Because We Are A Bible-Believing Church II, Confession

A little over a month ago I wrote a little post, Because We Are A Bible Believing Church.  Webster’s two recent posts (here and here) and our poll (see sidebar) on the Sacrament of Reconciliation (aka Confession) have generated plenty of comments from readers. In light of the fact that a good number of you may not be Catholic, I think it’s a good idea to let you know how I approached this Sacrament prior to my own conversion. And how my understanding of Scripture led me to accept the Church’s teaching on Confession.

For the record, I’m no expert apologist for the Faith or anything. The first notion I had was that Catholics (and the Orthodox) have it easy. Just sin all you want, hit the confession booth, and viola!—you’re free and clear to go sin again! Ain’t it grand? Just make it back in time to confess before your demise, and all will be well! Those crazy Catholics are on to something here!

But then I wondered to myself, how come if this deal is so good, nobody seems to be taking advantage of it? I never recall my wife going to Confession, that is, until I did. Of course, thinking this through I ran smack into the wall of wondering if maybe I was the one who had it easy. You know, sin all I want, say a quicky prayer for forgiveness and viola!—the all-clear signal.

Back in the days when I was going to prove how wrong Catholicism was, I figured this Sacrament would be an easy one to disprove. And then God stepped in and said, Take a look at what I said. Here is what I found (bold highlights are mine) with the words of Our Lord as a primary source.

And there people brought to him a paralytic lying on a stretcher. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.” At that, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” Jesus knew what they were thinking, and said, “Why do you harbor evil thoughts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins“—he then said to the paralytic, “Rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.” He rose and went home. When the crowds saw this they were struck with awe and glorified God who had given such authority to human beings. (Matthew 9: 2-8)

Maybe this is just a wacky translation. But I don’t think so. Or maybe it only means Jesus was able to do this! Of course! He could, but what of that last sentence? Hmmm. What else is there? More from the Gospel of Matthew, and again Our Lord does the talking,

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:18)

What a long and involved process that is. Definitely includes the “church.” And I thought to myself, How many are in the Confessional? Two. And there are prayers for forgiveness. Not to be an intellectual or anything, but if I have any sort of Faith in God whatsoever, then it stands to reason that the standard of “wherever two or more are gathered in my name . . . it shall be granted to them” is being met here. This just makes sense. And notice no extensive disclaimer to the effect that one of the parties must be perfect, sinless, etc, etc. Sounds like a plan with real-world applicability to me.

After Christ was crucified, died, and buried, He rose again and appeared to the disciples. And what was one of the first things He told them? Take a look here in the words that St. John hands down to us about this event,

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:22-23)

I started to see  the light because God, in the Person of Jesus Christ, said these words. I know this is a weak argument, because using God as a primary source should be sufficient, but I still had to follow this through. Shock will do that to someone who thought this was some man-made impediment. What did the rest of the New Testament say about this subject? First up, St. Paul:

So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5:17-20)

Reading this passage closely, I was left thinking that surely this does not mean that only the original Apostles alone were entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation. Isn’t it obvious? Paul is writing to the congregation in Corinth and calling them ambassadors for Christ. Throwing on my Anu Garg hat, ambassador is defined as,

1. A diplomatic official of the highest rank appointed and accredited as representative in residence by one government or sovereign to another, usually for a specific length of time.

2. A diplomatic official heading his or her country’s permanent mission to certain international organizations, such as the United Nations.

3. An authorized messenger or representative.

4. An unofficial representative: ambassadors of goodwill.

In which case, this definition works, if doubt about whom the priest represents (Christ, as we believe by tradition) is still a stumbling block. I’m just saying that to me, this again strengthened the argument from the above mentioned primary source. I kept looking and found this in the Letter of James:

Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint (him) with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful. (James 5:13-16)

And this passage also upholds the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick! Sheesh! A double-play! This idea of mine that the Sacrament of Reconciliation would be easy to disprove was only pointing to my own deep ignorance. And will save the sick person and the Lord will raise him up doesn’t just mean the body will get well. Maybe it won’t. But the soul? For the last straw, another of the original Apostles weighs in on this, this time St. John:

I write these things to you so that you may know that you have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God. And we have this confidence in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in regard to whatever we ask, we know that what we have asked him for is ours. If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly. We know that no one begotten by God sins; but the one begotten by God he protects, and the evil one cannot touch him. We know that we belong to God, and the whole world is under the power of the evil one. We also know that the Son of God has come and has given us discernment to know the one who is true. And we are in the one who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Children, be on your guard against idols. (1 John 5:13-21)

Reading this closely, again and again, I saw the highlighted passage above—right in the thick of statements that may lead you to think you can just pray for forgiveness yourself and that is sufficient. What do we do in that case of deadly sin, John? And what of my much cherished notion that sin=sin? Here, St. John is saying there is sin and there is SIN. Gulp!

