In the context of these beautiful insights into the path of integration, and into the radiant wholeness in love and gift that can be experienced already in this life (even if the complete fulfillment comes only in heaven), some words on prayer and the sacraments may be particularly fruitful. Often persons who are striving for holiness and wholeness approach these things as tasks to be done in order to grow and improve, or as simple habits to develop in order to overcome sin and grow in holiness, or even as hoops to jump through in order to be in the right before God. They struggle to live without the burden of guilt and shame, and think that in prayer and the sacraments, particularly in Confession or Reconciliation, they will find freedom. And this is exactly true! For prayer is the true home for the human heart, the true place of rest and repose in the mercy and love of our tender Father. And the Sacrament of Mercy is precisely one of the most vivid gifts of God to mediate to us the experience of his forgiveness and his healing touch, such that, throwing ourselves before him in poverty and contrition like the prodigal son, we may experience the prodigal outpouring of his ocean of mercy, his delight in us, and his warm embrace of forgiveness and reconciliation (see Lk 15:11-32).
The danger, however, is when these things become twisted such that they are no longer lived and experienced as gratuitous expressions of loving relationship, but either as mere obligations imposed by the divine Lawgiver and Judge who places conditions on his love and mercy that we must fulfill in order to be pleasing to him, or as facets of the power-struggle paradigm in which we must convince God that we are trying, must justify ourselves before him in order to insure his good will towards us. Both of these cut to the very core of the experience of love, prayer, and mercy, such that they become in our experience the very opposite of what they are. And sadly, the cultural context of the Church’s life has in part contributed to this tendency, as fallen human beings have projected their own wounded idea of God onto their explanation of prayer and the sacraments, and into the practice of these things as well. I hinted at this in an earlier section when I spoke of the danger of a legalistic approach to life founded on the concept of sheer obligation. As Adam Cooper has said, there has been a deep danger and tendency to interpret the sacraments as “a kind of ritualized dispensary for the magical manipulation of reified metaphysical entities.”i But the richness of the sacraments consists not in their being divinely ordained “hoops” to jump through in order to receive grace; rather, they are embedded in the richness of our humanity, in the living context of the body and culture and human life, offered to us precisely as the vehicle by which we enter into a living communion with the life of God.
Just as the expressions of verbal and physical speech and tenderness are the very fabric of which human relationships are made, so too prayer and the sacraments are high points in the communication between God and ourselves. They are part of the fabric of our dialogue with God at the heart of his Church, beautiful gifts given by him to help us approach him as he approaches us, gifts ordained to draw us into the intimacy for which we thirst, and the wholeness that both flows from this intimacy as well as makes it possible. Thus we can see how the sacraments can be understood in the same way that I spoke above about the growth of interpersonal human relationship. Since both before God and before human others the relationship is between persons, the same trajectory of blossoming relationship unfolds, even if in relation to God it is of immeasurably more depth, intensity, and redemptive beauty, the true foundation of all happiness and fulfillment of all desire. Yes, before God, too, our relationship grows and matures through the threefold movement of encounter, communication, and communion. We see this clearly in the liturgy, in the Holy Mass, in which we come together as a community to re-live the Paschal Sacrifice of Christ who gives himself to us for our redemption, and draws near to unite himself to us even in the breathtaking intimacy of Eucharistic Communion. Here we experience a renewed encounter with the Risen Jesus, in the depth of his compassion for us by which he draws near in the eternal newness of his Passion and Resurrection, and in his radiant victory over suffering and death. And as we open ourselves to him, as we lay bare our hearts to really see him as he is, unveiling himself before us, we encounter him deeply, in person-to-person love. And we listen as he speaks to us—in the Scriptures proclaimed in the Church, and in the prayers by which she offers a context for us to welcome them—and we speak to him in response. This communication reaches its climax as he takes up all of our prayers, all that we have voiced to him in both word and silence, and joins it to his own ineffable prayer, which, in the Holy Spirit, he offers into the welcoming embrace of the Father. And from the co-joining of communication and prayer and gift of self is born the deepest communion, made vividly incarnate in the literal gift of Christ’s Body and Blood—of his entire risen humanity in which the whole Trinity is present—which we receive in the fullness of our own humanity, in our very bodies.
