How close is God? Moses told the Israelites,
So God is closer than any supposed gods might be. How close is that?
Saint Augustine of Hippo opens the work, which we call his Confessions, with that question. He starts by saying that humans have an instinctive need to praise God, but he wonders:
Interesting perspective, about room inside ourselves for God. Prayer is calling upon God, but where exactly, if heaven and earth cannot contain him, are you supposed to meet God? What does it mean to call God into one’s self?
For Saint Augustine, bewilderment about where God is to be encountered keeps growing until he asks the great question, “What are you to me?” And then he writes, “Have mercy on me, so that I may tell you” (I.5). In what follows, Augustine encounters God. And where does he find God? Not beyond the universe, or beneath it, not even within, for God exceeds all that. Augustine finds God not in nature but in history, in his own story, in his recollection and recitation of his life. Hence the title, Confessions.
We have a sacrament we call Confession. Many Christians have no idea what it is or why it exists. We didn’t help when we starting calling it “the Sacrament of Reconciliation.” It’s a terrible title. Why? First, because our reconciliation with God is accomplished by, and within, Jesus the Christ. Second, because there is no single “sacrament of reconciliation.” Every sacrament is a sacrament of reconciliation. We never do baptize, communicate, confirm, ordain, wed, or anoint the sick without celebrating the reconciliation won for us in Christ. You can’t have an efficacious sacrament without reconciliation.
No, call it what it is: confession. It’s telling one’s story. If people understood the importance of that, they would understand the need for the sacrament. Failing that, they think the sacrament is some sort of celestial car wash for souls, and ask, why not hose down the Chevy yourself?
Confession is exactly what Saint Augustine called it. It is prayerfully telling God about our lives, so that, in the sound of the story, we see where God has been all along. We see that God has been stalking us, even through sin and sadness.
Think of Confession as the sacrament of story. You come to tell God your story. You ask God to make sense of your life. Sin has sown confusion, separated you from the very meaning of life, which we call God. As any therapist knows, the very act of gathering your story to share it with another already begins to impose meaning upon it. Grace builds upon nature. In Confession, your act of telling your story opens the way for God’s act of forgiveness. Put another way, we gather up our words so as to be gathered into the Word, the Word of God that is Jesus the Christ.
Prepare for the sacrament with these questions: since the last time you came to confess, what’s happened? By the way, that’s the purpose of telling the priest how long it’s been since your last confession. You’re not paying a utility bill. Precision isn’t the point. You’re giving the confessor the first glimpse of your soul. Hearing, “about a month since my last confession” prepares the priest for what’s coming. So does, “Father, it’s been many years.”
So what is your story? Do you feel closer to God or more distant? Why? Is there greater, or less, satisfaction for you as you survey your fellows? What do you think has been happening in your life? Why?
Thinking of Confession as "the sacrament of story" answers another question that many people have: how often do I need to go to confession? The answer is: do you have a story? Do you suspect you have story? Then it’s time to confess. When sense starts to seep out of your life, it’s time to tell your story.
Some folk come to Confession without a story. They think they’ve come simply to enumerate all their sins. Here’s the problem with that picture. No one can do it. Even the person who painstakingly lists everything hasn’t really reproduced the complete past, and the Lord doesn’t ask of us what we cannot give. If you can’t remember lunch last Thursday, how can God expect you enumerate the many sins of that day?
Confessing one’s sins is not liking scanning items at the grocery store: an item is stolen if it isn’t scanned. In Confession, you come looking for the Lord in your life and that’s where you will find him, in your story. Fine, be scrupulous and say, “And for all the sins I may have forgotten.” Truth is, that’s most of them. And what about the ones you haven’t even recognized yet!
Concentrate on your story. That will help you to recognize the deadly stances that underlie the sins. It will help you see the attitude beneath the individual acts. Remember, Jesus said that
When we say that a sin deliberately not confessed is a sin not forgiven, we mean that the Lord won’t break open a door we’ve locked. He won’t do that. In love of our liberty, he waits for us to come out and to tell our story.
Saint Augustine ends his Confessions—about four hundred pages in my English edition—writing,
What human can empower another human to understand these things? What angel can grant understanding to another angel? What angel to a human? Let us rather ask of you, seek in you, knock at your door. Only so will we receive, only so find, and only so will the door be opened to us. Amen (VIII.38).
Deuteronomy 4: 1-2, 6-8 James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27 Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23