Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader writes:
Mark: I have been dithering about writing to you for weeks now. I thought you might have some insights to offer that my cradle Catholic friends don’t seem to. It doesn’t help that I can’t quite tell them plainly what the problem is. In any case, my problem might inspire a useful column someday, if you ever run out of more important topics—and maybe some encouragement now.
In a nutshell, though I was received into the Church nearly 2 years ago, confession stumps me. The issue is that I don’t know how to articulate my sins. I don’t usually *do* many things that I can confess but my interior life is a mess. I am filled with anger about a number of things; I harbor some really hateful thoughts towards people who have injured me. etc. Now I have the kindest priest on the planet, I do believe, but when I have told him that I don’t know how to express what troubles me, he doesn’t seem to understand. Essentially, I tell him that I am lacking in charity and that satisfies him. It doesn’t really satisfy me. But perhaps the combination of confession to God and to the priest in the formal setting is enough?
As a former evangelical, I have no trouble telling all this to God, who knows it all better than I in any case. But what do I tell my priest? Thanks for any and all advice you might have to offer.
I’m neither a moral theologian nor a priest nor a spiritual director but, speaking as a fellow schlub who needs to go to confession too, my first thought is “Why not tell your confessor what you just told me?” It’s honest, straight from the heart, and seems like a fine place to start; especially that bit about “I harbor some really hateful thoughts towards people who have injured me”. That’s real concrete sin that a confessor can actually absolve.
Feelings, I wouldn’t sweat too much. They have no moral content. They are more or less the weather of your interior life, blowing around, getting hot and cold, tied to physiology. How you feel doesn’t matter as far as a gauge of your sinfulness or virtue. Our Lord felt terrible going up Golgotha. Hitler probably felt pretty good about himself right after humiliating France. What matters is concrete acts of obedience to our Lord. So when your emotions erupt in anger at the jerk who did you wrong, do you indulge the emotion or take it as a cue to pray for the jerk? If the latter, then you are being virtuous, not sinful, whatever your feelings are. If the former, well, that’s more grist for confession.
The main thing I would suggest is a) making use of an examination of conscience (there are lots of them out there) and b) using it not as a law but as a tool for cultivating relationship. The tough part about confession (for me at any rate) is getting recollected. Of course, you can start as a doctor does, with “presenting symptoms”. St. Alphonsus Liguori, I think, was the one who said, “When an elephant walks in the room, you know it.” If there’s a big issue preying on your conscience (like your anger toward those people) then start there. Take a prayer journal and write it down. You don’t need to do a lot of navel gazing and analysis of your motives. Just jot the sin down and any other biggies that are lying pretty close to the surface. Tell the devil “These are marked for execution next time I get to confession so don’t heckle me about them.”
Then, use the examination of conscience for mop up. The nice thing about the Church is that it’s given a lot of thought to things we haven’t. So examinations of conscience can jog your thinking and give you that. “Ohhhhh! I never thought of that!” epiphany that can open up new wells for the Spirit to flush out and fill. The important thing to remember is that, as you bring these things to Jesus, he promises to forgive the sin and to pour out his Spirit into the hole they leave so that you go out of the sacramental encounter with him, not just with the debt cancelled but with a bushel of grace to be better than you’ve ever been.