Tuesday, January 8, 2013


Last post I mentioned a reader who expressed interest in bringing the gift of confession into her own (non-Catholic) circles. In its way, this is  lovely. But Confession the way I understand it--and there's a world of difference between that small “c” and a capital “C”--is a Sacrament, the only possible two authentic participants being a Catholic priest and a penitent.

Now I find it very interesting that left to our own devices we do have a moral compass, a conscience, for it very much goes toward the idea that deep inside every man, woman and child is the fundamental idea of God. For years, in fact, I’ve availed myself of fellow sober alcoholics with whom to do general moral inventories on resentments, fears and sex. On that level—one broken human being to another; one sinner if you like to another—this works beautifully. In fact, this kind of being heard by (and in turn, listening to) a fellow alcoholic in large part led me to Christ and the Church. But the personal conscience, formed by nothing higher than its own lights, has limits. It’s one thing to tell another human being, for example, that you’ve had an abortion, if for no other reason than to get it off your chest, to say This is who I am and what I’ve done; to get in the habit of rigorous honesty; to cultivate the discipline of examining one's conscience. It’s wonderful to find no judgment—in fact, maybe the other person’s had an abortion, too—to find, There, I said it out loud and I haven’t been ejected from the human race.

But it’s another thing entirely to know that abortion is an egregious wrong and to want to be clean with God, to be absolved from it. That’s not going to happen in telling another person who may or may not see abortion as any kind of wrong. So early in my sobriety I saw there’s a general moral order and then there’s a specific moral order in which I was willing to be guided, to be instructed, to be obedient. Because once I got sober, I became very very interested in the truth: the deepest truth about myself, the world, the human condition. And I saw you can’t just make up the moral order as you go along. You can’t just go on your intentions, on what at first glance “makes sense.” Oh let’s just be free, we tell ourselves. Let’s do what we want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. Well, what does “hurt” mean? If there’s no objective moral order, there’s no objective measure of what it means to hurt someone. One person is going to think promiscuity is fine and another person isn’t. One person’s going to encourage cheating on your taxes; another’s going to call that stealing. One person’s going to think guns are the anti-Christ and another’s going to want to arm every student and every teacher in the name of loving protection.

Those questions are one reason I went into the law, but the law, being man-made, similarly has limits. In civil law we try to make people whole with money and in criminal law we try to make people whole by locking up the criminal and my experience, in the mercifully short time I practiced, was that nobody was ever much made whole at all.

So you have to have a specific moral order and you'll want to consecrate that order in time and space and thus we have the Sacraments. And we need people to administer the Sacraments and in the Catholic church those people are priests. The Sacrament of Holy Orders, in the case of Confession, protects the confessor from thinking he’s an oracle with some extraordinary or supernatural power of his own, and it protects the penitent from a priest who might otherwise interpose a moral code of his own personal devising.

Which means, and here's another interesting thing, that the worst sinning ordained priest could validly hear  Confession and offer absolution while the most high-minded layperson, male or female, could not. Because the operative fact isn’t that the priest is sinning; it’s that he’s pledged himself to an authority greater than himself; to dogma that plumbs to the depths of the human soul and that was devised not by him alone, that does not change from one minute to the next with fashions, moods, and/or political movements. Dogma safeguards mystery. Dogma is the Church’s way of saying, This is what love looks like: per Christ, via Christ, for two thousand unbroken centuries built on the Real Body and the Real Blood of Christ. We might waver but our True North is constant.  

I have many times sat across from, and told some of my darkest secrets to, gay ex-methheads, convicted felons, functional illiterates, and all sorts of other unpromising folks like myself, to truly great effect. I have become friends with many of these people; they have been deeply loyal and generous friends to me. But I’m not going to kneel before that person. That I want to kneel; that  the Church is built, in a sense, upon that very desire, makes me know that  my house is built on solid rock.

I continue to fail and  fall, but my house is built on solid rock.  



  1. Love love love this. One of my favorites. You're just beautiful.

  2. Love this so much. One of my favorites! Thank you, dear Heather!

  3. It is like my mind has been read by you, but you can articulate what I am unable. The fellow alcoholic priest with whom I did my first step asked if I wanted it to be turned into a confession, and I knew then that that was the reason that I chose to do it with him, rather than my sponsor. That was many years ago, but it took more years to come back to Holy Mother Church. I am home for good now. I know that difference between the 5th and 10th steps, and confession with the cleansing and forgiveness and mercy. I cannot even describe how much I have been touched (not a strong enough word) by this. Thank you!

  4. Heather, you're on fire these days. This is magnificent.

  5. Wow Heather. This is so incredibly beautiful - not only is it a beautiful exposition of Confession but of the priesthood, the Church and more. Your writing is such a gift - thank you.

  6. Love this!

    For some reason, your piece, Heather, reminds me of something that GK Chesterton wrote on confession --

    "[W]hen a Catholic comes from Confession, he does truly, by definition, step out again into that dawn of his own beginning and look with new eyes across the world…. He believes that in that dim corner, and in that brief ritual, God has really remade him in His own image. He is now a new experiment of the Creator. He is as much a new experiment as he was when he was really only five years old. He stands, as I said, in the white light at the worthy beginning of the life of a man. The accumulations of time can no longer terrify. He may be grey and gouty; but he is only five minutes old."

  7. Thanks once again for your gift of words and thoughts. You hit it out of the park again.

  8. "Dogma is the Church’s way of saying, This is what love looks like..."

    The entire post would have been worth it for this line alone. Thank you, I plan on stealing that!

  9. "I continue to fail and fall, but my house is built on solid rock."

    This reminds me of one of my favorite passages from Chesterton's "Ballad of teh White Horse"...

    Away in the waste of White Horse Down
    An idle child alone
    Played some small game through hours that pass,
    And patiently would pluck the grass,
    Patiently push the stone.


    Through the long infant hours like days
    He built one tower in vain—
    Piled up small stones to make a town,
    And evermore the stones fell down,
    And he piled them up again.

  10. Thanks, good people, so glad this struck a chord! I love pondering this stuff...new avenues always opening...
    and I so appreciate the feedback and support.

    On another note, I’m usually very careful about asking for permission to quote from an email but I failed to do so in the case of the woman to whom I referred in this post and the previous one (I've now updated the posts so as to remove the exact wording).

    I was wrong, I’m deeply sorry, and I wanted to add this public apology, as well as an assurance that I’ll be more careful in the future, to my private one.

  11. This is so moving, Heather.

  12. Proverbs 25:11 A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings ...
    Like apples of gold in settings of silver Is a word spoken in right circumstances. .

    Perfect timing. Thanks, Heather

  13. Thanks for posting on Word on Fire, Rozann, and again to all of you...I was thinking this morning that following Christ does not consist of a set of rules (though we will adhere to certain "rules" voluntarily)--it consists of a whole change in world view, in vision. We refuse to be victims, we don't always have to have the last word, we accept not getting to see the fruits of our work, and above all, in our better moments, we are grateful...That (unbelievably slow) change in vision is the real fruit of Confession, and of all the Sacraments...


I WELCOME your comments!!!