As concerns us in this chapter, we can understand the Sacrament of Mercy in the same way. It is an encounter between person and person: between myself and the Person of Christ who awaits me (and in him of the merciful Father). And yet Christ, living perpetually within the mystery of his Church, presents himself to me through the icon of the priest, who stands as mediator, representative, and companion of the vivid incarnateness of this encounter with Christ. And at the heart of the sacrament is precisely this threefold movement: encounter, communication, communion. I draw near to encounter the mercy of God mediated to me through the sacrament, and this comes to flow precisely through the sacramental dialogue between myself and the priest. I open myself, in the depths of my longing vulnerability and contrition and desire for forgiveness and healing, and the priest—on behalf of Christ in whose one Priesthood he participates—receives and shelters this vulnerability. He echoes back, in words and gestures, the tender mercy of God which my heart seeks, and offers me the astounding certainty of knowing that I have been received, forgiven, and touched with indescribably tenderness by the God of mercy and consolation. In a word, through the gift of this beautiful sacrament, I am given vivid experience of communion with God right at the heart of the most painful places in my humanity, where I know and experience the burden and pain of my weakness and sin. Here he awaits me; here he comes to meet me, inviting me to open my wounded and hurting heart to him, so that he may breathe forth upon it the breath of the Spirit of love and forgiveness, this breath he first breathed forth on his apostles, the first priests, after he rose from the dead:
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Jn 20:19-23).
For centuries, however, a negative and profoundly inadequate approach has permeated the practice of Confession, which has made this very redeeming and liberating dialogue of love difficult to see and experience. Indeed, the sacrament even came to be understood and experienced as a “tribunal of justice” rather than as an embrace of mercy, a tribunal in which one had to stand before the strictness of the divine Judge and give a complete account of one’s crimes. If the confessing person happened to say something wrong, or to miss a point, or to in any of the multitude of other possible ways “make a bad confession,” it was up to the priest—as a representative of the divine Judge—to withhold forgiveness. Rather than being the manifestation of the welcoming embrace of the “Father of mercies and God of all consolation” (2 Cor 1:3), who is “rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4), it became a courtroom where one had to accuse oneself precisely and completely in order to escape from the divine wrath and to have a hope of being justified in God’s sight. The very practice of Confession became so overloaded with “musts” that the simple core of the sacrament—rooted in the gift of mercy flowing from Christ’s Resurrected Body and through the apostles and their successors—became obscured from sight. How far it fell from the simplicity of the Gospel! How far it fell from the experience of the prodigal son, who, after returning home to voice to the father the long list of sins he had prepared in advance, rather experiences the father run out to him, interrupt him, and sweep his beloved son into his arms. He hushes him and does not allow him to finish, saying instead, “Let it go, my child. All is forgiven. For you have come back; you whom I thought I had lost have come back to life. Let us therefore simply celebrate in the joy of my love.”
But for years so many hurting human hearts have experienced Confession, week after week, month after month, precisely as the need to make a perfect list of sins, in kind and name and number, and to say it all without omitting a single one, and to foster the right kind of contrition in the heart, and to resolve adequately to do better in the future, and to memorize the formulaic act of contrition (written as a very painful distillation of the distorted tendencies of the legalistic tradition), and then to say it all to the priest while trying not to care what the priest thinks, but only God, even as they know, in their hearts, that they are laying their most vulnerable experiences before the eyes of a human being, whose tenderness or lack of tenderness in this space cannot but harm or heal them. I am not saying, of course, that the insights from which these distorted and obscuring dispositions were born are wrong. No, the kernel is true, as it usually is. For of course, deliberately withholding a serious sin from Confession is withholding it from the touch of mercy. Or going to the sacrament without actually being sorry for one’s sins, but rather as a matter of course, or to please someone else, or to try and fool the priest and justify oneself, is itself an act of great defiance of God’s love and mercy. The same goes, even, with the need and desire of the human heart to lay it all bare before the eyes of Love and Mercy, and to experience him say in response: “Let it all go.” Indeed, even the emphasis on simplicity and sobriety in the sacrament is good—that is, on simply stating one’s sins and wounds without long explanations or detailed context—since it draws the human heart to take itself less seriously (but also more so, without justifying itself, pitying itself, or beating itself up), to say in but a few words what is essential, and to leave the rest to God. It is precisely the simplicity and sobriety of this surrender, indeed, when received and reflected back in the word of absolution spoken by the priest, that unseals in the human heart a profound wellspring of peace and joy and childlike lightheartedness.
