This post is probably the most terrifying post I've ever
decided to share. It's terrifying to me on several levels. I feel like
I'm really putting myself out there for the world to see (not that the
vast majority of the world even cares to read my blog). I often worry
too much about what other people are going to think of me and it keeps
me from sharing some of the most important messages at times.
Sacrament of Reconciliation gives us forgiveness and healing in our souls.
NASHVILLE, TN - I live in
the south and my faith is of the minority here in Nashville, TN. This
post focuses on an essential Sacrament to my faith and I fear being
judged by my non-Catholic friends as well as my Catholic friends. I also
pull from bits and pieces of my own personal testimony so I'm a bit
nervous to share. Perhaps this is precisely why I keep feeling God's
gentle nudge, asking me to share a little bit of my story and my
faith...perhaps it's time to own my story. So here it goes...
post is a speech that I gave in March at The Life In The Spirit Seminar
in Ohio (where I grew up). If sharing this speech touches just one
life, then it was worth sharing.
Why are each of you here at this retreat? I imagine for a lot of you, you are longing to know Jesus more deeply. Perhaps you are here seeking forgiveness or trying to make a change in your life. Maybe someone invited you or even pushed you into coming - thinking this would be a great way for you to experience our Lord in a way you may never have experienced His love before. The point is that YOU are here for a reason. You are each here because God asked you to be here this weekend and you said yes - whether you were reluctant or not. This retreat allows us to see and feel the presence of God in our lives so intensely because for an entire weekend we put aside all the distractions and focus on His incredible love for us. For us! For each one of us! We've all been called to be here this weekend.
I want to talk about, what has been for me, one of the best possible ways to grow not only as a person, but also to grow my relationship with the Lord. The pathway for that growth is a wonderful, beautiful Sacrament instituted by Jesus Christ himself. That Sacrament is the Sacrament of Reconciliation (also known as Confession or Penance). I want to share with you why I have grown to love this Sacrament with my whole heart, now recognizing my incredible need for this Sacrament. Reconciliation is the true path to a deeper relationship with our Lord and the true path to forgiveness and healing in our souls.
Some of you may be thinking it's too late. You've already committed too many sins or sins too serious in nature God couldn't possibly look past them and forgive you. But guess what? God created you. Love is what God is and He will never stop loving each one of you no matter the sins you've committed. I once had a priest tell me in Confession to think of the worst possible sin I had ever committed. He then told me when I was committing that very sin, God still loved me with everything He has. That is how much God loves each one of us, despite our sinfulness.
His love is unconditional. You are ALL worthy of Christ's love, but it is our responsibility to ask for forgiveness and repent. To repent means to change. God wants us to turn away from our sinful ways and change. The act of genuinely asking for forgiveness is acknowledgement of the wrong we've done. It is owning up to the fact that our sins have hurt others and especially our Lord. It is proof of our willingness and desire to do instead what is right. It is humbling ourselves for the sake of our Lord.
As I prepared my speech for this retreat I was really focusing on forgiveness and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I've researched a bit and listened to inspiring speeches and have been so excited to share the beauty of this Sacrament with you. But then, just a few weeks out from the retreat and one week from my deadline to turn my speech in, I had a huge reality check. The whole time I was so focused on all the great things I might be able to share with you guys I was a bit surprised to find God had something in store for me during this process too.
If you confess with your whole heart, you will be forgiven for your sins.
I was listening to a speech on CD by Dr. Scott Hahn about Confession called, The Healing Power of Confession. Dr. Hahn pointed out so many brilliant things about the Sacrament, but then he said something that made me a little uncomfortable. He said we must confess our sins in kind and number. Kind and number? This made me look at my own life and the sins I've committed in a different way. I thought about the past Confessions I've made and I realized I've never been very specific. Instead, I was always trying to word my sins in a certain way that would take some of the sting off of the reality of my actions. I was sugar-coating because I didn't want to seem like a bad person to my priest. Now I had to get real with the idea of confessing kind and number.
