During Lent being ‘all in’ with abstinence and fasting, works of mercy, and almsgiving seems to be something many will embrace. However, there is one aspect that is integral to Lent that some of us try to rationalize away or even ignore: penitence. It isn’t that we do not know we have sinned and that we need to do better, but rather the problem is that we do know and it embarrasses us. For some it is often easier to volunteer many hours in a ministry than it is to spend 10 minutes in the confessional. Perhaps it is because the awareness that we have sinned brings fear, as if admitting sin somehow makes us less worthy of being loved by God. Let us be reminded that we go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation to unburden ourselves and to receive grace, a gift our loving God longs to give. And second, God does not desire to punish us; rather, He wants to heal us so that we might be closer to Him. However, I think the underlying reason for aversion to the Sacrament of Reconciliation might be the result of a misunderstanding. That is, we confuse contrition with shame; we are ashamed of our sins and as a result we do not like admitting to them. But we should never fear or be ashamed of coming before our God of boundless mercy and never-ending love. Remember, God sent Jesus as the ultimate gift of love in order to reconcile us to Himself. And this is precisely why we should not be ashamed to claim His mercy with joy.
In our present society shame is quite prevalent. It is a weapon used by those of us who have unwittingly (or wittingly) given in to the culture of contempt into which it is deeply engrained and has become part of our ‘daily diet.’ Instead of discourse and debate, we attempt to ‘win’ arguments and make a point by shaming the other into submission. Shaming others is truly the opposite of loving our neighbors (which includes our enemies): Jesus commanded us to love everyone, not just those who share our views. Sadly, we all have been shamed at some point, and probably multiple times throughout our life. It is the worst thing we can do to one another, and the scars left by shaming can stay with us forever. This is why it is so disturbing that it has become commonplace and acceptable to direct shame at those with whom we disagree or find disagreeable.
Because of this culture, we have begun to confuse contrition with shame, resulting in distaste for a beautiful Sacrament intended for healing. Shame is quite powerful and it keeps us from asking for the mercy that God is waiting to give us; therefore, we must never think our shame is desired by God. Notice how Jesus never shamed the sinners He encountered, most notably the woman caught in adultery. (John 8:1-11) He offered her the opportunity to express contrition and forgave her. Shame, which was what the Pharisees were leveling on the woman, ushers in a temptation to believe that we are beyond healing, beyond redemption, and beyond being loved. It also contributes to a lack of self-love, a denial that God loves us ‘no matter what,’ (see Romans 8:31-39), and it inevitably tears us down. Contrition, on the other hand is deep sorrow for our sins with a desire to change, acknowledging that we need God’s grace. Instead of driving us away from God, contrition moves us toward Him, and through it, we actually grow holier. Contrition builds us up as we humbly accept that despite our brokenness, we are deeply loved; thus, we seek God with greater desire while learning a bit more of how to love as He loves.
People avoid going to the Sacrament because they have accepted the lie that admitting our sins is something shameful. Even the worst of our sins, the basest and lowest sins, can be offered to God for healing: in the Sacrament we offer the wreckage of our sins to God as the only gift we have to offer. Where we see ashes, He sees the beautiful gift of the love and trust it takes to offer ourselves to Him, humbly seeking to be made clean. No one really enjoys talking about their weaknesses and errors, but as the words tumble out of our mouths, God welcomes us home with prodigal love. We are that wayward child welcomed home to the feast with the fatted calf and the ring put on our finger. Our sorrow for sin and our desire for reconciliation bring God joy, not anger. He rejoices over a lost sinner who has found his or her way home again.
To better understand contrition and God’s mercy, read and reflect upon Luke 15. It contains three parables, one about a lost sheep, one about a lost coin, and finally the one about the wayward son who was lost and found again, (sometimes referred to as the Prodigal Son.)* After reading these parables, ask for the grace to overcome shame and to be moved instead to contrition. Imagine God rejoicing over the healing reconciliation you share with Him. Then plan to partake in the Sacrament of Reconciliation this Lent and go do it so that you can come face to face and heart to heart with God who will “sing joyfully over you as one sings at festivals.” (Zephaniah 3:14-20) Indeed, let us claim His mercy and forgiveness with joy!
May we put aside shame and instead have a contrite heart so that we may be reconciled anew with God! May we come to see the beauty of God’s tender mercy when we confess our sins and accept His love! And may we be an example of the Christian virtue of love through our efforts to build others up rather than to break them down! Let us meet in the merciful heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* The prodigal in the parable is the father, not the son. Somehow over the years it has been mislabeled, so to speak. Dictionary.com defines prodigal as "wastefully or recklessly extravagant," "giving or yielding profusely, very generous; lavish," and finally, "lavishly abundant." All of these are exemplified in the behavior of the father and each of these describes the way God loves us. You might want to reflect upon God as recklessly extravagant in His love for you! Beautiful!
1. Icon, Jesus Christ Holy Forgiveness, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. You can find this at fineartamerica.com/featured/jesus-christ-holy-forgiveness-040-william-hart-mcnichols.html
2. My photo, taken in Big Bend, Texas. I chose this because shame tends to isolate us, symbolized here by the lone flower separated from the others.
3. My photo of the original painting Pine Trees, by Vincent Van Gogh. This was painted while Van Gogh was in an asylum, a place associated with shame by those who are not understanding of mental illness. Where Van Gogh was does not change the beauty of the painting or of the man painting it.
4. Clip Art: Sacrament of Reconciliation.
5. Painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son by James Tissot. The original is in the Brooklyn Museum.
NOTE: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
Heart Speaks to Heart