Catholic Confession: Paralyzing fear to new life

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Have you ever been afraid? I mean, really afraid? For about two years, I went through professional counseling for past trauma that induced panic attacks. That experience helps me relate to the disciples we read about in Sunday’s Gospel. After the Crucifixion of Jesus — the man whom they believed would liberate Israel — his mortified followers gathered together, shut and locked the doors out of fear.

Little did I know how powerful fear could be until I was a grown woman, hiding from my emotions in my bedroom closet with the door closed. I would sit on the floor and cover my head with my arms, the fear was so intense. How could I hide from it? I couldn’t. My wounds would taunt me, ‘You cannot escape us. We have marked you forever. You will never be whole again; always wounded.’

Imagine the disciples going through a similar struggle, when suddenly

Jesus came and stood in their midst
and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.

Exposing his glorified wounds, Jesus shows them that he has heard the taunts and jeers of woundedness and fear. But he proves that wounds do not have the last laugh. By exposing his wounds, Jesus says, ‘I have been through hell. Yet here I am, more alive than ever before. I have peace, and I give it to you.’

The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

That moment must have been when the disciples realized: the Messiah did not come to conquer political forces, or lands, as they once thought. He did not come to reign in a fortress of stone. Jesus, God’s Chosen One, came for the ultimate victory: to free human hearts from fear. He came to reign in hearts. This was God’s Master Plan; a plan to free all of humanity from the ultimate enslavement — the interior kind.

Blessed is Sunday, for on it were opened the gates of paradise so that Adam and all the exiles might enter it without fear. (Catechism of the Catholic Church pp. 1167)

This is what the disciples must have known at that moment, and so they rejoiced.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”

When I would sit in the darkness of my closet, writhing from the torture of emotional wounds, one of the worst pains I felt were feelings of guilt and shame. Feelings of having permanently lost my dignity and beauty and freedom.

In the Gospel, the apostles — men who had known the dank prison cells of fear, and experienced the liberation of Christ’s victory over wounds — are now empowered and sent to liberate others. Jesus charges them to go and break the shackles of fear, for those who wish to be free.

For Freedom, Christ Set You Free

My encounter with Jesus and his glorified wounds was (and continues to be) so important in my salvation, my healing, my liberation. That is why I am so grateful for the ‘birthday of the Church’ which Christians celebrated Sunday. Pentecost marks fifty days after the Passover; a Jewish feast called Shevuot commemorating God giving the Torah to his people. For Christians, we celebrate that First Covenant and the New Covenant; on Pentecost, God poured out the Holy Spirit on the apostles, fulfilling his promise:

But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days… I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33)

So, why am I grateful for this day? Because when the apostles received the Holy Spirit, they were empowered to go out and free hearts likewise. They became ekklesia — people sent out (translated “church”). Today, the Church exercises this mission especially through the sacraments.

As I went through years of counseling, I also participated in the Sacrament of Confession, which is called a Sacrament of Healing and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I’m sad — and frustrated — that Confession is poorly (and grossly) depicted in pop culture, because I and countless others have there encountered Jesus and his glorified wounds.

Confession is often portrayed as dark, eerie, and devoid of emotion. I did associate those things with Confession once; when I felt trapped in an abusive relationship for over a year. My life was like a maze I couldn’t escape; I often felt like I was living a nightmarish Groundhog Day. As the weeks and months went by, I would visit Confession more frequently than before. I hated that I could not seem to escape this nightmarish cycle of hurt. That’s when I began to associate Confession with self-loathing.

Finding Freedom

A miracle released me from that relationship. But I still carried intense, negative, emotional baggage associated with Confession. Thus began my uphill battle to separate that baggage from the reality of Confession.

Thanks to professional help, hard work, and prayer, my experience of Confession now reflects what Confession truly is: light-filled, loving encounters with a God who loves more truly and beautifully than anyone else.

Unfortunately, I have heard many Catholics say: “People today go to therapists and unload all their problems, but Catholics don’t need that; we have Confession!” I admire their enthusiasm, but this attitude can be very dangerous. Confession is absolutely a place of healing. At the same time, God chooses to heal us in many ways. I hope that, if you are a Catholic who experiences intense fear, anxiety or shame, you’ll seek out a Catholic counselor. (This can feel embarrassing, but is entirely worth your effort.) He or she can help you shed light on the source of your pain and become free from any misplaced guilt or shame that may weigh you down.

Through counseling paired with the Sacraments of Confession and Eucharist, I realized: God wants me to be healed and free. He wants that for you, too.

Confession, experienced in a healthy manner, is truly a Sacrament of Healing. Jesus comes and offers you true peace. He shows you the wounds he suffered so that you don’t have to suffer them, too. He shows you that those wounds are glorified. He offers you a life that is new and fully-alive.

I pray that you will take his hand today.

Heal our wounds, our strength renew;
On our dryness pour your dew;
Wash the stains of guilt away
– Pentecost Sequence

"The Incredulity of St. Thomas" by Caravaggio (1602)

“The Incredulity of St. Thomas” by Caravaggio (1602)

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