In 2012, Leah Libresco, a data analyst for FiveThirtyEight and a well-known atheist blogger, announced she was converting to Catholicism — stunning her readers and fellow atheists. On her Patheos blog, Unequally Yoked, and in a new book, “Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer,” Libresco explains her journey through seven forms of classic Catholic prayer.
This is an excerpt from Chapter 2, on confession.
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Confession has a tendency to fade into the background of Catholic life. My friends would bring up a hymn or a homily that touched them or talk about the consolation a certain prayer had brought them, but when they talked about Confession, if it was mentioned at all, the tone tended to be generically thankful. Even if it were permissible to discuss what happens in the confessional in detail, I still wouldn’t expect to hear much about it. The reason is simple: no other sacrament is premised on our screwups….
After my conversion, once confession became something I did, not just something I theorized about, I was surprised to find that it was my favorite sacrament. Confession reminds me of the orders of cloistered, contemplative nuns. Unlike their active sisters, they’re seldom seen outside the cloister, and they can slip from our minds, but their lives of constant prayer support and inspire the religious brothers and sisters who come out to meet us in the world.
Confession’s quiet, secluded grace strengthens me to seek out all other graces.
Before I experienced sacramental grace of Confession for myself, I had expected that, the less frequently I had to go to Confession, the lighter and freer I would feel. I was partially right. There is a kind of lightness that comes with not having gone to Confession in a while, but it isn’t a feeling of freedom. It’s more like the lightness of being unmoored or untethered: I am free insofar as I am not attached to anything, but that’s a pretty precarious way to exist.
If I let a long time pass between visits to the confessional, putting off the sacrament until I commit a mortal sin, the venial sins I’ve committed become fuzzier and more indistinct in my memory and feel less consequential. However, that doesn’t free me from their effects; the people I’ve slighted or scorned are still hurt, and the distance I’ve opened up between my conscience and my actions makes it harder for me to repent, learn, and make amends….
Confession strikes me as the most “small-c” catholic of all the sacraments, which is to say the most universal. Only the Orthodox and a few Protestant sects offer their worshipers confession with a priest, but the need for confession is recognized by everyone, Christian or not. We all acknowledge that we fall short of being the people we ought to be, even if we wouldn’t all phrase it quite as Paul did when he asserted that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23) …. Catholicism isn’t unique in diagnosing our weakness, but it is unusual in offering us a treatment….
It helps me, when reflecting on my sins makes me queasy, to remember that I do want to experience and acknowledge this feeling. My regret is a gift; it helps direct me away from sin and toward the healing promised in the sacraments, including the one I am about to receive. If I forget that, or have trouble believing it, I just imagine what the alternative would be like.
An insensitivity to any moral pain and disorder I leave in my wake would ultimately be just as destructive as congenital analgesia — a condition that leaves its sufferers unable to feel physical pain. Although I might envy that defect at the moment I accidentally slam a door on my hand, pain is a valuable source of information. People with analgesia have to vigilantly fill the sentry role that their nervous system has abdicated; otherwise, they could leave their hand on a hot stove, unaware they were being burned until their noses told them what their pain receptors could not.
As I am, my moral senses lie somewhere in between the responsiveness of my physical senses and those of a person with analgesia. I sometimes have a split-second reaction to sinning, but it’s not as noisy as the reaction I have to spilling hot oil on myself at the stove. I can’t rely on my moral reflexes alone to protect me from moral danger. I depend on more deliberate reflection to be able to notice the injuries I do to myself and others and to have the opportunity to treat them.
So when the confessional forces me to acknowledge the gravity of my sin, I try to remain attentive to the feelings of loss and guilt that wash over me. My overprotective brain tempts me to hide from the ache or minimize it through rationalization, but I remind myself that I’m here to experience the pain in order to learn from it. Confession is the moment when I finally stop ignoring or muting the signals that God’s grace has been sending me. It’s the moment when I stop behaving like the little girl who falls down and gashes her knee, but keeps her eyes screwed up shut so she doesn’t have to see how serious the cut is. I can only seek healing for the wounds I’ve caused if I’m willing to look at them….
Usually, the hardest part of Confession for me comes after I’ve listed my sins, when the priest assigns penance. I typically feel that the prayers he tasks me with are too light, that my confession hasn’t been fair. And I’m right, sort of. The penance I’m given isn’t fair, it’s merciful. My Our Fathers or Hail Marys don’t counterbalance the harm I’ve done to others, and they don’t magically render me innocent. What they do is give me a way to cooperate with the grace that Christ is offering, in restoring me to communion with him. My penance is more akin to the “Thank you so much” we offer in response to a gift than to the payment we offer to close out a debt….
