Like all other Catholics who have been practising their Faith for years, I’ve been to Confession countless times. We all know that God gives different gifts to different people, even among those whom He calls to serve as priests. Usually the most we have to complain about is a “boring,” cookie-cutter penance of three Hail Marys (if you think that’s boring, just consider how tedious your sins are!). But, occasionally, we experience a Confession that is not simply uninspiring, but a truly bad experience. I had one such experience recently, and I will share how I dealt with it.
Over the weekend, I was blessed to participate in a retreat. The direction was good, the food was wonderful, and I slept like I haven’t slept in years. Indeed, I must confess I slept through most of the silent meditation sessions, so exhausted had I arrived. It was truly a gift in all respects. Of course, there was opportunity for Confession offered by a number of priests anticipating a large number of penitent retreatants, so I went. Let’s call him Fr Well-Intentioned, for I do believe he is a well-intentioned man, and he is very kind—dare I say, too kind? During the course of the Confession, Fr Well-Intentioned gave me the advice that I “shouldn’t bother” trying to set time aside to pray since I am a busy mother, and that instead I should find God in “the smiles of children and flowers.” Setting aside all amusement I took in his idyllic vision of motherhood full of meadowy frolics and grateful, angelic children, I became quite alarmed at this counsel, which raised a big red flag in my conscience, as well as a great fear.
In many ways, I’m a fair-weather friend to Our Lord. I have struggled for years with the discipline of prayer, and the recognition of this was part of what made me desire religious life before the Lord opened a different door to me. Recently I’ve begun setting aside time—maybe ten or fifteen minutes while the children watch Paw Patrol—and I have seen the fruits of it. The prayer time is always subject to interruption and incompletion, but my intention is to try, just try to offer a little of the day in a more intimate way to my Beloved. So, when Fr Well-Intentioned advised me to sacrifice this prayer time in the interests of my “busy-ness” I knew he was wrong, but I also knew that me, being weak, might easily take this advice from a voice of authority and use it as an excuse to neglect my attempts to build my spiritual life once again. Hadn’t I already tried his advice and found it wanting? Truly, the danger lay in his authority as a priest, combined with my present weakness.
Now, if that were all, I might have simply took the matter to prayer and worked through it on my own. However, Fr Well-Intentioned, bless him, assigned me a well-intentioned but impossible penance: he offered me a line I vaguely remembered from Scripture about how precious I am to God, and told me to reflect on it “until it sank in deep.” I was already confused and distracted by the bad counsel I’d received and didn’t think to ask for a more refined description of my penance, but as I was walking away and feeling confusion and frustration and even anger, the weight of the vague penance fell upon me: open-ended and ambiguous, I would never be able to walk away from the penance feeling confident I’d fulfilled it. It’s likely I’ve been assigned such similar penances before, but there was a time when, not having children, I could sit in prayer until I detected God’s movements in my heart that I’d done what I could. I do not have this luxury anymore. To assign an open-ended penance to a mother is to torment her. I’d say it’s a bad move on the part of the confessor regardless, but I can now say from experience that it is a torment to an exhausted, weary mother who can only clutch at the occasional prayer time and has no mental energy left for frolicking in vast meadows of prayer. Motherhood has made me wonderfully efficient in my spiritual life and has done much to detach me from my formerly highly emotionally-based spiritual life. Whether I feel God’s love for me or not does not matter so much anymore so much as I know that I am honouring Him. Not to say that I don’t prefer times of consolation, but when desolation strikes, I have no time to sit around and beg God to return to me: life keeps on going, and I wait for Him, striving to be patient and faithful in the apparent darkness.
So, what did I do? My first instinct was to go to another priest hearing confessions, a priest I know and trust, but his line was long and moving slowly and I was not sure I should take up his time when I had already been to Confession. So I called my Dad. 🙂 I’m incredibly fortunate to have a father who has been a true spiritual guide and teacher in my life and who knows Catholic doctrine thoroughly. Dad’s advice confirmed my instincts: this had been a bad Confession, and that I should talk to another priest. Dad went further to say that what I could do is try to fulfil my penance as best I could for about five minutes and then, at my next Confession, preferably within a week, tell the priest exactly what had happened and how I had done my best to fulfill the penance given me. This was reassuring. My dad is certainly not a priest, but as a trusted spiritual authority throughout my life, this set me at ease.
As it happened, I ended up waiting in line to consult with the trusted priest. After all, getting to Confession when I’m at home with my family is challenging and I could not commit to getting to a priest within the next week or two with any confidence. On the retreat I had TIME. So I prayed my rosary and waited my turn. I am so glad I did.
The second priest heard my tale (marvellous, considering the effusive tears that wouldn’t stop streaming), gently gave his sacerdotal authority to my desire to set time aside for prayer insofar as my family duties would allow, and invited me to give a mini re-do confession for which he promised he would offer me a very concrete penance with a start and a finish. And so it happened. I walked away with the taste of freedom in my mouth that comes when you know you have been forgiven and when you have been given the incredible gift of a tiny but (so to speak) tangible way in which you can make repair for your offences, a co-participation in your own redemption.
The take-away, in brief: if you experience a bad Confession, go to a priest you know and trust and ask him to help you.