Get Clean: Is Confession that Simple?

I Confess…What is it about the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation that makes it so hard? Some Catholic dioceses in New York held a video contest to encourage young people to look at this sacrament in new light. The winner is… “Get Clean”:

(h/t Rome Reports)

The video begins with a young woman glancing through the pages of a glamour magazine, and mentally compares herself with the women featured. The word envy appears along her jawbone. She then moves to the bathroom, washes her face, and in her self-scrutiny, she finds a flaw on her skin and the word ‘fear’ forms on her cheek. She then applies makeup to cover up her flaw, all the while becoming obsessed with her looks, and ‘vanity’ creeps in across her forehead. She is frantically washing her face again, with other words added – ‘hate’, ‘liar’, ‘worthless’… she throws down the towel and slams her fist down in ‘rage’. Slumping to the floor in ‘despair’.

Then, she seems to come to a decision. She gets up, and we see her enter into a building, a Church. She sits for a moment next to the baptismal font. She dips her fingers in the water, and makes the sign of the cross, noticing some black smudge on her fingertips. She looks at the door to the confessional, goes in, kneels down, and makes her confession. As she prepares to leave, we notice that all the words are gone. She is clean. In a last sign of thanksgiving, she kisses the Crucifix before leaving.

I found the short video quite powerful, using simple imagery to capture how our souls sometimes might look, if we could see them; how our attitudes can turn to sin and take control of us.

I also thought it captured well how seemingly harmless things, like reading a magazine, can get the best of us if we are not in check with our thoughts and motivations; how these things can plant seeds in our minds contrary to that which God tells us in his Holy Word.

But what I found most inspiring in the video is how the woman models the simplicity of the sacrament. Like her, we too can stand up, and with faith in the Lord and in his sacraments, face our failings and find healing and forgiveness. It’s that simple. She models the advice of Saint John Vianney, “After a fall, stand up again right away! Do not leave sin in your heart for even a moment!”

YOUCAT (226) asks the question, “But if we have Baptism, which reconciles us with God; why then do we need a special sacrament of Reconciliation?” In response, it says:

Baptism does snatch us from the power of sin and death and brings us into the new life of the children of God, but it does not free us from human weakness and the inclination to sin. That is why we need a place where we can be reconciled with God again and again. (CCC1425-1426)

As I told one group of young ladies on retreat, “many of us forget that we have two parts of us that are linked together; both a body and a soul which is not seen. Our world pays attention to the physical part of us, and wants us to forget that we are also spiritual creatures.” The sacrament of Penance helps to remind that we are more than just physical creatures, but that our nature is both physical and spiritual; what makes us unique from all creation is the gift of having a soul. Yes, we will make mistakes; what grace that we have a way by which to be reconciled when that happens!

A note about feelings. In the youtube thread for the video, there are concerns that this video points to feelings which in themselves are not sinful. This is true. Where we need to be careful, however, is what we do with our feelings. Interestingly, the words the makers of the film chose to use are almost all related to the the seven ‘deadly sins’: envy (wishes the good in the other diminishes); lust (disordered desire, when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes); vanity (a type of pride in ones appearance in a disproportionate way) and rage and hate (daughters of wrath, a disproportionate amount of anger). Where our feelings of envy, fear, worthlessness and despair become sinful is when we let them control us and we willfully act uncharitably towards others because of them. It is for this reason, the filmakers make use of them to make their point. Even these heavy-handed sins are washed away by the power of the sacrament, and we are made clean.

Our confession is made complete in four simple steps:

1. Examine of Conscience: looking at the things in our lives that separate us from God’s love;
2. Act of Contrition: let the Lord know your truly sorry (our true contrition is necessary for valid sacramental confession), and that we wish to amend the wrong we did, and ask for the grace to avoid sin and its occasions;
3. Confess our sins to a Priest;
4. Complete any penance given as reparation for our sins.

The next time you go to Confession, then, listen carefully to the words of absolution, which the priest prays following your confession of sins and prayer of contrition. May you sense the true presence of our Lord Jesus in them, who is truly present in all His sacraments.

