Always lost for words, I never knew what to say to God as I tried to focus my attention on him at Sunday Mass. I admit that I did not always find Mass interesting. I attended every week mostly out of obligation. But even though I was preoccupied with a worldly life, God continued to nudge me and remind me of my deep longing for Him.
My relationship with God always cycled between periods of lukewarmness and intimacy. Yet the real barrier between me and a complete union with God was that I had fallen away from the sacraments. It had been years since I visited the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and I knew I could not receive the Eucharist because I was convinced that I was not in a state of grace.
Still, every time I went to Mass, I stopped for a brief moment and reflected on where my soul stood before God. At times, I found myself praying ‘God, bring me closer to you.’ I had two options to solve my predicament: I could approach the Eucharist, disregarding what the Church teaches about the worthy reception of Communion or I could arrange my return to Confession and have my sins absolved. I could then receive Communion with a clear conscience. I was not ready for the latter, so I would ask God to provide me with any Graces he could offer me, even if it was merely the scraps from his table.
I never saw Confession in a positive light, and I trace this back to trauma from the religious instruction I received as a teenager. I remember learning more about sin and this fallen world than I did about God’s boundless love. The threat of doing wrong and ending up in Hell seemed too real. My religious instructors did teach about the mercy of God in the Sacrament of Confession, so I knew that God is willing to forgive any sin brought to the Sacrament—no matter how trivial or serious it may be. Still, I perceived God’s mercy as having strict conditions. It gave me the same feeling as a test or exam—that I could either pass or fail. And the consequences of ‘failing’ would be detrimental to my soul.
I knew all the requirements to make a good Confession. Every mortal sin committed since the last Confession needs to be confessed with sufficient details to clarify the kind and number of times committed. I also understood that true contrition (whether ‘perfect’ or ‘imperfect’ contrition) requires a resolution not to recommit the mortal sin. I knew that deliberately neglecting to fulfill those requirements would result in a bad and invalid confession, which slaps the sin of sacrilege on top of all the other sins (which are not forgiven).
Preparing for a good Confession and finding the courage to go were challenging enough. But adding the expectations I believed were necessary for my sorrow to be good enough for God’s mercy made a good Confession seem unattainable.
What I didn’t understand about Confession was how it is a channel of God’s tenderness and compassion. If God is with us every step of the way as we travel the challenging road to holiness, then why would he not meet us where we are—including in the Confessional? God knows we are imperfect, and I dare to believe that he does not set the bar higher than any of us can reach.
I was a struggling Catholic and I continue to struggle. I wrestle with the Church about its teachings, I cling to my pride and selfishness. I am by no means totally ready to sacrifice my entire self for God the way a martyr would. Some days I am not sure that I want to carry my Cross and follow Christ no matter the cost. But I realize now that I was torn between my desire to be fully united with God and my ambivalence about diving into Christ’s arms with absolute contrition for all my sins.
God does not have to forgive us but he chooses to, simply because he wants us to be united with him. A God who wants to dispense his mercy on all of us sees the sorrow we have rather than the sorrow that we miss. As Pope Francis explains in The Name of God is Mercy, these are the “lengths to which God goes to enter the heart of man, to find that small opening that will permit him to grant grace.”
Understanding God’s compassion in this new light helps us to see how much he desires to give us his mercy and forgiveness. He sees and cherishes every indication of growth and every step in the right direction. He wants for me is to present myself to him, confess my sins, and seek his friendship. We are forgiven in the Sacrament of Confession because God is asking us to come to him as we are, tainted in sin.
It would be more encouraging and more accurate to view Confession as a part of the journey rather than a destination. Just like prayer, the practice of Confession takes us through a process of transformation, even if it’s gradual. No step along our journey is a wasted opportunity for God to work through us. God knows that not every visit to the confessional will result in a dramatic conversion, yet he continues to invite us to the Sacrament. What’s more certain is that every visit to Confession has the power to bring us a step closer to full unity with God.
I write this after months of reflection and as I continue my journey of returning to the sacraments. The most challenging aspect for me has been accepting and sustaining a new understanding of God. My sorrow will never match his mercy, but he will continue in his desire to forgive me. He chases me more than I chase him. God doesn’t expect perfection, nor can I ever earn his forgiveness. My resolve to never sin again and my willingness to give my entire self to God may not be solid, but God welcomes and appreciates each step I take towards him. God is not going to turn me away if I can’t prove that my sorrow outweighs my attachment to sin.
Whenever I doubt God’s willingness to forgive me, I remind myself that God will welcome any part of me I can offer him, even if my contrition is imperfect. Just as I once longed for a scrap of his Grace, I am now confidently asking God, in his mercy, to accept any scrap of contrition I have to offer.
Image: Adobe Stock. By Win.