Confession isn’t a trade in which I barter my regret for forgiveness. My repentance doesn’t make me deserve this gift; it just means I’ve stopped hiding from Christ’s mercy and started cooperating …. When I go to Confession, I remind myself that full healing does not and cannot depend on me alone. My job is not to mend, but to allow the Holy Spirit to help me identify the problem and to submit myself to treatment….
Once I take an honest look at my sins, preparing for Confession helps me understand not only my faults but my whole nature, as God made it …. Before I prepare to confess, I’m a lot more likely to view some parts of my sin as a natural part of my self. But when I say something like “I’m just a testy person” and speak about that fault as if it were part of my identity, I’m also implicitly attributing that sin to God’s identity. If a tendency to sin were part of my spirit, rather than a malformation to be pruned away, it would necessarily have been shaped by God and have a share in his divine nature.
If I stop writing my sin into my soul, God turns out to be bigger and more beautiful than I let myself imagine. As I enumerate faults in Confession, the freedom from sin that Christ died to bring us becomes achingly specific. He died to free me from gossiping and contempt and anger. None of these is permanent; he made it possible to live without them….
Confession aids us in our vocation to sainthood by transfiguring our sins through grace. When I arrive to confess, I am wounded. When I leave, I am healed, but I still may carry the marks of what I’ve done. And yet, that spiritual scar isn’t a purely sad memento, a reminder only of where I was pierced by sorrow and anger. In that scar, I can also see where Christ touched me, brought the edges of the wound back into alignment, and held them until they healed.
The way Jesus mends me reminds me of a Japanese ceramics technique called kintsugi, in which valuable ceramics that are cracked or broken are fixed using a very unusual glue. The craftsman mixes gold dust with a special resin and uses this adhesive mixture to fill in the new cracks or to piece the entire pot back together. After the bond has set, the crack is still visible, but now it resembles a vein of pure gold. This is a kind of mending that draws attention to itself.
In Confession, God mends the wound of my sin with his grace, and the resulting scar can be beautiful. The shining brand that remains is a gift; a reminder that I depend on God’s mercy, and that his mercy is free for the asking. This kind of healing means that I can’t think of my original sin in isolation from the forgiveness that was offered to me. The vein of Christ’s love twines through my regret and penitence, keeping them from sliding into despair. … The evidence of a previous intervention helps me avoid thinking of myself as too mired in error to be worth helping.
My experiences in the confessional remind me that fallen man is forgiven, not perfect. When I’m on a prideful tear, I am like a pot spiderwebbed with cracks, achingly fragile, that refuses to submit to kintsugi because I don’t want to mar my own false image of myself as whole and undamaged. If I feel that I bear relatively few marks of Christ’s grace, it is probably not because I did not need the grace. It is more likely that I have neglected to seek it.
Scars, imperfections, and asymmetries cannot distance me from Christ. In his Incarnation on Earth, he inhabited and divinized this part of human life and suffering. When he rose from the dead, Christ still bore the stigmata and the other wounds he had endured on the Cross. Those marks testified to the torment he experienced, the reason he bore it (for our sake), and his power and authority to triumph over all miseries, including death….
The penitence that strikes me and marks me when I make my examination of conscience and receive mercy echoes the humiliation and pain that Christ bore on the Cross. The correspondence Christ offers us between his suffering and ours makes it easier for me to be brave and honest….
The pain I feel and even the misery of being “heartily sorry for having offended Thee” is transfigured through prayer and contemplation of Christ’s passion. I am only able to offend God because I have a relationship with him. If it’s there to be damaged, it is also there to be cherished if I make a different choice.
I can make the first steps back in the right direction by cooperating with God as he forgives me. After I offer my little “Amen” to Christ’s work in my heart and walk out of the confessional, his grace is seeded throughout the wounds I walked in with, ready to be cultivated and bear fruit….
In our lives on Earth, we’re all weak and jumbled up, like magnets that have been heated or dropped, and whose component atoms have lost their north-south alignment. Just as an electric current can reorient a magnet, Confession helps reorient me, correcting and strengthening my spiritual orientation so that I’m pulled back toward God. A simple surge of electrical current won’t cause a magnet to sprout legs and wander back for another burst of polarization. But Confession, unlike electricity, can form a feedback loop, where God leads us to return to the sacraments again and again….
Confession primes us for all other graces by restoring our orientation toward God, so that we can follow his call through prayer, works, and other acts of love.
Excerpt from Chapter 2 of “Arriving at Amen” by Leah Libresco reprinted with permission of Ave Maria Press.