But it makes sense - the reason we should confess kind and number is because the number of times you commit a sin may change the gravity of the sin. Bob getting in one fight in his whole life is very different from him getting in a fight on a weekly basis. Confessing the number of times you commit each sin gives the priest a better understanding of how big of a struggle the sin is for you and you also are able to see more clearly your tendency to commit specific sins. Keep in mind that Confession is necessary for the healing of your soul. How can you begin healing if the priest doesn't know exactly what you're dealing with? You wouldn't go to a doctor and make him guess what your ailments are? You'd provide him with the most information possible in order for him to help you get better. The same goes for the priest in Confession.
Kind and number. I dwelled on that for a few days and as I did, all of these sins I had considered as already having confessed kept bubbling up in my mind. The things I've done which I'm least proud of are the things I need forgiveness for the most and yet I've not been direct in the confessional. I realized it was because I had been in denial. For some of these sins, I had literally been in denial for ten or more years.
What's worse than sin? Denial of sin.
I hadn't yet assumed full responsibility for the sins I had committed. In my head I was still trying to place some of the blame on someone else. I was still rationalizing the sins I've committed. You know, as humans we can rationalize just about anything. We get to thinking too much and before long we've talked ourselves right out of thinking we even committed a sin. We laugh it off with our friends. We say things like, "you only live once." Well, we may only live once, but eternity is FOREVER. We even shift the blame from ourselves to someone else. We use other people as our barometer for sin saying, "well, if Johnny and Sarah are doing that, then surely my sins aren't so bad." But you know what? God doesn't want 'not so bad.' God isn't going to judge you based on Johnny and Sarah's standards, you will be judged based on God's standards. God doesn't want the least of you, he wants the best of you.
God wants my best.
That meant no more rationalization. I had come to the tough realization I needed to give a FULL confession - a confession where I could be direct and admit fully kind and number of my sins, no sugar-coating or skirting around the issue. I had to be direct. Until I did this, I knew the devil would continue to throw my past sins in my face. Talk about inner turmoil! But do you know the quickest way to un-arm the attacker? Take away their ammo. Something in me knew if I could own up to my sins, the devil wouldn't be able to use them against me any longer. I desired this greatly. I wanted to walk in God's Light and receive His forgiveness. I didn't want to be in the presence of the devil.
So I reached out to a priest I had come to know well and set up an appointment for a confession with him. This particular priest has helped me immensely in my spiritual walk. I was very, very uneasy about laying it all out on the line, but I knew I had to do it. So I prayed for the strength and humility to do so. I knew what the end result of confession would provide for me - a clean slate, a fresh start, the peace of God and growth in my relationship with Him. I was ashamed and embarrassed for my actions, but more than anything my heart hurt because I offended our Lord and never owned the responsibility. Jesus Christ, died on the cross for me and I couldn't even own up to my own sinfulness.
This Confession, where I bared it all and laid my heart out on the line, proved to be the most profound Confession I've ever had. The priest isn't there to judge us. He's there to act in Persona Christi - in the person of Christ. He's able to do so because Jesus handed this authority over to the apostles in John 20:21-23 where Jesus had resurrected from the dead and was with his disciples, saying, ". 'Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.' And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.'" Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into his disciples, handing over to them the authority to decide whether or not to forgive sins, hence creating the Sacrament of Reconciliation among the apostles. These apostles, who were the very first Bishops of the church, went out and ordained priests by laying hands on them and breathing the same breath of life - the breath of Christ - into them. We know this breath of Christ is important because there are only two times in the Bible where Jesus breathes his breath of life into something. It is first done in the creation story in Genesis 2:7, "the Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being." The other time the Holy Spirit appears as a breath from Jesus is in John 20 as stated previously.