Here is what I thought to myself: I don’t need to see the Catechism on this Sacrament for me to understand that it is correct. I decided to take St. John’s advice and be on my guard against idols. Myself, my own pride.

For Brixton

Words fail when a young person dies suddenly and seemingly for no reason. On the battlefield, we understand. After a long illness, we are better prepared. But alone, over the weekend, without warning? It’s not enough to recite “To An Athlete Dying Young.” Even a funeral mass may be scant consolation.

Last night, a group of friends gathered in a Franciscan chapel in Boston to say a Rosary for a 19-year-old youth named Brixton. We recited the Glorious Mysteries and stood around for a few moments afterward exchanging hugs. With Michael, who drove in from Beverly with me, I left quickly. There was nothing to be said. I did not even know Brixton, although Lorenzo kindly showed me a picture. In the picture Brixton had just made a pizza, and seemed quite proud of it.

I cannot possibly imagine what it would have been like if Brixton had been my own child. But I think I would have wanted the same group of friends to come together in the same chapel to say a Rosary for my child. I don’t think I would have kept my composure as Bob and Sharon and others did, but there would have been some comfort in this demonstration of friendship, this blessed companionship in Christ.

Because Confession is a Sacrament, and the Sacraments Make All the Difference

Frank and I are gratified by the number of comments so far on the latest post about confession. Blogging is funny: you dig and dig day after day, and then you hit a vein. It turns out, people are passionate about confession. The readers of this blog, at any rate, are uniformly passionately in favor of confession. I’ve reviewed the comments so far, and here are a few conclusions. Please feel free to add your two cents.

Catholics who go to confession mostly love it. Thank God for Warren Jewell, who writes: “I have to confess: I LOVE to confess. Confession is how I emulate (and, actually, effect) being a convert.” Think about that incredible statement for a second! Each time we confess we are, once again, a convert, whether we’re a cradle Catholic or not. We are “turning ourselves over” to God—again.

Matthew seconds Warren here: “Going regularly to confession is perhaps the single most important thing I could have done to grow closer to God. It’s irreplaceable.”

Some non-Catholics “crave” confession. At least, Michelle, a non-Catholic, does. She writes: “[Confession is] something I’ve craved for years now.” And in a later comment, Michelle writes, “The two things I crave the most being a non-Catholic looking in are the Eucharist and Confession.” Hear that, Catholics? We have something that others crave!

EPG chimes in: “As a non-Catholic, I found the level of response to this post fascinating, and encouraging. The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, has a rite for confession and reconciliation. It is, alas, little used, as far as I can see. . . . ” While that may not constitute craving, it is another non-Catholic voice regretting that his church seldom uses confession.

I am not the only Catholic who is sometimes chicken about going to confession. And it’s not only Sean’s 9-year-old daughter who is “nervous about going to confession.” An anonymous commenter writes: “I recently returned to the Sacrament after 17 years. I found that I needed to make an appointment because it had been so long and I had a lot to say and I tend to ramble anyway. But more importantly, I needed my pastor to know I was coming so that I was committed to showing up. I had made several drive-by attempts at just showing up at scheduled parish confession times, but never made it further than the parking lot.” In other words, without that appointment, Anonymous might have chickened out again: another “drive-by Catholic”!

Some Catholics still go to confession once a week. Look at the poll results so far. Of 141 participants (at this writing), 6 said they go once a week. This encourages me to try doing the same, at least during Lent. I figure that if Pope Benedict goes once a week, and Mujerlatina went every week as a child, I can do the same, right? How about you?

I’m pretty clear that our poll does not represent a random sample. Readers of this blog are probably either devout Catholics or non-Catholics interested in learning more about Catholic experience. Which is to say, I suspect that if you polled all Catholics, the number saying they go to confession “seldom or never” would be a lot higher than whatever the final poll numbers will show here.

