The Art of Confessing
by Fr Henri-Charles Chery O.P.
(Part 2 of 3)
Accusation of sins
Here I am next to the confessional, beginning my examination of conscience. Which sins am I going to confess?
The question obviously needs to be addressed, because I can’t confess every single fault. ‘The just man sins seven times a day’, Scripture says, and I, who am not just, how many sins slip my mind each day? To be completely comprehensive, counting up every single possible sin is an unrealistic dream – and not even useful or helpful. I need to choose. But what do I choose?
Obviously, first of all – all the mortal sins.
To deliberately omit confessing a mortal sin, even if you confess others that are just as serious, would be to render the confession invalid and sacrilegious. That act by which we deliberately turned away from God, our last end (which is just like saying to him quite consciously, that we could not care less about disobeying him in a serious matter – as long as we can satisfy this or that disordered tendency) how could we come back to grace with God without renouncing it and therefore confessing it? We cannot, at the same time, be both a friend of God and hostile to him.
The difficulty for some of us is knowing when there is mortal sin:
* in theory, everyone knows it: serious matter, full knowledge, and full consent;
* but in practice, we often ask ourselves:
1) Was the matter really a serious one?
2) And even more commonly: Did I really fully consent?
For the first question, it’s easy enough to ask the confessor’s advice.
As for the second, so long as the question is being asked in all honesty and in good conscience, and if you are really not absolutely sure, the rule is, there was not full consent.
Is this to say that there is no need to confess this ‘doubtful’ sin, or rather, this doubtfully committed sin? Certainly not! Because of the uncertainty, one may be permitted to approach the Sacrament of the Eucharist, and, strictly speaking, you aren’t even obliged to confess this sin; but you’d be wrong, if you wish to make progress in the spiritual life, to hide behind this non-obligation to hold on to an uneasy conscience.
Practically, the rule is quite simple. You are not required to say, ‘I confess to having committed a mortal sin’, but rather, ‘I confess to having committed this sin, to having done this act.’ You might add, if this is the case, ‘I do not know if I fully consented.’ Then everything is in order. In any case, we are always able to reply according to our conscience if the confessor asks us, ‘Do you believe that acting in this way, you have grievously sinned?’
What are we to think of the formula, so dear to those who use it constantly and almost automatically, ‘I confess myself as guilty as God finds me guilty.’?
Although useful and legitimate when you are uncertain of the nature of your culpability, it seems to me to be too facile, and somewhat hypocritical, when you know very well where you stand.
On the other hand let it be said that we should not (as some souls tend to do) see ‘mortal sin’ everywhere. A sin that merits, of itself alone, separation from God for all eternity and the pains of hell – we do not commit that kind of sin without our conscience being well aware of it. If this conscience is in need of formation, you must ask your confessor to enlighten you and then go strictly by his direction.
This formation of conscience should have been done at a young age, yet listening to the confessions of children, we are astonished by their ability to believe that their little faults – mere peccadilloes – are mortal sins. Is there not in that – let it be said in passing – a responsibility going back to educators, who do not know how to distinguish between their grumblings or scoldings and the true moral value of childish faults? In any case, this problem of formation of conscience in children should be looked into carefully and individually by parents and regular confessors, as it is just as dangerous to leave children to believe in the seriousness of little faults as it is to leave them to commit, as though quite unconcerned, gravely reprehensible acts.
A scrupulous and anguished conscience in youth makes for a weak adult, withdrawn, without courage, or indirectly results in an adolescent suddenly and brutally ‘liberating’ himself from an unbearable constraint.
Whether mortal or not, one would do well to get into the habit of confessing first of all, right at the beginning, the faults that weigh most heavily on the conscience, instead of slipping them, as if inadvertently, in the middle of a long list of relatively unimportant sins. In this way you can free yourself in one fell swoop from faults that you might otherwise end up not confessing at all by giving in to foolish fear.
I would like to pay particular attention here on:
1) the examination of conscience and,
2) the confessing of venial sins. Is it not here that a great many regular penitents fall short?
What is the most common complaint made by those who confess frequently? ‘Confession bores me, because I always have to say the same thing.’ Or else this other complaint which is directed at the confessor: ‘He doesn’t say anything to me.’ – meaning – nothing out of the ordinary, nothing which helps me to shake off my faults.
Now these two failings, which make confession psychologically tedious, have the same cause – you do not know how to confess your sins.
How do most penitents confess? Some (admittedly the smaller number) forget that sin is an act, not a state. And so they reveal (or think they’re revealing) the depths of their soul by saying, ‘I am a liar, I am bad-tempered, I am impatient. This kind of talk is not what is required. All it does is expose a tendency of your soul, but confession is not about exposing your tendencies. It is about admitting to specific acts – which are no doubt the outcome of your tendencies – but as different from them as the fruit is from the tree. One can very well have a tendency to lying and yet not have committed the sin of lying in the fortnight since the last confession. If one has told a lie, one should say, ‘I lied’, not ‘I am a liar’.
This is in fact what most penitents do say: ‘I lied, I lacked charity, I was lazy, I was vain.’ This is a more correct way, but the confession is hardly any better, meaning, it is hardly any better for your soul. And hardly any more likely to draw out useful advice from your confessor. Why? Because it is bland. You haven’t had to put any real thought into it. You haven’t clarified. It doesn’t give the confessor any specific indication, any clue, which might enable him to see in what way your soul differs from that of the soul he has had to judge and advise before you. For every ten penitents following each other, at least nine of them could present the same list. And in fact, alas! they do so.
