After entering the small confessional/reconciliation room and closing the door, I found myself seated opposite a kindly old friar wearing the familiar brown robe and, oddly enough, sneakers. I cleared my throat and began: "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been (quick tally in my mind) ten years since my last confession."
He broke into a small smile. "Welcome back," he said. "It's good to see you again." He had never seen me before in my life. But I knew what he meant.
And with that, I began my confession. I spoke. He listened. He nodded. He had heard it all before, umpteen times, from the quivering lips of countless sinners like me. When it was over he gave me a mild penance and some gentle advice: "Just live the Gospel," he said softly. "Just live the Gospel." He sighed and smiled. "There you are. Good as new. God bless you."
It was the first time in a long time that those words stuck. And when I left that little room I felt, in fact, "good as new." So I went back a few weeks later, and a few weeks after that—again and again and again. It became a habit.
I can't quite explain it. Why does this sacrament exert such force? Some of it, I'm sure, is that it just feels good to let the weight of all our wrongs roll off our shoulders. It is comforting to be told that we are going to be okay and that what was wrong can be set right.
Everybody needs a second chance. Or a third.
Of course, it isn't easy. It requires reflection, observation, scrutiny. For a few moments we are asked to be moral anthropologists. We seek out our sins. We capture them, name them, tag them, and put them under glass to study, like wildly exotic fauna. What on earth is that?
The Chinese have a saying: "The beginning of wisdom is to call something by its correct name." Perhaps that is part of it, too: we name what we are—proud, greedy, lustful, petty, selfish, untruthful—and become aware. With penance and practice, we strive to be better. Wisdom begins.
Or so we hope. And so we pray: "I firmly resolve with the help of thy grace to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life, Amen."
Those final words of the Act of Contrition put it so succinctly and clearly. The purpose of the sacrament, really, is to amend life. To improve on what is there.
And with that improvement, I think, comes this beautiful promise at the heart of our faith: the promise that we will rise. We can be uplifted. Resurrection is available. All of us can roll aside the stone of our personal tomb and stagger, blinking, into the sun. As more than a few preachers have proclaimed, the paschal mystery didn't end on Good Friday but on Easter Sunday.
So it can be with each of us, too.
The profound act of being reconciled with God enables us to live Easter every time we emerge from that confessional. We breathe again. We see light again. We hope again. We are given grace.
At bottom, what begins with seven short words—"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned"—ends in transformation. It may last only an hour or a day. But the fact that it happens at all is miraculous. And that gives me reason enough to keep going back.