The Church is wise to give us the option—behind a screen or face-to-face. While commenters came down on the two sides of this question, I can only conclude that how one chooses to confess is a matter of personal preference. The important things are (1) that I make a good confession, (2) that I choose the method that most supports my doing this, and (3) that I remember that confession is about the absolution I receive through the confessor, not about the social work or spiritual direction he incidentally performs for me. 

Where confession is concerned, better catechesis is needed. Another Anonymous writes: “Sometimes I wish there was a video or a recording of what a ‘really good confession’ looks and sounds like. I am definitely one of those visual learners. Of course when I went through RCIA we saw a mock demonstration but it was just a shallow laundry list of sins, not in my perception what a true confession would look like. While I attend confession a few times a year I often am not sure I am making a ‘good confession.’ I do make an examination of conscience and try to cover what I can think of, but sometimes it is a laundry list for myself, other times I share my sins and then when I talk further, I feel as if I am making excuses for my sins. For example, am I just supposed to confess my selfishness or do I state it and then share an example of how it reared its ugly head? I think sometimes I do feel the pressure of the ‘line of others outside the door’ and feel like I have to keep it short. Sometimes when I hear someone talk about their confession it makes me question, Could I be doing this better?”

This is perhaps my favorite comment because it reflects my own uncertainty as a convert. I think I should know what a good confession is, but I don’t, but I don’t want to admit it. . . .

Maria asks a final question: Why did they change the name from confession to the sacrament of reconciliation?!

And so do I: What can we do to make more Catholics go to confession more often? Your thoughts?

Because of the Russian Orthodox Beatitudes (More Music for Monday)

Guest post by Allison 
Our parish choir hadn’t sung since the end of the Christmas season. We hadn’t rehearsed since then either; a Thursday evening rehearsal was canceled because of a snowstorm. Yesterday, our choir director, who also plays our organ and sings in the choir, let us know we would be singing the Russian Orthodox Beatitudes as an Offertory song.

Because this piece is a chant, it is easy to sing, even with two members of our eight-member choir missing yesterday morning.

Remember your servants, Lord,when you come in your kingly power.

The verses themselves come from Matthew 5:3-12, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Blessed are the poor in spirit;
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn;
for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek;
for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,
for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful;
for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart;
for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers;
for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when the world reviles you and persecutes you;
and utters all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake;
Rejoice and be exceeding glad;
for great is your reward in heaven.

To my modern ears, the tune, with its soulful, irregular rhythms, sounds like a spiritual. But its roots are far older. Russian Chant has its origins in the tenth century and is regularly used as part of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy.  The Beatitudes themselves are woven into Orthodox Divine Liturgy. For both Catholics and Orthodox Christians, Christ’s powerful blessings are our guide for living as God wants us to.

Richard Proulx, a post-Vatican II composer and champion of high church music, arranged this piece. I am grateful he did. Every time I sing the Russian Orthodox Beatitudes, I am reminded not only of my own faith traditions, but also of the deep connections we Roman Catholics enjoy with our Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters. What better way to honor our shared beliefs than by highlighting a piece of their liturgy while enriching our own?

The link above is the piece in question. Here’s some more Russian liturgical singing by a wonderful amateur group:

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To Practice the Presence of God

When do you think good intentions run highest, New Year’s Eve or Mardi Gras? Both are licenses to overindulge, in exchange for better behavior at daybreak. Maybe one is the secular version of the other, but both are testaments to man’s wish for something better—and ability to delude himself.

I thought of asking readers what they are giving up and/or doing for Lent (reading plans and the like), but I realized that’s a private matter. I ain’t telling, and you shouldn’t have to either. Instead, let me propose taking a few minutes to meditate on a reading in this morning’s Magnificat.

It’s from that strange 17th-century figure Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, who isn’t even a Blessed, for gosh sakes, but who got to me the first time I read about him two years ago and still gets to me every time I am reminded of his Practice of the Presence of God. This simple discipline puts most of our Lenten plans and promises to shame because it says that sometimes the hardest thing is to remember the simplest thing. So read Brother Lawrence:

The first means to acquire the Presence of God is great purity of life. The second is great fidelity to the practice of this presence and to the fostering of this awareness of God within, which must always be performed gently, humbly, and lovingly, without giving in to disturbance or anxiety. We must take special care that this inner awareness, no matter how brief it may be, precedes our activities, that it accompanies them from time to time, and that we complete all of them in the same way. 