In Confession, the priest wants to help us see more clearly the reality of our situation. The priest helped me to connect the dots on why I have fallen time and again and help me to see ways of avoiding sin - as I imagine Jesus was doing for all when He walked the earth. Confession is for us to heal our souls. It's not because God doesn't know what our sins are. God knows our sins before we do. He knows our every move and our every thought. We go to Confession because we were created with an inclination to sin and Jesus knew life as it is would be difficult enough for us. Confession helps us to stay the course as best as we can. The Church helps us to stay on the easiest made pathway to Heaven. The Sacraments are for our benefit so we can receive God's graces.
Through this one Confession, I found so much more love and forgiveness than I would have expected. In spite of all of my sinfulness, God still chooses to love me.
For some of you, maybe you haven't been to Confession in a really long time and maybe you are really nervous or like me, felt shame. So why is it sometimes intimidating to go to Confession? Because we are uncomfortable with our sins, but that is a good thing. It is good to be uncomfortable with the wrong we have done in our lives. Just keep in mind what Father Jason Brooks says about coming back to Confession for the first time in a long time. He says, "There will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents. Go ahead, throw a party in Heaven if it's been a long time since your last Confession. God is very happy that you are here. The angels and the saints are getting ready to party because you've come back. You've answered God's call to accept His love and His mercy."
So if you ever have doubts about going to Confession remember those words and know God is grateful you are coming to Him to rid yourself of your sinfulness. God is overjoyed you are coming back to His Light.
But understand this: Confession is NOT a way for us to have a 'free pass' on our past sins with an intent to commit the same sins again. That is not what Confession is about and an ill intent as such actually doesn't do our souls any good. In fact, your sins will not be forgiven in this case.
There are four essential elements to Confession which are:
Contrition - you must be truly sorry for your sins, detest your sins and resolve not to sin again.
Confession - you must tell your sins to the priest (remember to confess in kind and number - you don't have to say an exact number. Once, a few times, many times or so many times I couldn't keep count is sufficient)
Penance - the priest will give you a penance to help repair the harm you've caused
Absolution by the Priest - The Priest must absolve you from your sins.
If any of those four elements are not present, then your sins have not been forgiven. When you come to Confession you must have a sincere heart. In that sense, it's no different than reconciling a relationship with a family member or friend. For instance if you lied to your friend and were confronted about your lie, what is the best way to seek out forgiveness from your friend? Do you think saying, "fine then, I'm sorry," is genuine? Or maybe, "I'll apologize if you want me too." No, neither way is genuine. A true apology must come from your heart. A true apology must acknowledge the wrongdoing with an intent to turn away from that act of wrongdoing.
Do you think walking into a confessional and blurting out your sins as fast as you can without it being from the heart is really the best way to approach a confession? No, because it's not likely to be sincere in that way. A true confession is one where you've examined your conscience in advance, you've acknowledged the wrong you have done and you desire to turn away from those sins. When you go into Reconciliation remember you are apologizing to our Creator for the wrong you have done in your life. If you confess with your whole heart, you will be forgiven for your sins; fore no error, no wrongdoing is too great for God to forgive if you are truly sorry.
If you have to cry in Confession in order to speak your sins, who cares? Genuine tears are an outward sign of what is going on in your soul. If you feel so remorseful for your sins that it moves you to tears, let the tears flow. Now, don't try to make yourself cry in a contrived effort to show remorse. God is bigger than that and God knows better.
Confession is set up for us to rid ourselves of our past burdens and not fall into the trap of committing those sins again. We are human, though, and we are creatures of habit so we do tend to fall victim to our old ways and commit those old sins again. That is why it is so important for us to go to Confession regularly. The Church requires us to go to Confession once a year as an absolute minimum. I recommend going at least monthly and perhaps you may need to go weekly at times. Regular Confession helps us to break the pattern of our sinful ways and become more sensitive to the sins we do commit. Plus we receive special graces from God through the Sacrament of Confession.