Yes, the radiant beauty and balance of the objective, authentic teaching of the Church in this regard has often not distilled down into the practice and the subjective experience of those who participate in the sacrament. Much is improving in this area now, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation is truly becoming a sacrament of mercy, and many priests are ardently desiring to manifest the ineffable love and tenderness of God through the transparency and humility of their own receptive presence in the confessional. For the teaching of the Church in this regard, as the legalistic and Jansenistic lens is falling away, is beginning to reveal its true and radiant meaning. The true import of simple statements is beginning to become apparent, precisely in the liberty, spontaneity, and harmony that they manifest. I take six examples:
1) The very existence of a Sacrament of Mercy presupposes a number of things for it to be intelligible at all (which explains why in our post-Christian culture so many persons are not capable of hearing its authentic word). The sacrament is a response, first of all, a) to the awareness of our state of sinfulness, to the fallen condition of humanity after the infidelity of Adam and Eve, which has been perpetuated throughout history in the “patterns of sinfulness” passed down and learned in the fabric of human life, as well as in the very wounded nature that we have received, with dulled mind and will and affectivity, and with emotions and sensitivity burdened by concupiscence. Confession or Reconciliation—my preferred title, which seems well to include all the other dimensions within itself, is simply to call it “the Sacrament of Mercy”—is a response to this burden of inherited sinfulness, with which each one of us struggles on a daily basis, and which is manifested and expressed in our own personal sins and and failures. It is a gift of divine aid and a remedy for wounded human hearts crying out for wholeness, crying out for relief from the burden of shame and guilt, on the one hand (the awareness of ruptured relationship and the sorrow of our infidelity to the call of love), and for liberation from the pain of slavery, on the other hand (in which, bound to sin and selfishness, we “do not do that which we desire, but do the very thing we hate” [cf. Rom 7:15]). More on this in point 2. But first, let me give two more presuppositions of this holy sacrament.
b) The Sacrament of Mercy also presupposes the “sacramental order,” by which God mediates his invisible grace and presence to us through visible, tangible means. He comes to us in the midst of our humanity, in the midst of the created universe, and touches us in a way that we can truly experience him in his ineffable mystery, even as this mystery remains “veiled” by the signs and symbols of the sacrament. Thus the sacraments instituted by Christ—as well as the sacramentality of the universe as a whole—is a mysterious paradox of “making-visible,” on the one hand, and of “veiling,” on the other. And yet precisely in this way the sacraments are an invitation to the profound intimacy of person and person that blossoms only on the basis of faith and trust, on the basis of the vulnerability of self-surrender. The sacramental nature of reality is not a form of God keeping his distance, but rather the opposite: it expresses his tender delicacy in drawing near to us, such that he can invite us into intimacy with himself without doing violence to our freedom. He calls us, rather, to step gently beyond the veil in a gradual process of mutual unveiling—of our own heart and of his heart—in which a true mystical encounter takes place by the medium of sacramental signs, anticipating the definitive encounter that will take place in heaven when every veil shall be totally removed.
c) Finally, the last presupposition of the Sacrament is the awareness that sin—indeed, the whole of human existence—is not a merely private matter, but something that is significant for the whole of humanity, for all of our brothers and sisters. Even the most hidden sin has effects, not only in the hiddenness of our own hearts, but also in the fabric of the universe, sending ripples throughout the cosmos and through the heart of humanity. The same, of course, is true—in an even deeper and more efficacious way—of even the slightest act of love, prayer, compassion, or true joy, in that it too sends ripples throughout the fabric of the universe for the good of others. The Sacrament, therefore, expresses the gift of God ordained to healing the communal effects of sin, both in terms of re-integrating the person who has sinned back into the fullness of communion in the Church, the mystical Body of Christ, as well as in terms of insinuating healing grace into the very negative effects unleashed by sin, both in the individual heart as well as in the hearts and lives of others and in the order of the universe. (More on this later, too.)
2) Now let us turn to specific aspects of the Church’s beautiful teaching on this sacrament, and try to unveil their true depth and wholeness, beyond the narrowness that has often twisted them. First: the Sacrament of Mercy has two primary effects, two ways in which it helps to mediate God’s grace into the human heart: forgiveness and reconciliation. In other words, it not only expresses God’s acceptance of our apology, our plea for forgiveness (and thus the “divine forgetfulness” in which nothing is held against us, but rather totally lost in the ocean of mercy), but also, at the heart of this, the restoration of the relationship that our sins had fractured (and thus the re-weaving of the bonds of communion). It is thus an experience of atonement, in its literal meaning as at-one-ment, a making-one again between God and ourselves in the very place where our sins had created distance. And when it is experienced this way, it is felt as an entirely relational mystery, as a simple form of prayer and love in the dialogue between God and the human person, in their desire to be close to one another in authentic love and intimacy.
3) But there is an additional fruit of Confession, one particularly important for persons who—influenced by the legalism that has surrounded the sacrament for so long, suffer from repression and scrupulosity—namely, the way that it brings about healing of the deep wounds of our hearts, from which the disordered choices of sin spring. Thus, the Sacrament of Mercy is not just a matter of “getting in the right with God,” but of laying my hurting and wounded heart before him, as before the divine Physician, in order to experience his healing, recreating, and transfiguring touch. Thus the sacrament becomes a profound encounter unsealing in me the deep voice of the heart, which has for so long been buried over by fear and sin, and thus liberating me to walk in the happiness of the freedom of desire, the freedom of gift, for which I have been created.
In fact, the union of these three fruits of the sacrament—forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing—is a beautiful and efficacious remedy for the ills that plague so many human hearts in our world. So many psychological ills and neuroses are due, indeed, precisely to the abiding feeling of shame and guilt that a person feels incapable of escaping from. The Sacrament of Mercy provides a way out—the door into a life of freedom in the joy of forgiveness given by God himself. But in addition to the gift of forgiveness and the liberation from the dreadful burden of shame and guilt, the sacrament also pours into the receptive heart currents of healing grace that can touch and gradually heal those very personal, emotional, and psychological wounds that arise from sin, or which have contributed to its growth.*
4) The Church explicitly says that the Sacrament of Mercy is obligatory only for sins of a serious or grievous nature (and this in ordinary circumstances)—what are traditionally called “mortal sins,” as opposed to venial sins. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is the proper and ordinary vehicle through which God mediates his forgiveness and the joy of reconciliation after we have deliberately chosen to sever our relationship with God in this way. And note: a mortal sin is never a mortal sin unless three conditions are met: unless a) it is chosen with full knowledge of its seriousness, b) with free and deliberate consent, and also c) truly consists of matter which is innately grave. Only if these three conditions are present has a rupture of this kind occurred between us and God. Here we see again just how legalism constricts the human heart in perpetual fear, whereas the reality of love—holding all in the orbit of relationship—allows us to understand this beautiful clarification offered us by the Church precisely as God saying to us: “You cannot sever yourself from me on accident, my child! You cannot accidentally destroy our relationship. So do not live in perpetual fear and suspicion.”
In addition, this clarification works in the opposite direction as well, as it shows the seriousness of human freedom and choice—that we can even choose, deliberately, to break away from relationship with God and to go our own way in isolation (as did the prodigal son before his repentance). The ultimate fruit of this awful choice is eternal separation from intimacy with God, namely, hell. And hell—begun already on this earth and yet, if persisting until the very end of life, becoming our constant state after death—is the only ultimate and definitive tragedy. And it is so, not as the expression of God’s wrathful condemnation of us, but rather as the very fruit of the abuse of human freedom, which sets itself against the love and mercy of God, and refuses to be reconciled to the merciful Father, refuses to accept his invitation to share in the intimacy and joy of the life of the Trinity.
Many persons have come to have an irrational fear of Confession precisely because they do not understand its fundamentally and interiorly gratuitous nature. In other words, they view it almost entirely under the lens of obligation, rather than recognizing that in its inner essence it is a gift, a gift given to us by God in order to give us access, tangible and experiential, certain and sure access, to the heart of his Mercy. It has become the need to do the “confession thing” right, rather than the incarnate expression of the desire to be reconciled to God. But the simplicity and beauty of Confession can be recaptured, it can be experienced! It can be a living experience of the “spousal meaning of the body,” precisely in the very experiential living of the process of the sacrament, just as in every other sacrament!
