“May God Grant You Pardon and Peace”

This year my daughter is preparing for her First Communion at our Catholic church. Before taking part in the Eucharist, though, she has just celebrated her first Reconciliation, or confession. Naturally, my husband, daughter, and I have spent a lot of time the last few months talking about this sacrament, so now feels like the perfect time to put forth a few reflections on what I think it all means.

In Catholic theology, each sacrament constitutes a genuine — not merely a symbolic — encounter with Christ through the Holy Spirit. As such, the sacraments are believed to impart real divine grace within the person who is participating (provided he or she is doing so with a “willing disposition,” which basically means free will and a heart open to receiving God’s grace). It isn’t magic or some kind of hocus-pocus. The theology is that if the person is internally disposed to cooperate with God’s grace — because God doesn’t force Godself upon us — then the grace received will take root and grow within that person. If that grace continues to be nourished with prayer and action, its positive effects on the person will become more and more clear to that person and the outside world.

So I’m beginning to put myself to sleep with all this theologizing. The real question is, does it work? As the saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating of it. Well, in my experience it does work. But I can also say without fear of exaggeration that after my daughter took part in Reconciliation, I noticed a genuine difference in her that lasted for about a week afterward. I’d like to call it a grace bump, if that doesn’t sound too silly. She’s a kind, good girl to begin with, but still I noticed a consistently better attitude from her, more patience, more cooperation. There was a positive effect.

So what about this sacrament in particular? It’s relatively easy to see how partaking in the Eucharist could bring one into encounter with Christ. But with Reconciliation, we don’t take the Body of Christ into ourselves. Instead, we meet in particular with Christ as Shepherd. My daughter’s religious education program emphasized for the kids how Jesus is always their shepherd, who is willing to walk about the entire pasture to find them and to make them safe with him. They also emphasized the story of the prodigal son. In this story, the human father who unconditionally welcomes back his contrite son stands for God the Creator who waits to welcome us back with open arms as soon as we turn to meet him.

But since God’s forgiveness of sins isn’t conditioned on the sacrament of confession (especially where common everyday sins are concerned), why do we go? To put it simply, we go because it feels good. Even my daughter, with only seven little years under her belt, understood and experienced that with her first participation. It feels good because we are unburdening the weight of our negative thoughts and actions; we are surrendering them to God through Christ and then hearing the priest’s advice and assurance of God’s forgiveness.

This is spiritually and psychologically cleansing. In fact, it’s downright liberating. It’s peace-inducing in a major way, because you know that you’ve just taken ownership of your shortcomings, with no denial or excuses. You’ve simply admitted it: yep, I could have done better for others, I could have thought better of others, and hearing of God’s forgiveness sure makes me feel good right now.

According to the New Testament, Jesus gave his apostles the ability to absolve sins — to pronounce them forgiven on Jesus’ behalf. He said that “the sins you release are released, and the sins you retain are retained.” I used to wonder why he specified this. Then I thought of a couple of answers a little while ago. I can’t claim they’re the answers, but to me at least, they make sense. So here’s the first one. Sometimes we can tell someone we’re sorry, but they might not want to forgive. That’s between them and God, but what Reconciliation does is release the contrite person from the sin he or she is genuinely sorry for — whether or not the other person is willing to release them. Christ has released them.

There are other occasions, too — times when it’s impractical to ask the other person for forgiveness. For example, maybe I wasn’t having my finest hour one day, and I indulged some uncharitable thoughts about someone. Maybe I even muttered some nasty things about them privately. Sure, I felt like they were making me irritated, but it isn’t as if they ran over my dog and then laughed about it. I probably could have entertained fewer nasty or judgmental thoughts if I’d really wanted to. In such a situation, it isn’t really practical to walk up to someone and announce, “Hi, I just wanted you to know that yesterday I was thinking that you’re a real jerk, but I’m sorry about that so please forgive me.” It’s safe to say that would fall into the category of making things worse rather than better. Best to save it for the Reconciliation Room, if you ask me.

To pronounce the Lord’s “release”, the priest, acting in his capacity as Christ’s minister, repeats the words of absolution that millions of people have heard, and will continue to hear, across the globe, day in and day out, in dozens of different languages:

God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen!

Copyright © 2014 Elizabeth Keck

Lessons from a Not-Too-Perfect Lenten Fast

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, a day when millions of people from the world’s major Christian traditions receive an ash cross on their foreheads. The ash cross symbolizes repentance and humble recognition of our weakness, faults, and ultimate dependence on God, even for our very existence. When I received my cross, the lay minister who marked it upon me spoke the formula: “Turn away from sin, and believe in the Gospel.” I appreciated that “turn away from sin” was chosen instead of “repent,” which in American society carries more than a twinge of unfortunate Puritan baggage. A disconcerting mental reel of Jonathan Edwards banging his Bible and screaming “Repent!” is not particularly edifying (or spiritually productive). “Turn away” — which is really just a less archaic equivalent of “repent” — is also an exact modern English translation of the biblical Hebrew verb shuv, which is the most common Old Testament way to refer to the action of repentance.

