“The interior state of our souls determines the fruitfulness of all our activities. (Costa 28)” Even before I read this quote from Edith Stein, I’ve been feeling the nudge to not only get myself to confession, but to make it a more regular habit. When I read this quote though, it was a clear prompting from the Holy Spirit for me to get myself there and also  to write about the sacrament of confession itself. Unfortunately, I think this sacrament is completely under the radar of many Catholics, it is underutilized and misunderstood. After the Eucharist, it’s one of our greatest tools to get ourselves to Heaven!

So, here’s my goal, I want to get straight to the heart of this subject. I want to explain this misunderstood and misrepresented sacrament in the hope that understanding will lead us to the divine physician in the confessional. (Note: there’s so much more on this subject that I can’t possible cover it all. You can always reference the Catechism for more details or send me a message!)

What is a sacrament and why do we have them? A sacrament is “A visible sign of an inward grace instituted by Jesus Christ.” There is  a visible ‘rite’ (the words and actions used) celebrated at each sacrament that gives us God’s grace (Grace is God’s free and undeserved help). Confession gives us grace to be forgiven from our sins and to help us combat these sins in the future.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) is succinct in its explanation of the effects of this sacrament:

1468 “The whole power of the sacrament of Penance consists in restoring us to God’s grace and joining us with him in an intimate friendship.”73 … For those who receive the sacrament of Penance with contrite heart and religious disposition, reconciliation “is usually followed by peace and serenity of conscience with strong spiritual consolation.”74 Indeed the sacrament of Reconciliation with God brings about a true “spiritual resurrection,” restoration of the dignity and blessings of the life of the children of God, of which the most precious is friendship with God.75″ I can personally attest to the peace I feel after confession. If you haven’t felt it, I encourage you to try it out!

Defining sin. Catholics get pretty specific when it comes to sin. Unlike many religions, we actually have two types – yes, two – of sin. Mortal and venial.

Venial is your every day sin, it is not seriously grave in nature. It harms our relationship with Christ and the Church, but it doesn’t completely separate us from God.

Mortal sin separates you completely from the grace of God and has three conditions: It is gravely wrong, you know it is gravely wrong, and you freely and willing choose this sin. Essentially, you know you are committing a grave sin that separates you from God and therefore you are actively rejecting God. You have chosen to be separated from Him and so you are. We believe the confession of mortal sins is a requirement, unless you are able to reach perfect contrition on your own (pretty hard for most of us), to be forgiven and to repair our relationship with God.

Forming our conscience. I recently had a conversation with a convert to the Catholic faith about how the two types of sins created this huge sense of burden. I think this has always been so normal to me that it never occurred to me that others don’t count their sins in name and number as I’ve done since childhood. Some might say “How horrible!” or “How restrictive!” to think that way, but I honestly feel gratitude that my conscience was formed so acutely. I have clarity to know what I should and shouldn’t do. I know what is pleasing in the sight of God and what separates me from Him. When I do fail, and inevitably I do over and over and over again, I have a place to go to heal my soul.

I think in a world of relativism where the almighty “I” decides what is right and wrong and what is “my truth”, the idea of morality and an absolute truth is truly a beautiful freedom. Instead of being a slave to my own selfish desires and whims, I am free in knowing that a God who created me and is all powerful teaches me what will lead me to eternal freedom and happiness in heaven. I keep coming back to a bishop who talked about how boring our own desires are. We are merely humans who can only see so far, but finding out how to do God’s will, who is infinitely powerful, now, that is exciting – beyond our wildest dreams in fact! So an acute formation of conscience leads us down a straight and narrow path to eternal freedom and the wondrous life and eternal life that God has called us to.

One last thought on the formation of conscience, if I don’t monitor and count my sins and name them and confess them and lay them before God for healing, how can I possibly be able to root these evils out of my life? It would be like preparing for any goal in life without reflecting on the areas of weaknesses and setting a game plan to overcome them!

The CCC states, “1458 …Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit. By receiving more frequently through this sacrament the gift of the Father’s mercy, we are spurred to be merciful as he is merciful:60″

Why I love confession. Confession is called a sacrament of healing along with anointing of the sick. The CCC states, “1420 … We are still in our “earthly tent,” subject to suffering, illness, and death.2 This new life as a child of God can be weakened and even lost by sin.

1421 The Lord Jesus Christ, physician of our souls and bodies, … has willed that his Church continue, in the power of the Holy Spirit, his work of healing and salvation, even among her own members. This is the purpose of the two sacraments of healing:…”

No, I don’t love walking into the confessional and coming face to face with all the things I’ve done wrong. It is quite frankly, very painful and a lot of times I end up in tears, but it is so freeing. It’s the medicine for our sick souls. We cannot possibly look to heal ourselves. We are not capable of such, only God can take away our sins and restore our life in him. When I reflect on why I stay away from the confessional, it usually boils down to either fear or pride, and really if I’m being honest with myself, then I’m letting Satan win! I am letting the evil one use my weakness to keep me from the healing I need. If I can change my image of this sacrament to a healing process, maybe I can learn to trust in God’s infinite mercy and receive his forgiveness instead of hiding in my own pain and suffering.