Of course, whenever I have seriously severed my relationship with God—just as with any human person—it is “obligatory” to apologize explicitly in order to restore the relationship to health. This is really common sense. And this apology, this cry of the heart from the stinging pain of contrition and regret, “I am sorry! Have mercy on me! I want you again!” begins already in the silence of the heart in prayer, and can happen the very instant after the sin has been committed. The sacramental space of Confession just gives full expression to this movement—both as a way of integrating the sinful human person back into the full community of faith, the Church, and thus also bringing healing into the very “ripples” that every sin causes in the fabric of the universe, as well as bringing a tangible peace and security to the human heart in the certainty of forgiveness and reconciliation given through the words of absolution: “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” What a consolation! What a joy! But there is no need to put the cry for mercy “on hold” until the sacrament is experienced. Rather, here there is a rich interrelationship between the personal prayer of the individual and their encounter with God in the sacrament. The two are meant to be a single fabric, in which what is begun in prayer (and God forgives from the first moment, from the slightest cry of regret and contrition), finds full expression in the tangible encounter and powerful grace of the sacrament.
If this is true even of mortal sins, how much more true it is of venial sins! For mortal sins inherently call for the Sacrament of Reconciliation; they call for a fully ecclesial act of forgiveness and reconciliation—of the restoration of relationship—mediated by the priest as a minister of Christ and the Church. Even in prayer the gift of forgiveness is given, and the healing is begun, but the fabric of broken relationship is rewoven in a special way by the beauty of this sacrament.
5) The way that Confession is very often explained is profoundly unhelpful, and causes a great deal of wounds and confusion in human hearts. And this is true, not only in the past, but to this very day. Let me make two points here, ones which are interrelated. First, in explaining sin to children and even adults, it is often described in a “quantitative” way by using images: sin is a stain on the soul, and the more you sin the darkest the soul gets; sin is the tearing of the threads of a fabric that gets weaker with every sin you commit; sin is like throwing trash in the back seat of the car that accumulates more and more until the car is filthy. These images are almost always followed up with the statement: “Venial sins accumulate and, if not kept in check, will make you comfortable with dirtiness, and then you will commit a mortal sin.” And then the whole soul becomes one big stain, on big black ugly spot (how much shame!), or the car itself is uninhabitable, or the fabric is torn.
Though obviously these images are trying to explain something in an accessible way which actually takes personal maturity to understand authentically, I don’t think that using these quantitative images is helpful. Is it not rather much simpler, and much more accurate, simply to describe sin in relational and personal terms? Do we suppose that children can’t understand things in terms of relationship? Or adults? Rather, don’t we—and don’t children in particular—participate in relationship every day, living on relationship unceasingly? And children in particular have an innate orientation to relate to God spontaneously as a Father and Caregiver, to want to be close to him and not to do anything either to hurt him or to sever the relationship. The explanations of sin and its effects should speak to this. In fact, sin is really that simple and that deep: it hurts the heart of God and the hearts of others, and it wounds relationships, first of all our relationship with God, but also our relationships with other persons. The only other thing that needs to be said in addition to this is to speak of sins effects in terms of consequences: it gradually creates bad habits in our hearts, and fosters the tendencies of concupiscence within us rather than helps us to overcome them, and it also sends ripples of all kinds of ills throughout the universe, depending on its degree of depth and innate disorder. All of this, when explained in adequately concrete terms, should be accessible to any and to all. And it will help to create a climate in which sin and Confession can be experienced and understood, quite spontaneously, in a context of love and relationship.