So why (unless he already knows you from somewhere else) do you expect your confessor to give you exactly the advice you need? Nothing specific has been revealed to him by this confession. He hasn’t been given anything to go on. He would have to be a marvelous psychologist and amazingly intuitive to guess, from this rapid outpouring of common faults, one after the other, through this grille where he can’t even see your face, the words he should say to reach out to you, touch your heart and encourage you into making the effort which you personally should undertake. We can’t ask every confessor to be the Cure of Ars. Normally, he will only be able to give you back from what you have given him.
If, as it sometimes happens through excessive scrupulousness, the penitent launches into a long list that he wants to make meticulously all-inclusive, if he intends to say every single thing and churns out just about every venial sin that it’s possible to commit (which he has, no doubt committed) and all of this made at a speedy pace that sometimes lasts several minutes, there you will have a completely overwhelmed and swamped confessor. Is there anything personal or distinctive in all this, he’ll be wondering in vain. And, not finding anything, all he can do is give a general exhortation which isn’t all that helpful. Whose fault is that?
First and foremost let us emphasize that venial sin is a matter of free choice in the confessional. We are not obliged to confess it.
A well-made act of contrition, and act of charity, a faithful and humble use of a sacramental are enough to obtain pardon [of venial sins].
A confession that is made up only of venial sins is therefore not necessary for salvation, but rather a means of sanctification. It is a recourse to a sacrament – to the cleansing Blood of Jesus – by which we are purified and strengthened. It is also, secondarily, an exercise in humility founded on knowledge of self, and an admission of all that is impeding our spiritual progress.
Therefore we are free to choose which of our committed venial sins to confess. Does this mean choosing the most insignificant and forgetting about those which trouble us? No! Not at all! A well-made examination of conscience will pick out, from the pile of daily faults, those which, because of their frequency or because of their malice, are the most harmful to the life of the soul.
The physiognomy of my sinful soul is no more similar to that of another soul than my face is similar to another face. Broadly speaking, we all commit more of less the same faults, just as we all have a nose, a mouth, ears… but the importance for me of this fault, the place it holds in my spiritual life, how it influences other faults, that is what makes up my sinner’s face. That, therefore, is what an intelligent examination of conscience will serve to pick out and highlight.
It’s useless to gather up a multitude of sins. Five or six, well chosen, will be enough to see yourself, to show yourself as you are before God. But as for these sins (and this remark is without doubt the most practical of all) it is a question of bringing them out in their true colors!
* ‘I lied’: that means nothing. ‘Omnis homo mendax,’ says the psalm. Every man is a liar. In what way have I lied? To whom? In what circumstances? Why?
‘I lied to a sick friend who was looking forward to my visit because going to see her bored me.’ Who cannot see that this is a specific kind of lie? ‘I lied to my boss in order to obtain some holiday leave to which I had no right‘, ‘I lied to a client about the quality of my work so I could charge him more’ – so many different types of lies! Therefore to just confess, ‘I lied’, would not have given any true idea of what was involved.
* ‘To fail in charity’ – the most common sin. Why use this totally bland, colorless expression? Better to say, ‘I said some hurtful words to someone I do not like, with the intention of upsetting him.’ , ‘I showed contempt towards a friend who is not very intelligent.’, ‘I refused some help that I could have given to a friend in need’, or ‘I made fun of a disabled sick person….’
* There are a hundred ways of being vain. What is yours? Is it spending far too much time in getting dressed up? Is it looking in the mirror every other minute? Do you show off whenever you are in a group, trying to grab all the attention by your brilliant conversation?
* And your laziness? How does that reveal itself in you? By your persistent habit of staying in bed when it’s time to get up? By your careless, half-finished duties of state? By your could-not-care-less attitude, or your excessive love of sofas?
From these few examples (which could so easily be multiplied) you can see what we mean when we say – confess specific acts, and the circumstances in which you committed them. Try to find the words that best put across your fault such as it was in reality, as something that was specifically yours and not just anyone’s. This will be of great benefit to you:
— Firstly, because it will force you to see yourself as you really are, and then, because it will be a healthy and profitable humiliation. It is more humiliating to say, ‘I spent half an hour every day putting on make up,’ than to say, ‘I was vain’.
— And lastly, because from this clear and precise information, your confessor will be able to see the state of your soul, and from that will be able to give you appropriate advice.
Having said all that, you are not invited to long-winded chatting. To confess with precision is not the same as ‘telling stories’. The confession should not be drowned in a flood of descriptive accounts, narration, explanations and digressions, where the penitent forgets he is confessing sins and where the confessor grasps nothing apart from the fact that you are admitting to having been sinned against. Sometimes we hear this so-called confession changing into self-justification, or at the very least, a speech for the defense.
If you need to unburden a heart that is too weighed down and heavy, and receive some consolation, or if you would like some advice about what you must do, nothing could be more legitimate. But do clearly separate the two intentions. First make a proper confession, keeping strictly to your faults, and then inform the confessor that you also have something else to say.