Perhaps some of you are struggling with the sin of underage drinking, which often leads to over-drinking or a life of drinking. I know about this particular sin because I struggled with it for a long time and I know it is a huge struggle for many people around here (Mercer County in Ohio) because I witnessed it and lived it and continue to see many others struggle with it. I began drinking while I was in high school and it seemed fine and innocent, and I know many of you will say everyone does so what's the big deal? Maybe your parents even drink with you or are ok with it. I once felt drinking wasn't really a big deal and it's not - if you are of age and if you know your limits and adhere to them without losing self-control.
The over-drinking in my life led to a lack of discipline and splintered my relationship with God. For years I never noticed it happening. I wish my eyes would have been opened to how that lifestyle could lead to a gradual separation from God. I'm standing here today to tell you it can and it most likely will separate you in someway from God. It won't be in an instant though; it will be gradual so you won't even see it happening. Most sins occur gradually.
My problem wasn't that I was an alcoholic and had to be constantly drinking. In fact, I almost never had a drink if I wasn't out with friends and actually don't even like the taste of beer or most liquor. Instead, y problem was that when I drank, I drank to get drunk. I was all about the drinking games and didn't think twice when it came to do doing a round of shots at the bar. It took me years, but eventually I began to notice myself grow uncomfortable with the person I would become when I would drink too much. Why? Because I would lose self-control. When we lack self-control the devil sees an in to our weaknesses and we become an easy target for him.
The drinking brought on all kinds of characteristics I didn't like in myself. I began to wrap my self-worth up in the way I looked or might appear physically to guys. I guess if you're drunk in a noisy bar, it's hard to base your attraction to someone on much else. It's not exactly the kind of love story I want to tell my kids someday. "Yeah, I met your father while we were completely drunk in a bar." I wanted attention from guys, but in this setting, it was coming from all the wrong guys and it was completely the wrong kind of attention.
My actions when drunk followed suit. I was less than classy most of the time when I was drinking and I no longer knew how to be a lady. My physical actions and the conversations I had would never have happened if I was sober.
If I felt I hadn't had too much to drink and didn't deem myself as drunk, I would drive home. The dominant thought in my mind was about how I didn't want to backtrack in the morning to pick up my car or that I didn't want to drop another $20 on a cab ride home after blowing all kinds of cash at a bar all night. How selfish could I be?! What about the other people on the road or the people in the car with me? Didn't I care at all about their safety? Complete selfishness.
These are just a few of the ugly traits I had become to take on because of the drinking. I didn't notice it initially; I just wanted to fit in with the crowd - with my friends - and honestly I really did think it was fun at the time. I think the scariest thing was realizing my perception of right and wrong had shifted.
In my heart, I felt the separation from God, but I couldn't yet place my finger on the cause. I began to feel a relentless guilt that would come with sinful words or actions because I had gotten drunk the night before. The hangovers and days spent recovering from the night before were no longer appeasing. One day, it hit me. I was giving a friend of mine a hard time for posting pictures of us on Facebook where I was drinking and carrying on while at the bars one night. In the pictures I was clearly drunk. I didn't want the pictures on Facebook. I am friends with family members and co-workers on Facebook that I definitely wouldn't want to see me in rare form. Worse than that, I am friends with the priest at my Church on Facebook and definitely didn't want him to see photos of me drunk. First I was mad at my friend about it. Then, I humbly had to realize it wasn't my friend I was upset with, it was my own actions I was upset with. All of a sudden it was obvious. I appeared to be a very different person in my every day weekday life than who I was on the weekend when I was out drinking. The person I felt I truly was deep in my heart, was not being portrayed in the correct manner through my actions. Our lives are one indivisible whole. We cannot compartmentalize our life. We cannot separate who we truly are. We show people who we are through our actions and our words in everything we do and say everyday.
How do you live your life? How do you spend your time? How does God fit into that picture? Take a look at your life from the outside perspective. The time and money you spend in your life reflect what you value. My time and money spent showed God was an after thought in my life for all of those years.
I got tired of living a compartmentalized life. I got tired of living with the effects of my sins. I knew I didn't want to carry that burden anymore and I didn't want to be that person anymore. I grew to realize I was made for more than a life of that. We are all made for more than that. We are made for more than going out and getting trashed. We are made for more than whatever our sins happen to be.
