I gathered all my courage and went to first confession. I felt about as willing as a dog heading for a bath, but I fortified myself with the thought that in almost every Protestant to Catholic conversion story I had ever read, new converts testified to feeling a great sense of peace after confession.
A note to non-Catholic readers: we are given the opportunity, and even encouraged, to confess to a priest whom we don’t know so well, especially for first confession. I can’t express how relieved I was when I found this out.
Before we started, the priest who was going to be hear my confession tried to reassure me. He said that he had never taken part in the Sacrament of Confession, either as the one listening to confession or as the one confessing their sins, without having some sense that God was at work. This encouraged me a little, and I really hoped that he was right.
I went through my pathetic collection of sins, the ones committed long ago, which still bothered me, and the ones which are like persistent weeds in the garden, and keep coming back no matter how much you try to get rid of them. It isn’t easy to voice these things, and confession was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
Before I went to confession, I worried that I would be set a time-consuming and difficult penance like visiting strangers in hospital or volunteering for a charity. However, I was simply given a prayer to say in the church afterwards. The priest pronounced absolution and that was it. I felt no relief or peace or sense of God’s presence. All I felt was an awful sense of my own sin and worry that I had made a total mess of confessing it.
Maybe this magic feeling of lightness and peace would only work after doing penance, and so I said my prayer, as fervently as I could, although I was burdened by a heavy sense of my own unworthiness and sinfulness. Afterwards I didn’t feel better. If anything, I felt worse.
I scuttled home feeling like a small, low creature which could do nothing good, and which should best stay out of everyone’s way. I am a mother, and so when I reached home, I just had to get on with what needed to be dealt with. However, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that something had gone horribly wrong and that God was angry with me and wouldn’t forgive me.
When I got the chance, I thought back over what I had confessed and wondered if I had got it wrong. Maybe I should have tried to remember every single sin I had ever committed. However, that would have been impossible. Even if I had attempted it, the confession would have taken days. Father K had instructed me to pray for guidance, and to confess the things which bothered me, and that’s exactly what I had done.
I couldn’t understand why I felt so bad. The day before I made my first confession, I went to the church to pray. I was alone and yet not alone, as if there was an unseen presence which expected me there and welcomed me. I felt great peace. The next day, after making confession, I felt anything but peaceful. Something must have gone very badly wrong.
When I had time to indulge my feelings, I wept and read Psalm 51 in which David says, “For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me.” Sackcloth is hard to come by these days, but I did the next best thing and dressed in old clothes. I felt as if I was carrying an impossible burden, like dragging chains which were attached to great heavy lumps of stone so that I could hardly inch forward.
I was due to be received into the church in a few days time, but I decided I would probably have to cancel since I didn’t feel as if my sins were forgiven. However, I had already told lots of people, including my family who had taken the news better than I expected. I didn’t want to cancel, but I also didn’t want to commit a sacrilege by taking Communion unworthily. Maybe I could ask Father K about being received into the church without ever taking Communion. That seemed like a very good solution.
At this point the game was up. Attending church without ever taking Communion, where had I heard that before? I was behaving like the people in my Calvinist church and refusing to believe that God could forgive me. It took a lot of faith. If I believed Jesus’ teaching when he said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” then I had to believe in God’s mercy in spite of my feelings that God hadn’t forgiven me.
By faith, I tried to put the miserable feelings of sinfulness and unworthiness aside, and believe in God’s forgiveness. The priest had heard the worst I had ever done, but instead of shouting and telling me that I was an awful person, he had shown compassion. My image of God was worse than the example of the priest who represented him. Clearly I had to challenge my own warped image of God and believe that the true God could show compassion and forgiveness.
Turning up at the church for my reception and confirmation was an act of faith. I told Father K that I had found confession very difficult. I said, “I’m not doing very well with sacraments. I’m not expecting to have feelings of peace and joy after today. I might still feel guilty and miserable.”
He replied, “If you don’t feel peace and joy after today, you can sue me.”
A week later, after I had been received into the church, I looked back on the confusing, painful experience of confession, and realised that it had been absolutely necessary, like painful but life-giving surgery. Without confession, I wouldn’t have realised that I still had deep-rooted unbelief in God’s love and forgiveness, and without a priest to listen to me, I wouldn’t have had an example of how God’s compassion works.
Any readers who’ve stuck with the last few posts will be pleased to know that that’s all I have to say on confession for the moment. Maybe I should have entitled this post, ‘A Calvinist goes to Confession and comes back a bit less of a Calvinist’. However, that would have been a bit long. Oh, and just for the record, I didn’t sue Father K.
You write so beautifully, Canach, and express so well what I have often felt as well. I sometimes realize my difficulty in accepting that God has forgiven me is that I haven’t forgiven myself and put past deeds behind me. C.S. Lewis write about this. Forgiveness can sometime be an ongoing struggle, not a one-time act. “Seventy times seven” indeed.
When teaching my children the ideas behind sacrament of confession, I found it balanced between the contemporary extremes of “not my fault” lack of responsibility on the one hand and “I am a terrible person because of what I did” lack of mercy on the other. Reconciliation acknowledges a fault, makes reparation, and then allows it to be let go. Something similar happens when speaking to a priest. I’m also often tempted by “surely it’s enough to confess to God?”, but speaking things out loud allows them to take shape and then be let go, instead of floating around nebulously forever.
As you mention in earlier posts, and as Bishop Robert Barron discusses, faith is not about emotions, though joy is a blessing and support through difficult times. This solidity of faith is really hard to hang on to when being buffeted about by strong emotions, and joy seems fleeting. I’m glad your faith is a comfort and seeing you through such dark and difficult times.