Sunday, 22 February 2009

Obstacles to Mea Culpa

A brief rant.

Something that is increasingly becoming a pet peeve of mine, not least because I find it incredibly comforting (in a completely unhelpful way), is the way some priests insist on making excuses for you while you are confessing to them.

One of the most difficult phrases for a human being to say and really mean is, "Mea culpa." Very often in confession, I catch myself describing my sins and the circumstances in which I commited them, not to help the priest know best how to spiritually advise me or what penance would be most helpful, but in order to introduce hints of extenuating circumstances, or illustrate how much moral effort I had dispensed and how this particular sin was a small slip in a week otherwise characterised by virtue (thus encouraging both myself and the priest to view me as "defined" by my virtues rather than my vices, whereas in fact, in God's sight, I am "defined" by neither). This is a difficult habit to break.

Simply saying, "I did x 4 times this week," and leaving it at that (especially with a priest one knows well) is incredibly difficult. Just naming our sins, and doing nothing else, putting them out there like a dog turd on a plate- our natures desperately cast around for anything to salvage the ego, anything to make us feel better about ourselves, make us feel like it wasn't really all our fault- it was our circumstances, or the people we were with, or a bad habit with which we are presently struggling (note how we naturally see ourselves as the victim of the habit rather than the perpetrator of it). It was the dress she was wearing; it was the way my colleague always interrupts me; it was the fact my brother still refuses to take responsibility for himself; it was because she deserved it.

To stop saying these things to oneself (or thinking them) is incredibly hard. When priests supply the same excuses for you, it is even harder. When a priest says to me, "Well, it sounds like you were tired, so don't worry about it," this does not assist me to face my sins and repent of them. It just gives me another excuse. Worse, it gives me a reason to yield to that greatest temptation of our culture- the temptation of being the victim.

Of course it is possible for me to be the victim of someone else's sins. But I don't go to confession for that. I go to confess my sins. And assuming I have sufficiently examined my conscience beforehand and discerned what are really my sins, being treated as though I'm actually really an alright person who of course would never intentionally do anything really wrong is patronising, irritating and potentially spiritually disastrous. It also makes it that much harder for someone who has sinned grievously, knows they need to repent and is looking for genuine absolution. Forgiveness is easy until you have something to forgive. The absolution, of course, is Christ's and His alone, but a priest who is in the habit of minimising sins in the confessional, rather than dealing with them honestly and pastorally, is going to find things difficult when faced with a murderer, serial rapist or someone who has commited abortion.

For my own part as the penitent, as long as I have shifted the blame for my sins, I cannot repent. Until I repent, I cannot be saved from my sins, and any absolution will be invalid.

To own one's sins; to be able to say, "Yes, I did it," and refuse the reflex of trying to lessen their badness or my own culpability, this is what the Church asks- nay, demands- I do before I can be absolved. If one is not really sick, a doctor is superfluous.

The wonderful thing about finally doing it is that to be able to say "Mea culpa" is liberating. Once you have acknowledged your addiction, you can begin to be rehabilitated. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." While the secular world parrots on about "Catholic guilt", the Lord's offer of genuine absolution for genuine sins is an unspeakably comforting prospect.

Nerd Test says I'm a Kinda Dorky High Nerd.  Click here to take the Nerd Test, get nerdy images and jokes, and talk to others on the nerd forum!

As I recall, in school, the epithet tended more towards "spock" than "nerd". Not sure if there's a difference of meaning or simply nuance between the two terms. At any rate, apart from the awkwardness statistic (which surely cannot be right), I think that's a pretty accurate assessment.