"It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution." ~ Oscar Wilde
Growing up Catholic, confession was one of the dreaded tasks I had no way out of and never looked forward to, but unfortunately it was one of the necessary evils one had to undergo at least once a month. According to Don Battaglini, confession was as essential before receiving communion as scrubbing behind one’s ears is before going to the doctor, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
For many years I didn’t really understand the meaning of confession. What could anyone – a kid, especially – have done that they couldn’t express directly to God? There were times I couldn’t even think of anything worth the three Hail Marys and the three Lord’s Prayers the good priest habitually sentenced us with, after we spilled our dirty little secrets of not listening to our parents and stealing chalk from the teacher to play hop-scotch after school. Confession really seemed a waste of time back then.
Then I grew up, and for the most part I walked away from the religion to explore other paths. No other system of belief I became acquainted with included anything similar to confession, but I was fairly impressed by something I read while exploring the customs of one Native American tribe.
In the case mentioned in the story, a woman had unintentionally killed someone and had gotten away with her crime. When she confided her woes to an old shaman and told him of the guilt she felt, the shaman suggested she should spend thirty days alone inside a cave, eating unsalted foods and following other practices to purify her body and mind. This way, the shaman explained, she would avoid future repercussions of her act.
At the time the story made little sense to me, but as years went by – and as I had the opportunity to witness other pertinent situations – I understood the wisdom behind the old shaman’s suggestion: A crime with no confession and punishment takes root in the deeper part of ourselves, and triggers self-sabotage and repetitive patterns later on.
Yesterday, I accidentally stumbled into an online discussion which confirmed this concept once again. A young woman explained she had a terrible time the week before, because of something that weighed on her soul. Initially, she was unable to open up to anybody about it, and gloom wrapped around her like a blanket pulled too tight, making her feel overwhelmed and alone. Then, she finally decided to open up to her family and friends, told them what was bothering her, and was pleasantly surprised by the outpouring of love and understanding she received. Suddenly the sun broke through the clouds that had darkened her world, and everything was well again. Once she saw that others were able to forgive her, she also came to forgive herself.
We often keep harmful thoughts guarded inside of us, afraid they will bring us shame, or leave us vulnerable in a big, unforgiving world, but in reality, the world is usually ready to forgive us before we are able to forgive ourselves. The moment we open up and allow ourselves to see that external judges are not nearly as hard as our own inner one, and the sun still rises and sets after we have let the cat out of the bag, the process of healing begins.
Guarding a secret requires tremendous emotional energy, and leaves us feeling incomplete and unable to bring conflicts to a resolution. Once the "confession" has taken place, payment of dues is the next step toward healing. It is not uncommon to discover that others have been down the same path and experienced similar feelings; suddenly we are no longer alone against an unforgiving world.
Of course, "confession" of one’s perceived transgressions is not an exclusive Catholic benefit. One can open up to a friend, to a co-worker, or even to someone they have just met, and unload the weight before thinking of ways to make amends. They won’t qualify to receive communion, but their soul will, in due time, soar to greater heights.