Since much time and effort are required to acquire this practice, we must not get discouraged when we fail, for the habit is only formed with effort, yet once it is formed we will find contentment in everything. It is only right that the heart, the first to beat with life and the part that controls the rest of the body, should be the first and the last to love and adore God, whether by beginning or by completing our spiritual and physical activities, and generally, in all life’s exercises. 

It would be appropriate for beginners to formulate a few words interiorly, such as: “My God, I am completely yours,” or “God of love, I love you with all my heart,” or “Lord, fashion me according to your heart,” or any other words love spontaneously produces. But they must take care that their minds do not wander or return to creatures. The mind must be kept fixed on God alone, so that seeing itself so moved and led by the will, it will be obliged to remain with God. 

This practice of the presence of God, somewhat difficult in the beginning, secretly accomplishes marvelous effects in the soul, draws abundant graces from the Lord, and, when practiced faithfully, imperceptibly leads it to this simple awareness, to this loving view of God present everywhere, which is the holiest, the surest, the easiest, and the most efficacious form of prayer. 

Because You Requested It (Music for Mondays)

Happy Monday!  Are you still snowed-in? Hopefully not.  But in case you need a lift before heading out to shovel your driveway, have a listen to this sundry mix from the (not quite famous) YIM Catholic Music for Mondays archives. We’ve got it all this week from Pop to Poetry.  Thank God someone invented YouTube!

We start off with a couple of selections suggested by readers last week, in response to posts. This one was sent to us by Maria and is sung by renowned bass Paul Robeson. The words are from one of our favorite non-Catholic poets, William Blake, from his poem Jerusalem (from Milton),

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green
And was the holy lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen

And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark Satanic mills

Bring me my bow of burning gold
Bring me my arrows of desire
Bring me my spears o’clouds unfold
Bring me my chariot of fire

I will not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
‘Til we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land
‘Til we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land

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Our next selection was also sent in by a reader: Ennio Morricone directing the theme music from the movie The Mission.

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This is Seal singing Prayer for the Dying from his second album.  One of our readers wrote that she thinks of this song whenever she hears of someone’s untimely death.  This song is about all of us though. Is Seal Catholic? I have no idea. I only recall these words of Our Lord when he was questioned by the Sadducees in the Gospel of Matthew (22:29-33),

Jesus said to them in reply, “You are misled because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven. And concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.

So Seal croons,

There is a light through that window
Hold on say yes, while people say no
‘Cause life carries on

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Speaking of Our Lord, here is one of my favorite modern Catholic hymns sung by a choir from the St. Mary Parish in Alpha, New Jersey.  Here is their blog. Maybe this hymn is one of your favorites too?  The lyrics are based on Psalm 16,

Keep me safe, O God,
for in you I take refuge.
I say to the Lord,
“You are my Lord, my only good.”
The gods of the earth are but nothing,
cursed be those who delight in them.
Those who run after foreign gods
only have their sorrows multiplied.
Let me not shed blood for them,
nor their names be heard on my lips.
O Lord, my inheritance and my cup,
my chosen portion – hold secure my lot.
The best part has been allotted to me.
Delightful indeed is my inheritance!
I bless the Lord who counsels me;
even at night my inmost self instructs me.
I keep the Lord always before me;
for with him at my right hand,
I will never be shaken.
My heart, therefore, exults, my soul rejoices;
my body too will rest assured.
For you will not abandon
my soul to the grave,
nor will you suffer your holy one
to see decay in the land of the dead.
You will show me the path of life,
in your presence the fullness of joy,
at your right hand happiness forever. 

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Ash Wednesday is coming up in a few days.  Let’s all go to Church. After all, as this song (which helped make Kansas’s reputation in the late 1970s) notes, all we are is Dust in the Wind.

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To Pray for Vocations Like This

Each of our two grown daughters is facing the question of vocation. One is oriented to the arts, one to business; neither is presently a Catholic. So the idea of a capital-v Vocation does not figure. Still, watching a joyous interview (in four installments below) with a Carmelite nun, Sr. Cushla, put a prayer in my heart for my children, and yours, today.

