Getting Back Into the Box; a Reflective Guide to Confession

The Author

Shawn is a twice widowed mom of two strange and wonderful daughters: Roise, 16, and Maire, 21. She is a Secular Discalced Carmelite with the Austin OCDS Community of St. Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, and a proud member of her home Bible study, the Pontifical Biblical Institute of the Holy Hippie Sisterhood. Shawn works as a private care-giver, and is a Catholic columnist for the Bryan-College Station Eagle newspaper. Her household, St. Anne's, includes dogs, cats, chickens, and a mopey teenager. Shawn promises she does take life seriously from time to time, and is hoping, by God's grace, to ascend Mt. Carmel, scattering many rose petals along the way just for fun. She does not ordinarily wear shoes. Who needs shoes?

When I first came into the Church, the Sacrament that stumped me the most was Confession, the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It wasn’t the idea of it. It wasn’t the theology of it. It wasn’t even claustrophobia. It was learning how to contain myself into this little ritual. This was difficult for me because of my lack of experience and also because I couldn’t seem to narrow down what it was right to confess. My confession should not be a wild arrow that misses the Heart of Jesus or a list that makes Him sleepy. I want to hit the bull’s eye and sink the arrow deep. I had a hard time with my archery for a long time and I think for Jesus, my attempts to participate in this sacrament made me a crazy moving target hard for Him to hit.

I had some memorable reactions from priests to my confessions that puzzled me: everything from, “That’s not really a sin.” to “You sound like a monophysite,” to simply bursting out laughing.
I needed to find a way to contain myself in the narrow field of what I was supposed to actually do with Confession in order to let it be the conscious encounter with Jesus that it should be. I realized going to Confession was not just about me and my feelings. It was something I did for Jesus and for the good of the Church as well. I really needed to find a way to hit the mark and hit it in a way that was more transformative and open to grace.

The power of God is not limited to our personal perceptions of course. But the Sacrament isn’t “magic” either. It’s a real encounter with Jesus and His merciful love. I need to participate as fully as I can.

“Art…consists of drawing the line somewhere.” (G.K. Chesterton) I needed a way draw some lines, within the ones given to us by the Church, and still have my confession come from the heart.

Over the years I developed a way of ordering my examination of conscience and my confession into a more meaningful and sensible form that fits into the confessional “box” better than the disorganized, emotionally based way I had been doing it before. Confessional at San Salvador Miss

First I ask Jesus what He wants me to Confess. It doesn’t have to be about everything in the world down to spilling my milk (not a sin by the way.) It could be about one particular situation God wants to work with me in. I try to be receptive as I think about my life. I pray to be guided and trust that I will be.

I write down the basic issues that come up. Then I look in the Scriptures and/or the Catechism to see what the Word and the Magisterium have to say about these things. I reflect on what I have read- especially a word or phrase that really stands out to me. A lot of the time I can see more deeply into a situation and where I am at fault, what graces and virtues I need to pray and work for, and where I need to make amends in my relationships, when I do this. I make a brief outline of what I have found out. Then I make a prayer about each sin I need to confess. After all, the priest is in persona Christi and this is a holy sacrament so why not make my whole confession a prayer? It helps me a lot to do it this way. I think I am more guided and I am more likely to find meaning and grace when I take my time to do this in a reflective way, making use of the Bible and the Catechism along with receptive prayer. Also this way I don’t lose track of what I am doing when I am there (as I often used to do.) IMG_0589

Let’s take an example of a sin I have often committed as a parent, though I’m sure none of you ever do; freaking out and yelling at my kids. The prayer I write out for that may look like this:

“My God, in Your Word, You have said “Do not be harsh with your children but admonish them in the Lord.” For all the times I have lost my temper with my children lately, I am sorry. Please forgive me and help me to be as gentle with them as You are with me. “

Or this: “Lord, You have taught through Your Church that parents are the primary educators of their children. For the times I have failed to teach my daughters patience and gentleness by modeling these things for them, the times I gave them a bad example instead by losing my temper and being harsh, I am sorry. Please forgive me. Grant to me the grace of patience and help me to do better.”

When I am in the confessional, I tell the priest before I begin that I have written out my confession this way. I have never had any one of them mind about that. Otherwise, of course, The Sacrament of Reconciliation proceeds as usual.

I do think a personal, devotional act adds to the experience, (as long as it doesn’t detract from it.) It can bring us closer to love, and give us a sense of the fact that we are entering into something sacred. My friend, Shawna, takes her shoes off and kneels when she begins Confession. I think that is beautiful. Things like that remind us of our devotion, give us the sense of the fact that we are entering into the sacred, and help us to be humble in God’s presence.

Like my friend, Shawna, I like to kneel too- not during my confession but during absolution. Why I don’t take my shoes off the way she does I will leave to your imagination.

There is a saying, “The narrower the field the deeper the dig.” That has been true for me in Confession. I don’t need to dig all over the place; just enough in the right spot, in the right way, to find that Pearl of Great Price that I am willing to sell everything else to possess.

Advent Advent Challenge: During this Advent season, make a reflective examination of conscience and go to Confession! Try making your confession a prayer.

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  • theCatholicgal

    Beautiful Shawn! I will take this with me next time I go to confession.
    I’m guessing you don’t take your shoes off, because you weren’t wearing any to begin with. ;)

  • Augustine

    Feet musk? ☺

    I just wish that there would be enough room in the confessional to prostate myself to receive absolution. Would it just be vain of me?

    • Shawn Chapman

      I suppose you could kneel and bow your head to the ground. Vain? No. Dramatic? Yes. What’s wrong with dramatic if it works?

      • Augustine

        Could the need for drama be vain?

        • Shawn Chapman

          Well I think it can. If you are only doing it because of that. But what you do for the love of God can’t be vain. With most of us I suppose it is a mix. But I think if something brings you closer to Love, never let worrying about silly things stop you. THAT’S vain, right? The saints were dramatic people. And why not? Their love was dramatic. Sometimes we have to quit worrying about whether we are supposed to do a thing and just go with it, asking God to purify our intentions and change us if we are wrong. Don’t snuff the Spirit, Dude! We shouldn’t worry about appearances either way I don’t think. Not even to ourselves sometimes. I say try it and see how it feels. If it seems right go on doing it. Fr. Dean told me the peace we feel about a thing tells us if it is right- even if it is the hardest thing to do or does nt come naturally to us. We may feel weird about a thing, but just know it is right. I think that is God talking to us, Don’t you think that may be true? Sometimes a hidden, quiet devotion is right, Sometimes I do think God is doing something with us for a reason. I don’t know what do you think?

          • Augustine

            My problem is not trying drama, but perhaps doing it too much! But to me this statement is: “[ask] God to purify our intentions and change us if we are wrong.”

            Thanks, sister.

          • Shawn Chapman


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