Someone I know rather well – perhaps rather too well for my own good – is trying to give up Confession for Lent. Well, OK, not giving it up altogether, but going less often than he does at other times of the year. My friend and I have been pretty close for 70 years, and I therefore know what a tricky customer he can be. All the same, I believe him when he says he goes to Confession at least once a week.
That at least is very important. In the week before Christmas, for example, he went to Confession three times, and between Shrove Tuesday and the Second Sunday in Lent he went four times. He has been known to go twice in one day, and last summer, when he stumbled upon some sort of revivalist Mass at a church in south London, he went twice in 30 minutes.
On that occasion the priest said he had a “tender conscience”. Perhaps what my friend really needs is Accident and Emergency. In any case, here’s how he reconciles himself to the Church: he goes to Confession on Saturday afternoon, to clean himself up before receiving Holy Communion at Mass on Sunday morning. Between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, he watches himself fairly carefully, sifting his thoughts, words and deeds for sin. He does not eat much and avoids adult entertainment on television. (You know: Happy Valley, The Night Manager, Pointless, Channel 4 News, Embarrassing Bodies.)
After Mass on Sunday morning he relaxes, and over the next few days allows himself a treat or two – half a bar of chocolate here, a hissy fit at Sainsbury’s automatic checkout there. He continues to relax until Friday morning, when he begins to worry about the Confession he must make the next day.
You could say that he does not trust in God’s mercy. He can’t go for more than two or three days after confessing without feeling that he ought not to receive Holy Communion. It’s not that he believes he is in mortal sin; it’s just that he cannot be sure that he is not. Caution is the better part of valour, he reminds me. How silly it would be, he says, to give yourself the benefit of the doubt and end up in the lake of fire.
He makes me think of the old Wee Free joke. A couple of boozy pals find themselves in hell and they look up to the Lord God and say: “Lord, Lord. We didna ken.” And the Lord God looks down on them and says: “Well, ye ken the noo.”
However you look at it, Confession has become a bad habit for my friend. He knows that to rid himself of this bad habit he must be brave and self-denying. If he was able to summon up the courage and energy to go to Mass more often in Lent – on Wednesdays and Fridays, say – he’d have less time between Masses to accumulate sins, and therefore, in theory, would find less need to go to Confession. So he has set himself a mid-Lenten challenge: to get through from the Third Sunday in Lent to Laetare Sunday without going to Confession.
What a miserable sod my friend is. Sometimes when I look at him I see that his close-set eyes are watering with self-pity and resentment. Why not immerse yourself in the Year of Mercy? I ask. “Yeah, right,” he says. He’s had a nasty experience with mercy on the eve of St Blaise’s Day. He confessed to a priest that he “might” have been guilty of a sin against truth as a result his use of irony and hyperbole in a magazine article.
The priest asked him to be more specific. “OK,” said my friend. “See, about 30 years ago I was in New York and …” The priest said: “You’re wasting my time.” My friend was given absolution, however, and as his penance was asked to recite the Way of Mercy. He did so, but his heart was not in it. He spent much of the 10 “stations” thinking bitterly about the priest (which bitterness he confessed to the following day).
Do I think my friend will make it to Laetare Sunday without going to Confession? No, I don’t. I know myself – oops, my friend – far too well to believe that he is any more capable than I am of the sort of courage required to place absolute trust in God’s love and mercy. The best we can do is: Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief. Still, that’s no reason for us not to rejoice this Laetare Sunday. In fact, it would be a sin not to.
Bravo, Boris! There is no stopping the man. We live in a time of accelerating history. This time next year Boris could be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Donald Trump could be President of the United States. Their first joint press conference would be the best thing since I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!