I'm grateful my parents raised me in this beautiful Catholic faith. Because of it and by the grace of God, I knew I needed to acknowledge my sinfulness to God. It was the only way to get some sense of peace and order in my life again. So I started first by going to Confession, which certainly wasn't happening often in my life at that time. Confession released the burden I didn't even know I was carrying for the sins I had committed. I began to feel God's true forgiveness and deep love for me. But going to Confession once didn't break me of the pattern of my sins. I may have been forgiven for my sins and really had a deep desire to change, but it wasn't that easy to change bad habits. It is with regular Confession that we are able to more clearly see our sinful ways and make a change. If we are not living and dealing with our lives on a regular basis, we get sidetracked and we put on our blinders. We become reconditioned to a standard other than God's.
Watch the quick video embedded in this page, which I created to help explain, "The Effects of Sin On Our Souls & Our Need For Confession" and then come back and finish reading the rest of this post.
When Confession initially became at least a monthly occurrence for me, it helped me realize most of the sins I was confessing were a result of excessive drinking and losing self-control. Through Confession, I was able to pinpoint the source of my sin and resulting remorse. When you become aware of what is causing you pain, what do you do? You eliminate the source of the pain. Confession helped me to see the source and to eliminate the over-drinking in my life. Now, I no longer get drunk because I know where that takes me spiritually and where that takes me with my words and actions. I know over-drinking leads to temptation to sin and opens the door for the devil to creep in. Frankly, I just don't drink much anymore and if I do I limit myself to one or two drinks so I won't lose self-control.
I didn't arrive at that awareness or change in lifestyle overnight - far from it. It has taken me years to realize what was happening and to begin changing my bad habits which often were a result of my excessive drinking. It's been a difficult road to change and I've wrestled with it on a lot of different levels. I've lost a lot of friendships because of the decision to stop getting drunk and going out at bars all the time. But what I've learned about most of the friendships I've lost is we really didn't have much in common in the first place. We just drank together and talked about superficial things rather than the grit and depth of real life. It was surface talk, nothing deep and meaningful. Now, what I get instead is far better than what I lost. Instead I get real friendships based on a real foundation. I get forgiveness. I get peace. I get happiness. And most importantly, I get a deep relationship with our Lord. And there is nothing that can come close to the fullness God provides.
If Jesus were standing on the right side of the room and Satan on the left side of the room, which side of the room would you choose to be on? We make that decision every day in our lives in everything we do. If you are walking toward Jesus, you are walking away from Satan. If you are walking toward Satan, then you are walking away from Jesus. Jesus gives us the free will to make this decision on our own. We have free will, because how much more does it mean when you choose to say 'yes' to someone rather than being forced to say 'yes' to them? Jesus wants us to choose to say 'yes' to Him in all we do.
God often uses stories of the broken to help another person in his or her journey. In the Bible, look how God used Peter. Peter was a man that denied Jesus three times as we hear in the readings during Holy week. Yet, Jesus chose Peter as the rock and foundation in which to build the Catholic Church. What about Saul who later took the name, Paul? Saul actively persecuted Jesus and had a complete conversion of heart and then went on to share the teachings of Jesus with all of mankind.
Look at so many of the saints lives throughout history. Many led lives of great debauchery and sin, but later had a huge conversion and went on to live the rest of their lives entirely for God. That is how great God's love is for us. We are all called to become saints. We are all called to holiness - it's not a calling for a select few - it's a calling for each one of us.
If you hear nothing else from my speech hear this: God's love for you will never lessen because of any sin you've ever committed. But we must make our hearts clean and pure. Matthew 5:8 (one of the Beatitudes) says, "Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God." We must constantly make ourselves ready to receive God's gifts. And when God gives a gift, He doesn't take it back. Our God is a merciful, loving God. He knows more about you than you could ever know about yourself.
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