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Continuous renewal

30 November, 1999

“In the sacrament of reconciliation we have a special instance of the Lord’s gracious invitation to approach him with confidence in our difficulties.” Fr Bernard McGuckian answers some of the queries of an inquirer.

I regularly go to confession. I have the intention of not committing the same sins again, but fail miserably. I lose heart and am reluctant to return to confession, to confess the same sins again. Does this mean that I am not truly sorry in the first place? Karen

Some very holy people have had a similar problem to your own. They wondered why they kept failing repeatedly in spite of having what seemed to them to be the best will in the world. Among them was St. Gertrude the Great (c.1256-1302). She was gifted with revelations and apparitions of the Sacred Heart similar to those some centuries later of St. Margaret Mary (1647-1690).

In her complaint to the Lord during one of these apparitions, Gertrude questioned why He, although All Powerful, left her with her shortcomings in spite of her desire to be perfect. In reply He put a question to her. ‘Gertrude, when you get dirt on your finger, what do you do?’ ‘I wash it off.’ ‘Do you do so by simply washing your finger?’ ‘No. I wash both my hands completely.’

From this simple example, she learned that the Lord wanted her to turn to Him frequently in the Sacrament of Penance. ‘It is here,’ she was told, ‘that I wash your whole being ever more completely in My Precious Blood.’


Saintly awareness
Going regularly to confession is something highly commendable. Paradoxical as it might seem, the people who had most recourse to this sacrament through history are the people known for their holiness rather than their sinfulness. Like the rest of us they shared the human condition where ‘the just man falls seven times a day’ (Prov. 24:16).

Indeed it was awareness of their ongoing need for God’s mercy and grace that led these saintly people to avail frequently of the sacrament. This fidelity proved to be a ladder helping them to rise above their human limitations and to advance in the ways of God.

St. Francis de Sales went every day. On one occasion a very patient Dominican father had to listen to St. Ignatius of Loyola while he took three days to confess his sins!

Forward movement
Your tendency ‘to lose heart’ and ‘reluctance to return to confession’ does not seem to have put you off totally. You are to be congratulated on this. You have not given in to these tendencies to the extent of giving up. Although the experience may seem to you to be a case of ‘one step forward, two back’, it is more likely that it is a case of ‘two steps forward, one back’. This, in fact, is an advance of ‘one step’ every time.

In the life of the spirit there is no standing still. We are either going forward or slipping back. Your regular confessions indicate movement in the right direction. This is an ongoing humble admission that, like all the rest of us, you are a sinner in need of God’s mercy. Your heart is in the right place.

Our need for God
People, like yourself, who find themselves upset at having to continually confess the same failings are not normally accusing themselves of grave wrongs like perjury, torture, robbery with violence or murder. The shortcomings in question are more of weakness than malice. This experience of our frailty has the advantage of making us more and more aware of our need for God. ‘Without Me you can do nothing’ (Jn.15:5).

In the Sacrament of Reconciliation we have a special instance of the Lord’s gracious invitation to us all to approach him with confidence in our difficulties. ‘Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest’ (Mt. 11:28). There is no greater burden than the guilt of sin and few gifts are greater than delivery from it.

Basic requirement
A simple but essential requirement for confession to be effective and fruitful is sorrow. However there are degrees of sorrow. Venerable Matt Talbot was an incorrigibly excessive drinker until he was twenty-eight years of age. He was so sorry for his sins of intemperance and so grateful to God for his deliverance that he set about living out his thankfulness in a most extraordinary life of prolonged prayer, relentless fasting and unstinting almsgiving.

Few of us are called to or given the grace to live such a radical life. The slightest hint of sorrow seems to satisfy God. The fact that we fall again later through human weakness does not mean that we were not sorry. We show that our sorrow is genuine by getting up once more, confessing and beginning all over again.

God is not a taskmaster. He is a gentle father who cares for us all and indeed knows each one of us better than any earthly father knows his children. ‘He knows of what we are made, he remembers that we are dust’ (Ps.103:14). All he asks is a reasonable service. 

This article first appeared in The Messenger (March 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.


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