Here’s the prayer:

Heavenly Father,
In this Year for Priests, grant that many young men and women may respond generously to the need for priests and religious in your Church. Grant that all men and women may open their hearts and minds to you, as priests or religious, or as lay people devoted to your Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, serving your Church as we are called to serve. Grant that our children may hear your voice over the deafening roar of modern life and allow it to direct the course of their lives, as joyously as Sr. Cushla has done. We ask this in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. 

Here is the interview, in four installments (h/t Mujerlatina):

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Because I Am Dust

One of the first posts I wrote for this blog was entitled Because This May Be My Last Mass. I wrote it based on my experiences in the Marine Corps when I saw the photograph of a Navy chaplain administering the Eucharist to Marines on Iwo Jima.

I suppose it is easy to consider the idea that you may die today when you are engaged in combat. But as I sat in Church today as Lent approaches, the same thought entered into my mind. This may be my last Mass.

Will it be my last Mass? Not if I can help it. But the fact of the matter is, I really have no idea. Having just gotten over a flu bug, I realize again how poor and weak I actually am. Someone commented on my first post from sick-bay, “Have you been taking your vitamin C?”  No, I have not. Not since I was almost killed in an accident have I wasted any time or money on vitamins.

Of course, I haven’t completely abandoned trying to eat “healthy” while having a balanced diet either.  I just don’t think of my body as something I can control, like I may have thought at one time. Today’s readings helped me along in this, as I was reflecting that Ash Wednesday is only a few days from now and the Lenten season will begin.

Paul writes to the Corinthians and I emphasize in bold,

If the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.

Before I was a Catholic, I was a fair-weather sort of Christian. It is still a temptation to be one now. You know, it’s easy when things are going right to be thankful to God. But in the Summer of 2001, I almost became dust in the sands of the Mojave Desert.  Two of my comrades lost their lives. I was hospitalized for 5 1/2 weeks and convalesced for 6 months. My Marine Corps career came to an end as well.

I don’t have any memory of the event at all.  My brother Marines at the scene have told me a few things. They tell me I said I wanted to see my kids, for example. My mother says I wrestled with an angel the way Jacob did. I don’t really know why I was spared. Maybe it was so I could write these words for you. To remind you that you are dust as well, and that at any moment your version of eternity will begin.

In today’s Gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount, Our Lord says,

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. . . . Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.

Kind of leaves you with an uneasy feeling, doesn’t it?  There is nothing fair-weather in those words. But they speak to my soul, if not to my body. These words also remind me of something G.K. Chesterton wrote as well,

The Catholic Church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.

So on Ash Wednesday, my family and I will go to Church and have the mark of the Cross traced on our foreheads. A mark that says we are not of this world. As the mark is made, these words will be said,

From dust you came and to dust you will return.

What humbling words to hear. What a subtle reminder of my own poverty. For rituals like these, I became a Catholic. Because I need to be reminded of my place in the grand scheme of things and to whom I have pledged my allegiance while I am here.

The first time we went to Church on Ash Wednesday was in 2008, right before I was accepted into the Church. I had been going to Mass for close to 18 years with my wife, and we had never gone on Ash Wednesday ever before. I remember being amazed at how many people were at the service. I remember thinking to myself, These people understand.

I’ve never missed going to Church on Ash Wednesday since, and I intend to never miss it ever again. That is, right up until my last Mass.

With the Help of a Good Confessor

Yesterday a fellow parishioner confided to me that she does not go to Father Barnes for confession, but goes to a confessor in another town. My friend’s reason? “I’d just be embarrassed. Most of my sins are truly venial, but Father B’s my friend,  and I—(shrug, grimace)” This reminded me of my quandary when converting: Should I confess face to face or behind a screen? And to whom?

The Archdiocese of Boston has launched a web site to encourage Catholics to go to confession more often during Lent. (Some of the back story is here.) Hot on the trail of St. Joseph, I am now reading a biography of St. Teresa of Avila, who was devoted to St. Joseph and for whom one confessor was a particular source of strength, comfort, and spiritual mentorship. After a while, the good father probably knew who Big Terry was, even when she spoke from behind a screen. I imagine she had a powerful voice.

All of which leads me to the question: Confession? Do you go? (Please answer the poll at right.) Do you go anonymously or face to face? Do you go to the same confessor each time, or—and I think many do this, I certainly have—take the heavy stuff to someone who doesn’t know you and the trivial stuff to your parish priest? (Please comment below.)

