Friday, March 6, 2009

Penance and Absolution

Father Christopher Walsh, in his book The Untapped Power of the Sacrament of Penance, notes that “penance is a sacrament that demands an authentic grasp of human freedom and responsibility. Only a person who is free can commit a morally culpable action. Only one who accepts personal responsibility can confess guilt and seek forgiveness.” It is a point well taken in a society which has a tendency to seek to blame others for our problems. We are constantly bombarded with the idea that we are victims of the society in which we live. We are told that society is the cause for all our failures. We see this all around us. It is the teacher’s fault I got a bad grade in the class. It is my boss’s fault I didn’t get the promotion. It’s society’s fault I committed the crime. It’s my family’s fault I act the way I do. My personality disorder is the result of the environment in which I grew up. Or, my spouse (or former spouse) caused me to do it, etc.

We all prefer to blame others for our problems instead of accepting responsibility for our own failures and sins. That way we can put a salve on our consciences. The danger is that in continually attempting to transfer the responsibility for our actions from ourselves to someone else we will come to believe it’s their fault. When we do so, we will never come to the place of contrition where we seek forgiveness and restoration. By covering over our sins we think we can put them behind us. Unfortunately, underneath they are still festering. We don’t realize how damaging this is to our souls. Until we take responsibility, we will never change and will find ourselves repeatedly doing the same things over and over again and again. And until we take responsibility for our sin, God cannot begin to change us. We become caught in the blame game trap of our own making. By living in that trap we will never confess. Therefore we will never hear the liberating words from a priest or minister stating “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Father Walsh says that there are three benefits of penance. The first is healing. Confession and absolution bring freedom and transformation. We are freed from the bondage of sin that shackles us. We are healed from the compulsion to repeat the sin over and over again. The second is forgiveness. Dealing with the problem of guilt can be a major cause for counseling. Unfortunately, unless we take responsibility for our actions, confess them and are absolved, we never experience the freedom God intends us to have. The guilt never goes away, leading to the need for continual counseling. The third is reconciliation. When we confess and are absolved, we are reconciled with God. Our growing love for him transforms us to become more like him, as we seek to live holy lives. This will also lead to being reconciled with each other.

Like anything else, confession can become rote, where we only go through the motions, confessing a litany of sins without much thought. How can we avoid this? Father Walsh suggests we ask ourselves the question “What are the obstacles keeping you from getting closer to God and experiencing his grace and peace more powerfully in your life?” As we identify them we must take responsibility for them. Confessing them, and experiencing God’s healing, forgiveness and reconciliation will make all the difference in our lives. Its time for us to ask: “What obstacles are keeping me from getting closer to God?”

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