelevant and, secondly, because his mission from Christ is to be merciful towards anyone who is truly repentant.
But above and beyond everything else, you will hear those magnificent, consoling and omnipotent words that terrify Satan and return him to hell and which, at the same time, call down upon you and into your deepest heart and soul the fire of the Holy Spirit. What words? Words that are as sacred and spell-bounding as the words of consecration at Mass. What words? “I absolve you from all your sins, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” When you hear those words, then your labour and heavy burdens are gone. Then, you experience the peace, the joy and the rest which comes from the gentle and humble Heart of the Lamb of God. Let us not be fools, and I say it to myself first, and spurn so great a gift! Why stagger and struggle and stumble through life under the burdens Satan gladly sees crushing and demeaning you, when you need only go to confession and replace them with the light yoke of Christ’s mercy?