Here’s my thinking today, after two years as a Catholic: If I am really, truly serious about cultivating my spiritual life, as St. Teresa was, I will go to confession regularly (once a week or at least once a month) and I will always sit face to face with a priest whose counsel I have come to trust. I know that he is “only” an intermediary and that the absolution I receive is from God. But by confessing to my parish priest or one who gets to know me and my recurring sins, I am accomplishing two things.

First, I’m taking a big whack at my pride, that is, if I’m giving a good confession and not just trying to look good by looking contrite. Been there, done that. I want Father Barnes’s good opinion of me as much as anyone’s. To tell him what’s worst about me puts that good opinion at risk, or at least it does in my prideful imagination.

Second, I get double benefits: God’s absolution and the counsel of a wise man. I do not have a spiritual director, per se, and although I have thought about “hiring” one, every time I do think of it, I realize that I already have one, Father B. Between the pulpit and the confessional, he gives me all the spiritual advice I can handle.

What’s your experience?

For the Love of St. Joseph II

During my wilderness years, I fell for theories about mystical kingdoms in Tibet or where Jesus really was from age 12 to age 30. But what if Tibet’s only kingdom was destroyed when the Chinese invaded? What if Jesus did nothing from 12 to 30 except stay home in Nazareth, near Joseph and Mary?

Since this is a Catholic blog and since we’re five weeks from the feast day of St. Joseph, my patron, I’m going to stick to the second question.

In the what-did-Jesus-do department, I somehow thought that the gnostics might have it right: That He maybe studied with some esoteric school somewhere, like, say, the Essenes. I didn’t really know who the Essenes were, but if there were such a thing as a universal mystical brotherhood, operating in, like, say, Tibet, then it made sense for Jesus to have been in touch with, oh, say, some sort of correspondence school or some such affiliated with said brotherhood.

But what if the Church is right? (A question I never seriously asked until being received into the Church two years ago.) What if Jesus, Mary, and Joseph returned from Egypt to Nazareth and, with the exception of Passover visits to the rabbinate in the city, they just stayed home? What if the world really is as simple and straightforward as it seems? What does this say about St. Joseph? Or about the importance of the family in the divine plan?

I thought about this question yesterday, as I wrestled with a heavy cold, pondered a personal fatherhood question, and read Redemptoris Custos, John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation on the Person and Mission of Saint Joseph in the Life of Christ and of the Church. There’s nothing that will bring theological questions about fatherhood into sharper focus than tossing and turning in sick-bay while thinking about a grown child who is not answering a friendly e-mail.

Who was St. Joseph? What was his life like? And if it was really like I think it was, and Immaculate Mary was Jesus’s mother, what other teachers did Jesus need? Especially if He, Jesus, was the Son of God? I will leave detailed discussion of Redemptoris Custos (Guardian of the Redeemer) until next week and finish here with a couple of my own personal and entirely noncanonical thoughts about Joseph.

Mary may have been born immaculate, without stain of sin, but there’s nothing in Church doctrine that says the same of Joseph. Joseph was a JAG, just a guy, a carpenter. Descended from David, yes, and probably devoutly Jewish. Old? Young? Certain veins of tradition argue that he must have been old, because a widower. But what was old in that time? Thirty? Forty? I give Joseph credit for being young enough to pack his family off to Egypt under cover of night, young enough that when he settled back in at Nazareth, the demands of chastity while living with a beautiful young woman were significant.

This guy kept his mouth shut and worked and cared for his family. I’m guessing that an adolescent Jesus may have been a handful, and who’s to say that even Mary didn’t have her moments, no matter how immaculate? Joseph kept his mouth shut and worked and cared for his family and died in total anonymity and (this is my addition) never resented it for a moment. To quote once only from Redemptoris Custos, “Joseph was in daily contact with the mystery ‘hidden from ages past,’ and which ‘dwelt’ under his roof. This explains, for example, why St. Teresa of Jesus, the great reformer of the Carmelites, promoted the renewal of veneration to St. Joseph in Western Christianity.”

This gives me my next step on the path to understanding St. Joseph better. I’m going to dedicate the weekend to reading Shirley du Boulay’s biography of Teresa of Avila, which has been staring out of the bookshelf at me for far too long.

And I am going to keep my mouth shut as I wait for my beloved daughter to get back to me.

Footnote: Any reader who has come this far might conceivably be interested in why St. Joseph is my patron, which is to say, how he nosed out St. Thomas More in the homestretch


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