When my wife and I began dating, it wasn’t long before I realized I had finally, after many years, found someone I could be myself with. She was kind, warm, trustworthy, and generous in spirit. Besides having a strong faith and good sense of humor (you don’t realize until you’re married how much this trait is really worth), the ability to just “be” and not have to pretend or put up defenses around her was probably the biggest green light for me that I had found a potential partner for life. When I told him about this, my father echoed this sentiment with a sage piece of advice: “You’ve found ‘the one’ when you can be yourself around her.”
I’ve shared things with my wife that I haven’t shared with anyone else. Within the privileged bonds of marriage, there is a sacred trust which one must be very careful not to betray. Love and forgiveness in a marriage are akin to the “two wings” of faith and reason in Catholic life; they are complementary acts of the will that build upon each other.
The reception of Holy Eucharist is a kind of consummation in the divine marriage between God and His people. St. Thomas, the angelic Doctor, wrote that the Eucharist is “the consummation of the spiritual life, and the end of all the sacraments.” Just as the consummation of a marriage may be blessed by the creation of a new human life, our Lord warned that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life within you.”
Saint Paul warns the Corinthians not to “eat and drink judgment upon themselves” by receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in an unworthy manner, and urges them to “examine themselves before eating the bread and drinking the cup (1 Cor 11:27-32). The Catholic understanding is that one should not present themselves for Holy Communion with mortal sins on their conscience without first confessing and being absolved in the Sacrament of Penance, and that regular confession even for venial sins is good practice. We make thrice our act of contrition collectively at Mass as well before we approach to receive Him, “Domine non sum dignus, ut intres sub tectum meum, sed tantum dic verbo, et sanabitur anima mea” [“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”].
There is personal discernment as well, for the conscience is the subjective experience of the objective moral law and man’s “most secret core and his sanctuary,” as stated in the Catechism. “There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (CCC 1776). St. Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk that “Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from Him, Who, both in nature and grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.”
Scripturally, we see our Lord instruct that the obeying of conscience involves not just a preponderance, but a concrete act of the will in rendering a sacrifice “worthy.” “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” (Matt 5:23-24)
When a tender conscience is hijacked by scrupulosity, one finds themselves assuming a Pharisaical posture towards the Lord. Satan (“the accuser”, in Hebrew) perverts filial piety with the yoke of legalism. In doing so, one finds themselves not as a son changing course (metanoia) and seeking forgiveness from a father he has turned his back on, but as a defendant in a cold court of law. This inversion of posture does not seek ultimate consummation in abandonment (the warm embrace of the forgiving Father), but justification wrought by a kind of prideful self-accusation seeking a transactional canceling of debts.
Some marriages are, in fact, simply contractual and transactional. But the charity of the Christian is based not on a legal contract, but a covenant of divine adoption. The disciples of Christ are referred to by him as “friends, not slaves,” while the Church herself is intentionally referred to as the bride of Christ. For God knows us so intimately and so personally—and desires us to know Him intimately and personally—that to speak of the Christian life as anything other than the desire to achieve divine intimacy would not describe it accurately.
The intimacy of the confessional as the place we encounter Christ and His healing grace holds a secret appeal, even to non-believers. A few years ago there was a popular website called “Post Secret” where people could decorate a postcard and anonymously reveal an untold secret, which would then be posted on the website. There was no restriction on the content of the secret; only that it must be completely truthful and must never have been spoken before.
Non-Catholics who scoff at “the box” reduce what happens during the Sacrament of Confession to a kind of product factory line or spiritual quid-pro-quo: I show up and tick off my sins to a priest, and in return I am given absolution. This is not entirely inaccurate, but more so incomplete. For as Catholics we understand that when the priest acts in persona Christi, it is Christ we encounter in the Confessional and to whom we confess. “The box” is simply the physical representation of the inner-sanctuary of the soul, the space where we are safe to share our shame and failings with the One we have betrayed. It is Christ who already knows what we have done before the words even leave our mouth.
It is important when our conscience is saddled with guilt that our faults are expressed with the tongue, out loud but resigned to His ears alone, and that we cultivate sincere contrition for we have wounded the one who loved us the most. The shame and sting as they leave our lips can be searing, but the healing is immediate—the Divine Surgeon incises our spiritual cancer, quickly and tenderly dresses our wounds, and after the words of absolution are spoken, never brings them up again. Likewise the priest, who acts in his authority in the person of Christ, can never, for any reason, break the seal of Confession. That acts of betrayal have sometimes occurred within this most intimate chamber between confessor and penitent is both egregious and of the gravest consequence. Aside from giving rise to scandal, such acts are akin to a kind of spiritual murder, for it is the death of trust.
The practice of confession and the seeking of absolution is both primal and practical. In the Church, it is scriptural and consistent. But most importantly, in our lives, it allows us to tangibly prepare a place in our souls for the intimate consummation that occurs in the act of Communion. We do not clean the outside of the cup, but the inside, so that we can both give and receive love more fully. It is he who has been forgiven little who loves little (Lk 7:47). Our sins may be a failure to love, but they are not a final impediment, since we serve a God who is both just and merciful. He seeks to make a place for Himself in the innermost room we have prepared for Him, this intimate dwelling of a humble and contrite heart, which He will not spurn.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!