Make no mistake: converting to Catholicism as an adult after growing up in the Anglican Church is quite a culture shock. It didn’t take me long to discover how the two world views collide at the mention of just one word: Confession.
Picture me not so very long ago on the naughty step at Westminster Cathedral for my first Confession following nine months of the RCIA. I was about tenth in an ever-lengthening queue and wondering if the Catholic Church might want to change its mind about having me at this late stage. I recall feeling uncomfortable and a little bit vulnerable about being so visible. Do I really have to do this? I asked myself. I’m not such a bad person, am I?
That day I was still (just) an Anglican, part of a particular church’s family, a regular worshipper infused with all the cultural certainties of being a certain kind of Christian as defined by the English Church.
And yet, when I look back on the extent to which I have become assimilated into a new spiritual environment since then – over and above its rituals, worshipping norms and dogma – I truly believe that the strongest affirmation that I was right to take the plunge came when I first encountered the Sacrament of Reconciliation, only to realise what I had been missing before.
Oddly enough, it is Anglican friends who have prompted me to try to articulate why this might be so. So thanks, you Anglican sceptics, for pointing me towards far greater revelations than I could have imagined were about to come my way. Some friends said: “It seems strange to ask a priest for forgiveness when you’ve already apologised to God, don’t you think?” Others asked: “Doesn’t receiving an arbitrary absolution when you are free to repeat your misdemeanour seem like a cop-out?” Others still said: “Isn’t it unhealthy and bad for your self-esteem to dwell on what you might have done wrong?”
As I shifted down the formidable queue (it was Lent) there was evidence of preparation at work: people silently working through the rosary, consulting a prayer book or kneeling in silence. That we were there for a common purpose, while each was in an atomised state, gave me a sudden, chilling sense that there could be nothing worse, no greater sense of cosmic aloneness, than being in spiritual limbo or exile as a result of my offence. What a great leveller it is to be alone-in-company – in a similar sort of way to when we ask our brothers and sisters to pray for us at Mass. One person, one body.
My turn came. All you have to offer is yourself, I thought. Plus – and this was the biggest challenge of all – give the most forensically accurate summary you can muster of the misdemeanour.
This doesn’t come easily. Will he think less of me, I wondered, that man in the shadows? I’m afraid that was my first thought, in my vanity. That probably reveals an old Protestant habit of inwardly doubting a priest’s authority as God’s appointed shepherd here on earth.
A confession with a small “c” at this point: in some situations, particularly when I feel exposed, I resort to turning on some charm. I reminded myself that I mustn’t do that today.
Once I was sitting down in front of the grille, which serves to inhibit any force of personality (either my own or that of the other behind it), I could be in no doubt that nothing less than utter integrity was called for. This was no place to bring up extenuating circumstances or excuses, or I would simply be acting in bad faith and spoil the whole thing. For it was the most fundamental thing I could do, this getting to the heart of the matter – of myself. I was guilty: that’s why I was here.
But what is guilt expressed honestly if not a way of engaging with a genuine sense of humility? And what is humility if it isn’t a way of plunging through the fog of self-delusion towards, if not self-knowledge (surely the work of a lifetime), then at least a deeper sense of the self? Somehow it is this which elevated our conversation and put it on another plane, ratifying the presence of the priestly intermediary and confirming the whole process as both right and necessary.
The Samaritan woman at the well admitted her dubious past after Jesus “saw through her”. She recognised him for who he was, as we as Catholics are asked to recognise the authority of our earthly confessor who stands for Christ. But here’s the thing: the purpose of the encounter in the confessional is neither that I be understood in a worldly fashion (helping me to “save face”) or that I should in any way cower in abjection.
Rather, I am required to take up the grace on offer by accepting from him both mercy and a signifying penance, in order to seal the deal. As St Thomas Aquinas wrote: “In Penance something is done so that something holy is signified, both on the part of the penitent sinner and on the part of the priest absolving.”
Let’s just say that when I emerged from the confessional I was not only lighter in spirit for shedding a niggling burden I had taken the trouble to face squarely, for once; it seemed I could also be one faltering step closer to my Maker as well. How big was that? I’d laid myself on the line for much bigger stakes because this small but significant sacrifice on my part amounted to nothing less than a brief immersion in all the Christian fundamentals of prayer, forgiveness, mercy and redemption in one go.
The will to do better after my Confession seemed to follow me around after that. Or, at least, the determination to “ever try”, even if it means I shall probably “fail better” next time, as Samuel Beckett put it.
No matter. What better preparation could there be for the Year of Mercy that lies ahead?
Jane Taylor is the author of the novel Over Here (Thunderpoint Publishing Ltd)
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (17/7/15). Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!