In Hamlet, the gloomy Dane lives out a thoroughly pagan vendetta against his uncle Claudius, who has murdered his father. At one point, he discovers Claudius at his prayers and thinks to go and stab him to death. But in a move not exactly in keeping with Christian morality he opts not to since, if he rubs Claudius out now…
… he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
So Hamlet, who is nothing if not a dutiful son to his dad, decides to put off the execution until the time is ripe and he can make sure that Claudius gets it in the neck when he is certain to be damned to the everlasting fires of Hell, not saved and given the bliss of Heaven:
Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes.
Ironically, at that very moment, Claudius is a much better Christian and a much better theologian than Hamlet. For he has already beaten his breast like the tax collector in Jesus’ parable, saying:
O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,
A brother’s murder. Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will:
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent;
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offence?
Indeed, he even acknowledges his half-heartedness, like the man who cried, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) and was answered by our Lord with deliverance for his son. Claudius, in anguish ends his prayer:
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
Not a bad start for a murderer. Hamlet’s eager desire to make sure that his victim is not merely dead but eternally damned is a sin far more grave than Claudius’. He is in more grave need of interior repentance than Claudius.
Interior repentance is the most vital aspect of the sacrament of confession. It is the secret of the soul known only to God. Like the woman who touched Jesus’ garments in faith (Mark 5:30), the person who is interiorly repentant—sorry for his sin from his heart and seeking the grace to change—has the forgiving power of God leap from heaven to his heart without fail and without delay. Power goes out from Jesus to forgive sin and into a genuinely penitent heart just as surely as electricity completes a circuit whenever we throw a switch. Indeed, the very ability to make that act of interior repentance is proof that the grace of God has already been at work since such repentance is utterly impossible without the help of the Spirit.
This does not mean, of course, that confession is unnecessary any more than saying that, once a lover works up the gumption to finally admit his love for the Beloved, we can keep the relationship purely abstract and don’t have to bother with all that kissing and stuff. Rather, it is to say, as the Church always has, that though we are bound by the sacraments, God is not bound. The fact that a person was unable to have access to the sacrament of confession no more makes his damnation a slam dunk than the Good Thief’s (who not only never made a sacramental confession but was never baptized). God can forgive sins apart from the sacrament if he wants to.
But that does not mean we are free to ignore the sacrament. Indeed, it does not even meant that the person who is truly penitent would so much as want to. For all real acts of love absolutely demand to be expressed to the fullest extent possible. Just as wild horses will not keep two young lovers from expressing their love physically in the sacrament of marriage, so wild horses will not keep the truly penitent soul from finding some way to live out his interior repentance to the fullest extent his circumstances allow. Scrooge cannot just get up on Christmas morning and remark quietly that he feels a significant shift in mood about things in general. He must dance a jig, act so giddy as to frighten the housekeeper, and spend his gold buying the prize turkey for the Cratchits.
In other words, any real faith must be made flesh, and the sacrament of reconciliation is the way our Lord established so we can do that.
The first and most basic way we do that is with our mouths. King David understood this elementary human need to find somewhere to speak out the toxic filth of our heart when he wrote;
I acknowledged my sin to thee,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”;
then Thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:5)
This need to simply confess can often be so overwhelming that we give vent to it in inappropriate and deeply destructive ways. For instance, many in the generation of perpetual adolescents called the Baby Boomers have, in their narcissistic need to feel eternally young and hip, opted to treat their children as peers instead of as what they are: children. So we get the grotesque spectacle of parents unloading on their kids their “confessions” about their sundry bad relationships, faults and failings with the expectations that the child will pick up the burden, grant absolution and even offer counsel. Such crushing selfishness from parents can and does place an unbearable burden on children who are supposed to be carried by their parents. To be sure, the recognition of one’s sinfulness and the impulse to confess it is better than icy pride that refuses to admit all wrongdoing. But only God has shoulders broad enough and a back strong enough to bear the sins of the world. This is part of the reason for the sacrament of reconciliation, also known as “confession” for that very reason.
In confession, through the priest’s sacramental absolution, God grants the penitent “pardon and peace.” The pricelessness of this gift is only increased by the unworthiness of the person receiving it. All over the world, there are people laboring under the terrible burden of guilt for some terrible thing which they cannot forgive themselves and which they do not believe anyone—not even God—could forgive. How beautiful it is when someone walks into a confessional, bares his soul to God and finds, not a harsh, condemning judge, but a mercy unfathomable to human reason.
In Luke 15:21, the Prodigal Son is the image of the repentant sinner. His confession—“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”—sums up everything every penitent has ever had to say to God.
It is tempting to talk at times of a “before” and “after” in conversion so as to represent baptism or absolution, not as grace, but as magic. In such a false reckoning, we can fall into the trap of thinking that after such a dramatic moment, we won’t sin anymore. But the reality is that we do still sin, which is why reconciliation is available all our lives. Because of this, conversion is revealed to be an ongoing process, not a one-time shot. To be sure, we are new creatures in baptism. But the outworking of that new creation in our lives is a lifelong process, assisted by the food of the Eucharist and the healing power of Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick. It is through these and other Sacramental Streams of Grace that the seed and shoot of our faith is watered and kept alive. If there is anything—anything at all—which burdens your conscience, please do not hesitate to take it to Confession and cast it into to the bottomless ocean of God’s mercy. He will never fail to forgive your sins if you confess them and repent. Never. Go and have peace.