The second point, following on this one, concerns the very common, almost universal tendency, to speak of Confession, and to recommend it, in terms of frequency. This is true not only for children, but perhaps especially in treatises on the spiritual life and resources that talk about prayer, the sacraments, growth in holiness, etc., for adults. Of course, frequent Confession can benefit one greatly. But often a lack of attunement can result here that causes harm to the uniqueness of the individual. It is said, for example, “If you want to be holy and to experience the joy of purity of heart, it is essential that you make use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation frequently. At least once a month is necessary. But more frequently is recommended, particularly every two weeks or even every week. This will help you to become accustomed to knowing your own interior state and your own habitual sins, and to combat them with the help of the grace of the sacrament. You will also experience great growth in humility.” Of course, for some people this is certainly true, and such frequent Confession is a good idea. But human hearts are irreducibly unique, and what may prove beneficial for one could hurt another. And so great delicacy should be observed here, so that more wounds are not inflicted on those sensitive persons who, by feeling the necessity imposed on them to confess so frequently, will begin to feel the burden of obsessive-compulsive disorder or scrupulosity or excessive focus on sin. This happens more frequently than one might think. And when joined with the first point, the quantitative understanding of sin, the recommendation for or practice of frequent Confession often leads to a feeling of guilt accumulating over time, becoming heavier and heavier, dirtier and dirtier, until it is “washed away” in the sacrament. One comes to feel worse as the week moves on, looking forward to Confession so that one can get rid of the burden of guilt and shame and feel in the right with God. But this experience, particularly when long repeated, brings about not a profound gratitude for God’s mercy and a happiness for the gift of Confession, but a painful and even neurotic anxiety. Here the oft-overlooked teaching of the Church offers profound liberation. Namely, she says very clearly that all venial sins can be entirely forgiven and healed outside of Confession, and are indeed continually being healed in this way—through a simple sigh of contrition, through a prayer or a thought directed to God, through an act of love or mercy, etc.—and Confession is just a further gift to help deepen and consolidate what is continually happening in the very living orbit of the relationship between God and the human person.
In sum, in order to reveal the true gravity of sin’s evil, and also to awaken a true joy in forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing, we need to begin speaking of it, not in quantitative (and self-centered) terms, but in terms of the weakening or strengthening of relationship, and in terms of personal offense or infidelity which hurts both ourselves and other persons, particularly our loving God. Christ in his Passion and Resurrection shows the way for this, as in relation to him, sin becomes utterly personal, and I am faced head-on with the terrible effects of my sins upon the heart of God, and yet also with the depths of his tender compassion for me in all the pain and suffering that my sins bring upon me and upon the world.
And in this place, not as a legalistic way of safeguarding my own self-righteousness, but precisely as a constant expression of my awareness of my desperate need for God, I can receive the Sacrament of Mercy both deeply and frequently. Yes, the sacrament comes to be experienced as a profound gift—a gift deeply needed and desired because I know that I am a sinner. I know the profound tendencies within me to selfishness, pride, self-reliance, and a lack of love and compassion for others (and so many other tendencies). But I cannot wage war against these tendencies on my own. I cannot even see them on my own! Rather, every day I come to know a little more about myself, to see the divine light penetrating into the darkness of my heart a little more deeply. And the only proper response to this revelation is to come to God, without defenses or fears or self-clothing, and to lay myself naked before him, the divine Physician, so that he may have mercy on me and heal me—that he may purify the deepest wellsprings of my heart, my thought, my desire, my action, and may conform my heart to his own Heart.
A deep, wholehearted, and consistent living of the encounter of the Sacrament of Mercy thus has a profound effect upon me. It brings about a deep transformation in my mind and heart, such that—joined with the deepening experience of prayer (as we will soon see)—I can yield myself more to the divine light every day and consistently throughout the passage of time. I rely less on myself, justify myself less, and yet am also, conversely, less bound by my shame and guilt, which can be such a crippling force in human life. Rather, the disposition of true humility is born within me: the humility of an abiding awareness both of the brokenness of my humanity due to sin (and my own complicity in this) as well as of the innate grandeur and greatness of my humanity, and of my unique person as singularly loved by God. Thus I come to take myself more and more lightly as time passes, not on the basis of my own supposed self-perfection, but precisely in the profound awareness that I am a sinner—a sinner who is beloved by God and has been redeemed by the precious Blood of Christ—and who, precisely in my poverty, can cast all my cares on the One who will carry me through the shadows of this life and into the undimmed light of eternity.