But there is more to Ash Wednesday than ashes. It’s also a day of fasting and abstinence for some Christian traditions. In Catholicism, fasting is defined as an able-bodied adult taking only one full meal, plus two smaller snack-like quantities in the rest of the day, “sufficient to maintain strength.” Beverages are not excluded. Abstinence is defined as abstaining from meat, and Ash Wednesday combines both abstinence and fasting. The purpose of this is multilayered: (1) Our fast is meant to be a sacrifice, our offering to God, on a day that especially acknowledges our faults and our gratitude for God’s love; (2) The practice of self-denial helps to teach us detachment from (over)consumption; (3) Fasting teaches discipline but also bring us closer to God, since prayer makes fasting more tolerable; (4) Voluntary fasting gives us a taste of the involuntary hunger that millions of our fellow humans suffer, and should lead to our almsgiving out of responsibility to them, as well as a heightened sense of gratitude within those of us who have enough.

I began the day determined to carry out the fast and abstinence without blemish. I decided to schedule my one full meal for dinner. Now, I was doing pretty well with the fasting until about 1pm, when my empty stomach told me in no uncertain terms that the small cup of Greek yogurt I’d had in the morning (my first snack) had just about given all it could. Not to be cowed, I decided to down two tall glasses of milk. That bought me about another couple of hours. By the time 2:45pm rolled around, just about all I could think about was how hungry I was. At that point, nothing could distract me from it. My second “snack” turned out to be a medium-sized bowl of Cheerios. OK, not so bad, I said to myself. I haven’t really blown it yet. Sure, maybe a bowl of Cheerios is a little on the high side, but hadn’t a small cup of yogurt been a little on the small side? They probably evened out, I reasoned. Plus, the bowl of Cheerios will definitely make it until dinner!

And it would have. The only problem was that I couldn’t eat dinner — my one full meal — at my normal time of roughly 6 or 6:30. This was because I was sitting beside an indoor pool at a local health club between 5:30 and 6:30 for my daughter’s weekly swimming lesson (as a child, she of course was not expected to undertake fasting and abstinence). By the time we got home, it was 6:55, and I was now so hungry that I would swear there were big metal claws raking against the walls of my stomach. Famished, I eagerly scanned my mind for what would make a really satisfying full meal and last until bedtime. I hit upon the answer in an instant. Of course! One of our favorite meals: penne alla pastora, a recipe that blends crumbled sautéed Italian sausage with pasta and a small amount of ricotta cheese. It would be perfect!

And it would have been. Except just as we began dinner, my little daughter piped up, “But Mommy! You’re not supposed to eat meat today.” And there you have it. Having become so hungry from the fasting (the hard part), I had utterly forgotten about the meat abstinence (the easy part). It had fled from my mind like a flock of pigeons from a running fox. And my husband, who at the time was sitting in a night-school math class dreaming of a Wendy’s burger (and abstaining from it), had not been there to remind me earlier.

After my mind’s ears stopped ringing with the silent sound of my internal primal scream, I said to myself that — lesson learned — I would simply eat the meal and shut down the metal claws that were still scraping at my stomach.

What meaning did I ultimately make from this pitiful affair? For a little while, I felt very disappointed indeed that I so badly botched what I’d decided would be a perfect fast and abstinence. But then I realized that in my blunder, I had actually hit upon the whole purpose of the thing — the whole point that Lent is supposed to bring into focus for us. Had my fast been perfect, I likely would have missed it. Yet as it happened, my not-too-perfect fast threw into sharp relief the meaning of Ash Wednesday itself. We are such limited beings; we inhabit (for now) such limited bodies; we have so many weaknesses; we are prone to make so many mistakes, even when we try valiantly not to make any; we so often fall short of what we could be; and sometimes that falling short is willful and deliberate and even flagrant, and other times it is accidental and even unconscious.

We are flawed; we are imperfect. Yet we have God’s love anyway, and God’s grace too, if we are open to receiving it and letting it make its effects within us, to working with it and letting it change for the better the kind of people we are. Does the fact that we have God’s love despite our imperfection and weakness mean that we should just give ourselves a free pass not to become better people? Give ourselves a shrug of the shoulders and a careless self-assurance that “I’m just fine the way I am”? Of course not. That would be doing both ourselves and God a disservice. If anything, recognizing the presence of God’s love and grace should make us want to forget ourselves, and forget self-interest and any self-satisfaction, and humbly grow toward the light as a flower grows toward the sun.

So I am glad my Ash Wednesday fast was not too perfect. I learned more that way. Including some experiential knowledge (rather than only intellectual knowledge) of how hard it is to be hungry. But at least I could raid my fridge afterward. There are millions who can’t, and we who are more fortunate are responsible to them. Jesus did say: “When you feed the hungry, you feed me.”

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck