Rediscovering the Pleasures of Penance

Growing up Catholic at a time when everything you needed to know to save your soul was presumptively understood by everybody, there was never any excuse for those of us who fell short or missed the mark.  Having been carefully coached by legions of dedicated priests and nuns, where would the wiggle room be when you’d clearly done something wrong?   Which happened rather a lot, actually, but only rarely were you unhinged by the experience, since the solution was so straightforwardly simple. And it was always the same, too. Even for the nuns and the priests.

You went to Confession. Where, amid the dark anonymity of the box, the whispered voice unburdening itself of its own brokenness, you discovered life.

Only consider the goods God has given us. Such a plethora he has poured out upon us. Yet even among so many one or two must surely stand out. And what could be more heartening that having the capacity to begin again? “The only joy in the world is to begin,” the poet Pavese reminds us. “It is beautiful to live because to live is to begin, always, and every instant.”

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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For those who traffic in the realm of sin, remaining recidivists right to the end, absolution is the relief we long to receive. This impossible gift of renewal offered as often as we fall and feel the need to get up again.  “Here was the baptismal promise beating along the pulse,” explains Patricia Hampl in a fine essay reflecting on her own Catholic childhood. This quite “astonishing procedure,” she calls it, was no mere idea of forgiveness, as if absolution were no better than an abstraction, a bloodless Cartesian exercise both boring and ineffectual. Instead, she says, it was “an intense throb of liberation,” coursing through the self, which left one speechless with gratitude.  “There is no way to describe (to over-describe) the transport of being shriven.”

What the penitential encounter aims to accomplish, in other words, whether in that halcyon world back then, or amid the messier arrangements of today, is nothing less than total release. The sudden experience of the self blessedly set free from sin. Hampl, in an inspired phrase, describes it as “an ecstasy of self,” and she is exactly right. Because the outcome of those few moments spent unloosing the chains of sin, represents the fullest possible restoration of the moral life. “The unbelievable second chance,” she calls it.   “Nothing short of rebirth. Absolution returned the self to itself, back into the housing of the body and its mind—but new, fresh, ready to roll.”

Confession, then, is the key. And there is no other way to unlock that door releasing the soul from its self-enclosed prison.   It is the pivotal moment, therefore, the moment of optimal grace when, finding ourselves alone before God, we freely acknowledge our nothingness, and thus our absolute dependence on the mercy of God that we receive in confession.

And when it happens, grace having relieved the soul of its distress, we come away, Hampl assures us, “in possession of a wondrous discovery—that we are creatures born for radiance.” That in some unmerited way, the human heart was made for more—that, to quote a lovely line from a tune sung by Marie Bellet, “hearts were made for better things, they were made to catch the light.”

There are signs and wonders everywhere /
Joys and sorrows enough to spare /
And glorious mysteries in the air.

What that means is that even the most quotidian events of the day, all boringly set down amid so much unglamorous clutter, need not defeat or oppress us. Such things are meant to become a means of enrichment, a launching pad as it were, for an ultimate liberation. To kneel before God in the ritual of the sacrament is an event meant to suffuse the whole of one’s life with a palpable sense of his presence. That is the point, the whole point, of going week after week, of repeating over and over the sins that diminish the soul.

“In the hush of the confessional,” declares Hampl in her moving evocation of the experience, “penitent and confessor huddle in the dark, a scrim veiling their faces, as if the exchange between them were so intensely intimate that it partakes of the sacred, and therefore, like the face of God, cannot be looked upon directly.”

And, as always, what it requires is a special kind of journey, an excursion undertaken toward the light. Or, better yet, a pilgrimage implicating directly two people, one of whom is there to mediate the light, the other to receive its transforming brightness and warmth.

Perhaps the most profound description of the sacrament I ever read—certainly the most amusing—was in a piece that appeared some years ago in, of all places, The New York Times Magazine.   Written by Msgr. Lorenzo Albecete, it renders in the most hilarious detail the very first confession he ever heard.

“Look Father,” said the fellow who had just wandered in off the street, “it’s been a long, long time. I’m going to tell you things you have never heard in confession before.”

“That’s not too difficult,” brightly answered the newly ordained Albacete. “This is my first confession. Anything you say will be a shock to me.” The penitent then laughed, we are told, his loud chortling evidently causing those in line to flee at once to another line.

Fr. Albacete, however, wasn’t taking the occasion lightly. “The mystical tradition speaks of something called giddiness before the sacred,” he informs us, “a way of expressing the infinite disproportion between you and the mystery with which, somehow, you have become involved. I was simply feeling the infinite disproportion of it all.”

Well, what exactly does that mean, this business about disproportion?   Is there a pulse here that we need to take?   These are questions that lie at the heart of what nowadays we are taught to call the Rite of Reconciliation. And never mind what it’s called, what is meant to happen between those two people in that sacredly terrifying space, remains as deeply mysterious as the God who long ago designed the encounter.   Who is not, by the way, without a touch of irony, particularly in the disproportion he permits between so utterly over-the-top an outcome of mercy, and the strict requirements of justice which, were he to impose them, would so scarify the sinner as to leave him in state no better than that of burnt toast. But precisely because of that disproportion, the penitent is sent reeling gratefully from the box.   How can it be, he asks in a state of happy bewilderment, that a few contritely spoken words can effect so total an effacement of sin? So much so, in fact, that if I were to sit down with God and ask him to compile a list of every sin I just confessed, he would have to refuse. Why? Because he could no longer remember them. Because they no longer exist.

“Confession is not therapy,” Msgr. Albacete advises the reader near the end of his little piece. Nor is it, he insists, an exercise in moral accounting, as though God were taking inventory of our iniquities. God is not a numbers cruncher. So what goes on in that little box? “At its best, it is the affirmation that the ultimate truth of our interior life is our absolute poverty, our radical dependence, our unquenchable thirst, our desperate need to be loved.” And citing the great Augustine, who knew a thing or two about sin (also sanctity, which became the path on which he trod, finally, home to God), he reminds us that confession is ultimately a matter of praise.

His conclusion is so eloquent that I reproduce it in its entirety:

Confessing even the most dramatic struggles, I have found, people reach for the simplest language, that of a child before a world too confusing to understand. Silent wonder is the most natural response to a revelation that surpasses all words, a beauty that is beyond images; if one must say anything at all, what better way than in a few words that, in their very formalism, protect the infinite majesty of this mystery? The language of the inner life is a serene silence, a deep hurt, a boundless desire, and, occasionally, a little laughter.

Here is what I think. That in going to Confession, which I often do, I am carrying all the broken pieces of my life to God. And with as much humility and trust in his mercy as I can summon, I entreat God to forgive me. Which I feel perfectly confident in doing, thanks to the sheer wonderful transparency of the priest, who stands in persona Christi before me. And in asking God to put the pieces of my life back together, I give him reason to smile.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Confession” painted by Giuseppe Maria Crespi in 1712.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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