6) As I indicated above, the grace of the Sacrament of Mercy—as indeed of all prayer and love—is not merely a matter of the healing of my own heart. It is, in fact, a healing of the very fabric of communion and relationship that is meant to permeate the entire created universe in the likeness of the Persons of the Trinity. The grace poured out in absolution takes profound dimensions of my humanity—in its inseparable relationship with the humanity of every other person in the Body of Christ and in the world itself—and does something;it effects profound healing and transformation in this mysterious place where human hearts surge together in the living space of the Heart of Christ, and where all of our acts, for good or ill, have an effect on other persons. For all, in the end, needs to be set right. The contrite heart knows this, knows that every sin sends ripples of hurt, not only towards those whom it immediately effects, but also throughout the invisible fabric of the universe. Every sin strengthens the forces of evil and darkness in this world, just as every act of authentic love and goodness strengthens the work of good and light. And if every sin sets in effect a chain reaction of ills and harm, then the intervention of God, and of human hearts cooperating with God, is necessary to counteract this force of evil in the world. God must enter into this torn fabric caused by sin, and twitch together the threads again in authentic loving relationship, so that the broken Trinitarian order—which sin directly opposes—may be restored. And the sacrament is given to us precisely in order to be a profound aid in the restoration. In other words, to receive the Sacrament of Mercy is to cooperate in healing the very fabric of the universe, woven together between my heart and the heart of every other person within the heart of the Trinity!
This is the great beauty of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and indeed of all the sacraments. They are forces for good in a world permeated by a multitude of evils. And at the root of every evil is the evil of sin, the wickedness that sets itself against the goodness and love and mercy of God. For every sin, in its inner core, is anti-love, it is anti-vulnerability and anti-intimacy. It is the corruption of what it means to be human, a degradation of the image and likeness of God, and a twisting away from the Trinitarian order of the universe into a universe that is anti-Trinitarian. For sin would create a world in which every individual is for himself against others, in which the autonomous “I” rules the day in pride, possessiveness, and pleasure-seeking, in fear and control, and in which the dignity of each incomparable person is crushed under the law of power and domination. This—this is why God has given his Son, to suffer with us and for us the very agonizing effects of our own sins: precisely so that, by his loving presence in the darkest place, he can break the shackles of sin and evil, and can pour forth his own Trinitarian life into our world. This surging current of the Trinity’s life—pouring forth through the opened side of Christ from which blood and water flowed as he hung upon the Cross—is the Good that will overcome all evil, the Beauty that will conquer all ugliness, the Truth that will dispel every lie, the Love that will permeate all sin, all selfishness, all hate, all disordered use, and will establish anew the reign of Intimacy in the likeness of the Trinity for which the entire universe is crying out!
Yes, this is the beautiful current of life that flows into our hearts through the Sacrament of Mercy, flooding into our being and permeating us, in all of our existence and all of our faculties. And this flood of love and mercy works to set right all that sin has set wrong, not only in our own lives but in our intersection with the lives of others, until all is healed, restored, and consummated in the new creation, where all sin, suffering, and rupture of relationship will be no more, and where, rather, all will be fulfilled, in utter security and peace, in the innermost embrace of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
*I think of the oft-quoted phrase of Freud, who said that he would lose 90% of his patients if they instead chose to frequent the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This is because the human heart cannot bear to live in perpetual shame and guilt—which eventually begets self-hatred, self-alienation, and a psychic breakdown—and will seek to be free. This can be attempted by “justifying” oneself to oneself (rationalization), or with the help of a therapist (and “self-justification” always fails in the end), or by surrendering one’s misery to God and allowing him, by sheer grace, to justify one through mercy. This is the gift of Redemption, mediated through all the sacraments, and in a specific way through the Sacrament of Mercy. Of course, I don’t intend to speak against therapy, as it can also be profoundly helpful in combating the effects of sin, and the tendencies and fears that give rise, both to sin and to other non-sinful struggles in the emotional, relational, and mental life of the person. These are simply two aspects of a single reality, and should be treated as such, particularly so that a person is freed from the two extremes which beget emotional and spiritual illness: a pervading terror of sin, on the one hand (which leads to repression and scrupulosity), and a refusal to recognize sin and to take responsibility for one’s own life, on the other (which leads to a lack of agency and a narrowing of the “I”).
i. Adam G. Cooper, Holy Eros: A Liturgical Theology of the Body (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2014), 9.