Prayer of Absolution:

“God, the merciful Father,
by the death and Resurrection of his Son
has reconciled the world to himself
and sent the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins.
Through the ministry of the Church
may he give you pardon and peace.
And I absolve you from your sins,
in the name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Amen. Let us thank the Lord for the gift of this and all His sacraments, recognizing how much the Lord must love us and want us to ‘get clean’.

Always a Way Back to God

I’ve seen this video before, Lifehouse’s Everything Skit, and it always touches a cord in me, so I am sharing it with you (please click picture to watch):

Like all of us, the young woman has life breathed into her by God, created for intimacy with Him. And so starts out our own human existence, innocent and playful, intimate…but somewhere, we fall into various traps: the skit portrays the traps (temptations) of lust, avarice, alchoholism, vanity, depression, despair, which can lead to suicide. The skit was designed to pull at the emotions: the music is hauntingly beautiful, the words could be a love letter from us to our beloved. It is meant to make us question, “what is my ‘Everything’?” and “What are the traps that bind me, keeping me from the One who loves me as I am?”.

One viewer of the skit observed: “The skit itself bothers me as it portrays Jesus at one point as being powerless to intervene. Come on, this is the Second Person of the Trinity, God Himself, and he is powerless to stop what is happening?”

Watching the story unfold, it does seem as though Jesus is powerless, no? One moment He is dancing with his creation, and at some point lust pulls her away from this union; and with it, her created innocence. In real life, this happens, but in much more subtle ways. Most of the time full-blown sin enters the soul by seemingly innocent curiosity… wanting to fit in, or the surrounding culture says tells us a television show or activity isn’t harmful. And by this very curiosity the soul lets down its guard and opens a window that allows something else (fill in the blank) be entertained. In the Gospels when Jesus says ‘one cannot have two masters’ (Luke 16:13, Matthew 6:24), this wisdom is applicable to more than money and greed; whenever we make a choice to compromise just a little bit, we open the window just a little wider for something other than God to enter in, and in doing so, we let ourselves walk away from that union with our Creator that we were designed for. Each time we lower our standards, or tell ourselves, ‘just this time’, we create another barrier between us and that perfect union with God. The helplessness portrayed by Jesus, as the girl goes from one temptation to another is the result of the gift of our free will. He has made us free to choose, so in a way, we make Jesus powerless to help us when we choose a lifestyle contrary to His love.

The way back begins with a decision that we need God first and foremost in our lives, but it isn’t a magic trick that corrects itself automatically (although I do not rule out Divine intervention through special grace in some cases – I know this occurs). It requires our determination and will to return, or convert. Convert – the Latin convertere – means, “to turn around, transform”. What we see happening in the skit when the girl throws down the gun and starts trying to get back to Jesus, is this process of conversion taking place. It is a struggle of the will trying to overcome learned behavior – including how her mind and body have learned to respond to stimuli – takes a lot of her own effort. The skit shows her moving back and forth between different indulgences she’s experienced, as they ‘rear their ugly heads’ to again keep her from the One person who will shut them out for good. Just as it takes a soul a long time from that first instant she entertained a small step away from her union with God, so it takes a soul quite a bit of effort to put the acquired vices and sin behind her, and be free. She falls and fails, she gets up and tries again, until eventually, the hold of the old temptations on her life are less and less a threat to her goal – her renewed relationship with God. Seemingly, as in the skit, she has to go at it by herself, but true to scriptural teaching, she’s never alone.

There’s another important aspect conveyed in the skit. As she’s struggling, Jesus seems to be pulling her toward him by an imaginary rope. This pulling effect is the working of grace in our lives. Whenever we are struggling to overcome sin or vice, and call on God to help us, He comes to our aid. Our problems do not miraculously disappear, but there is a hidden resolve or strength that keeps us from giving up. This is grace at work. This is why people who are struggling to overcome addictions and vice need to ask for prayer, and to stay close to the Sacraments. The simplest definition of a Sacrament is ‘an outward sign of an inward grace’. Thus, when we partake in the Sacraments – especially Reconciliation/Confession, Anointing of the Sick and Holy Communion on a regular basis – we receive spiritual help and support to strengthen us in the daily battle to grow in holiness and continual conversion. Little by little we find the hold of our vices and addictions on our lives less and less, as we slowly reunite ourselves with the One we were created for.