There’s an objection that Protestants sometimes pose to Catholics: Why should I confess my sins to a man, when I could simply confess alone, in my room, to God?
I’m sure there are all kinds of theological answers to this question. But I want to talk about what the presence of the “other person,” and the other structural elements of the sacrament, add to the experience and spirituality of confession.
Praying alone in one’s room, recalling one’s sins and intentionally holding them up for God to inspect, can be deeply humbling. It can also be an alienating and very lonely experience. There’s a joke about an old Jewish man who went every day to pray for peace at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem — every day for 50 years, even as the rockets roared above him. At last a younger Jew, in awe of the man’s piety, asked him, “What does it feel like to speak with God every day for so long?”
And the man replied, “It feels like I’m talking to a [expletive] wall!”
The room can feel very empty when you pray. No matter how much you know, intellectually, that God is there, the feeling remains.
Moreover, it’s easy to feel like we’re hiding when we pray in our rooms. Our bedrooms are often our refuges. It’s easy to rationalize and make excuses for yourself or skate over your sins when you don’t have to speak aloud and know — unavoidably, undeniably — that another human hears you.
And it’s easy to feel somewhat at a loss for words when praying by yourself. It’s easy to choose words that conceal more than they reveal, and easy to be intensely aware of your own lack of sincerity, and therefore paralyzed by the fear that you’re not really contrite.
In the confessional, all of these paradoxes of hidden prayer are reversed, creating different paradoxes. The presence of the priest makes the confessional shockingly intimate and simultaneously intensely exposed. The room is definitely not empty! The room (and this is true in newer “reconciliation rooms,” though I think it’s more obvious and beautiful in the old-fashioned curtained box) becomes an allegorical figure of a grave, where you can die to sin to be reborn in Christ; or the wounds of Christ in which you can shelter. Even when confession takes place at a hospital bedside or on a battlefield, the connection between confessor and penitent creates a symbolic space, enclosing them in the sacrament.
The elements of ritual are important in confession for a lot of reasons. Sin often has its own rituals — turn the wife’s picture to the wall, check the clock because it’s not a problem if you don’t drink before five — and so there’s a lovely rhyme and reversal to the fact that penance has its rituals as well. Ritual feeds our need for beauty, and we especially need to be enwrapped in beauty when we feel shamed and ugly. Ritual feeds our need for community, and we especially need to be embedded in community when we feel shamed and exposed. Saying the same words everyone else says can be an immense comfort. (It also means you don’t have to be quite as worried that you’ll just be tongue-tied.)
And the rituals are unchosen. I want to spend some time with this, because the unchosen elements of confession bring both its obvious spiritual difficulties and its perhaps less-obvious spiritual gifts into focus.
I’ve written before about how stupidly I put off confessing. My life is boringly, blatantly better when I’m going to confession regularly and receiving communion as often as possible. And yet it’s very hard to overcome the shame of sin and exposure. It’s very easy to be scared away from the confessional.
One thing this fear means, though, is that when I do go I don’t really have to worry about whether I’m sincere or not. If I didn’t mean it, I wouldn’t be here. I am happy making a grocery-list confession, getting a “take five Hail Marys and call me in the morning”-type penance, and having that be the end of it, because I know that in order to come to confession at all I had to overcome shame, die to self, and acknowledge and sacrifice for my longing for communion.
You don’t choose the priest. Of course, if you’re in a city or you have a car you can parish-shop to a certain extent (and I’m sorry to say that I’ve done that), but really you’re not in much control here. This fact has huge drawbacks: I’ve had priests give me what I still think was not the right advice for me, and friends have even had priests tell them that the sins they were confessing (real sins, not the psychological hang-ups or scrupulosity or “my sin is that I am just too caring sometimes” job-interview self-petting people sometimes engage in) weren’t sins at all. Priests can do a lot of damage in the confessional, often in non-obvious ways.
But it’s also very helpful to confess to someone who does not think you are a special and unique snowflake, but rather brings a hard-nosed sense of universal human weakness to bear on your hedging and begrudging confession. Most of us hedge and cheat in very predictable ways, and priests can point that out. Moreover, when we choose the recipients of our confessions (as some Protestants do with “accountability partners”), we’re likely to rationalize the choice of someone who will make excuses for us or who is at least very similar to ourselves in terms of sensibility, life experiences, or expectations. It’s also helpful that the priest is connected to and responsible for a broad range of people, rather than part of a somewhat isolated dyad. Confession follows a leadership model rather than a friendship model, even when friendship is also present between confessor and penitent.
The face of Christ you encounter in the priest in the confessional may be very difficult to recognize. But then, that’s true of your face as well: That’s why you’re there.