The best way to learn about the history of the Church and the lives of the saints is to visit it. The week after Easter I took a pilgrimage to France. Many people think that vacations should not involve too many goals or plans, but we set out with an ambitious four part plan:
4) See something.
Sometimes it was difficult to fit it all in but we managed as best we could.
It bears mentioning that the Catholic confession is a completely different experience. Technology is almost non-existent; only the priest and the penitent and a screen between them, and you can dispense with the screen if you want. Anonymity is not guaranteed, in fact, it can be an intensely personal experience. The confidence that your sins will not be spread to others demands trust in the priest and in the Church who forbids any priest to reveal the sin of a penitent. The most intimidating thing about confession is, perhaps, the fact that the priest is not a silent screen. He is free to ask for more information; details that are easy to skip over to make the sin sound “not so bad.”
Yet confession offers something that other forms of self-accusation never could, reconciliation with God and with the community. There is no need for the whole community to hear a person’s transgressions, and if they are good people, they aren’t really interested. The priest takes the burden on himself, and hears the sin on behalf of the community and offers their forgiveness. More importantly, the priest hears the confession on behalf of God and offers his forgiveness, through a human voice and a human face.
The biggest difference between a online admission of guilt and Catholic confession is that the first is centered on the person and on their sin. Catholic confession is centered on the love and the mercy of God, made visible in the scriptures and in Jesus Christ. The sins a person has committed, no matter how terrible, are like drops of blood in the fire of God’s love. In front of that, our sins don’t stand a chance. Confession helps us to grow in the spiritual life, and the first thing we need to learn is that we aren’t really that important, and neither are our sins. It isn’t like we just committed a sin that no one ever did before. The second lesson to the spiritual life is that we are important to God, and confession is really an encounter with that God who loves us and is calling us to a greater life than what we have been living. This realization changes the nature of confession forever. Perhaps the reason why few people approach confession is that no one really believes that God loves them, and they think the best we can hope for is a big online hug.
I began my homily this weekend by noticing that something was missing in the chapel. In front of the altar there were an angel, and a shepherd, and a sheep, a cow and a donkey, and a man and woman who seemed to be worshiping a napkin. In the place where the center of the display should have been, there was only an empty space. So, I took a purse from one of the ladies at the Mass and filled the space with it. It was a large, brown purse and it filled the space quite well.
The problem with life is that something is missing. We aren’t sure what exactly we expected to find in life, but whatever we have isn’t what we expected. The temptation is to fill that space with whatever we happen to have on hand, whether it is food or money, shopping or movies, friends or family. In fact, the several weeks leading up to Christmas look like one big orgy designed to fill every possible crack in our lives with something. The result is a misshapen life, like trying to fill a nativity scene with a purse. There is a haunting beauty to emptiness, a beauty that draws the soul, but emptiness stuffed with the first available thing is like a woman who dates idiots because she is lonely.
With a purse filing the nativity scene, there isn’t any room for the baby Jesus to come. A full life is not able to accept the gift of the Son of God. Advent is a moment to take out what has been filling our life up to this point, so that we will have space for the Lord to come. The problem is, the Lord comes when he is ready to come, and not when we demand him. We have to keep vigil by the emptiness, protecting it from invasion, so that whenever the Lord is ready to fill our life, we will be able to receive him.