Truth decay and its remedy

By Mike Aquilina | Contributor
Sunday, March 13, 2011

The folklore of the last generation has made the confessional out to be a dark and scary place — the place where people go to accuse themselves and have themselves "punished" by penances.

Comedians like George Carlin made a living off such tales. And we ordinary Catholics have readily accepted them, because indeed we have always feared the confessional. I know I did. After years away from confession, I came back one sunny Saturday and discovered, in that box, a great sense of relief.

But, of course, I didn't return to the sacrament until the following year.

My wife, who's an adult convert says the fear of the confessional was a tremendous obstacle to her entering the church.

But the comedians — and we — have it all wrong. It's not the confessional we fear. Not really. And it's not the penances, which are usually fairly easy to perform. No, we fear what we must confront in the confessional, and that is the truth about ourselves.

This truth is what we keep hidden away from others — from our co-workers, our friends, our spouse, our children. This truth is the "untold story" of our disputes at work, our wandering mind, our failures at home.

We humans are remarkably skilled at suppressing key details and making ourselves out to be valiant heroes or innocent victims. After several tellings of a given story, we may even come to believe it ourselves. Our capacity for self-deception is huge.

The dishonesty in our lives, however, becomes a cancer in our souls and minds. It clouds our vision, keeping us from seeing reality very clearly. We grow unsure of what's real and what's not. We trust others less, because we suspect their words might be as distorted or overly euphemistic as our own.

Frequent, sincere confession is the only sure cure for this disease. As difficult as it is to think about one's sins or pray about them, it can be an excruciating experience to speak them aloud — to another person. It can be humiliating. Yet with humiliation comes humility. And such humility is indispensable if we're to know peace and know ourselves.

Jesus is the truth (Jn 14:6). So we cannot simultaneously live in union with him and peacefully live a lie with ourselves and our neighbors. And by explaining away our faults with our "hero" and "victim" myths, we are surely living a lie.

No human remedy — medical, pharmaceutical or psychological — can cure us. Jesus knew what it would take, so he gave us sacramental confession (Jn 20:21-23; Jas 5:16; 1 Jn 1:9).

My wife and I both tended, for years, to do the minimum that the church requires. We went once annually during Lent or Easter season. That's not bad, but it's not what makes for lasting peace and personal holiness.

I was brought to my senses by a firm but gentle confessor, a priest in Chicago, who ended my 1990 visit with the words: "Don't stay away so long next time. Why don't you call me next month?"

I don't think I've let a month go by since then.

Lent is a good time to begin again, with a clean slate, with a good confession. Frequent confession is the proven way to peace. God has proven it to me again and again.