Confession, Penance, and Individual Mandate


​As a writer, I tend to overshare. 

If I talk about some good deed I’ve done or random act of kindness or whatever, I’m never trying to get a congrats or a pat on the back. I like to show people how easy it is to be kind, to be patient, to simply be nice. I’m not better at it; I just try to be aware of the opportunities when they arise, and in sharing them, I think it shows everyone how the smallest things can affect people.

The same goes for my spiritual postings. If I can feel this, so can you; if you want to. And I do truly believe that we all learn from each other; from each other’s mistakes and from our smallest of victories.

By that same token, I never know if I’m supposed to write about and share the penances I’m given. There is nothing better than that moment my priest says, you are absolved. Second to that is the satisfaction of having completed a penance, whether difficult or easy, rote or inspired. Although honestly, none of them are easy or rote.

In my growing up and seeing confessions on television, I’ve always thought of them as your deepest, darkest secrets that are supposed to be kept hidden away, never to be talked about again.

What I’ve found in practice is much different.

For one thing, I still really don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how to begin, so I usually begin by saying that I still don’t really know what I’m doing. I say what I think I’ve done that warrants the whole confessional production, and we kind of talk about it. Maybe I go in with a little bit of counseling thinking, and my priest just goes along because he really does know that I mean well, and it eventually will come to me.

And maybe, there’s no wrong way to confess.

And in the vastness of sinning, really, I just don’t have anything. I haven’t murdered anyone; or hit them for that matter. I curse, but not at people, at least not ones in front of me, and I don’t use those g-d related swears. Almost never. I try to be charitable in mind and deed. They say to use the ten commandments as a guide. No vain use of the Lord’s name. I’m not unfaithful. I don’t steal or covet my neighbor’s property. The grass is never greener. I don’t lie.

So, what do I confess?

And how is my penance seemingly so practical and tangible?

In my last few times, I’ve only been give prayer as a penance once or twice. I’m usually asked to do something. If I’m being hard on my family, I’m asked to name five things I like about them, but really what I admire, and then tell them. Yes, this was actually one of my penances. I couldn’t do it, so the next time I had to confess that I hadn’t done the penance. It wasn’t that there wasn’t five things that I admired; it was the act of telling them that shied me away. It seemed so hokey and out of the blue to announce it, but that is probably why I should have done them, and why I still think about it as a failure of my moral self despite the absolution.

I’ve been asked to use my blog as part of my penance, encouraging or explaining something that may have been bothering me enough to bring to the confessional. Not as easy as you would think.

I didn’t mention it to my priest, but I really wanted to get my confession in yesterday because at the end of this week I’m getting on an airplane and didn’t want anything hanging over me before I did that. I don’t know if that’s folly, or superstition, or just plain checking off the last thing on my travel to-do list.

But it was time.

Before yesterday, the last time I was at confession was during the Advent Reconciliation Service. You’re only expected to go once or twice a year. That weekly confessional requirement is more of a myth, or a change in the rules over time. You go when you need to go, and if you haven’t managed to get there, Lent and Advent are good reminders to catch up.

That was a difficult one. It’s a little more public than a regular confession, and I was in tears, and it was three weeks and some since the election, so there you have it.

Yesterday was a little more of that same subject plus my lack of charity towards others. In some of my opinion pieces and rants, readers may notice it, especially recently on my Facebook where I hold nothing back. I try to counter opinions with fact, and in order to not flood my FB I started a political page that is nothing except truthful, factual stories. Opinions (by me or others) are clearly labeled. That’s helped some.

Through my confession, we had a conversation. I also say things to my priest that when others hear about it are astonished that I would. You would say that to your priest? That accompanies a look of horror and mock-but-partially-serious pearl-clutching. Yeah, I would. If I can’t say anything to him about anything, he’s the wrong priest for me.

In and out of the confessional, I’ve talked politics, I’ve talked internet, I’ve talked abortion rights, I’ve talked about equality issues. We’ve also talked about pulpit politics.

Timing is everything. I went to confession yesterday because I wanted to before my flight, and Saturday afternoon was the only time available to walk-in. My confession led to my penance, which was directly related to yesterday’s Gospel and homily, and when the prayer of the faithful was said, I was astounded by the first one. It was written long before my confessional, and yet still touched upon things that were said in there.

It’s unrelated to my penance but I’ll share it here with you anyway:

For our elected officials and our journalists to always seek and speak the truth, we pray.

I tend to do the Mass prayers with my head slightly bowed, my eyes sometimes closed, and as soon as those words came out of the lector’s mouth, my eyes flew open and my head shot up, almost whiplashing myself. I don’t think I’ve ever heard something so specific, something so important, something so political and yet apolitical, and something that really, truly needed to be said.

It stood out, and I will remember it. Not just for its sentiment, but for its relation to my confession and penance.

My penance was part of the homily, and part of the readings:

Isaiah 58:7-10 Thus says the Lord: Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am! If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday. 

Matthew 5:13-16 Jesus said to his disciples: “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”

Isaiah is good for all of us to remember as more and more executive orders come out of the White House that contradict these values we espouse and hold dear. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the oppressed, welcome the stranger. I can only pray that Washington DC was paying attention.

Matthew, though. The salt of the earth, the light of the world. Am I the salt of the earth? Growing up Jewish, my thoughts are immediately settled on Lot’s wife. Nope, no salt, not me. But that is my penance. Be the salt of the earth. Add something. Add a thought, add a positive, add a kindness. Be the salt. When I’m the salt, I will already be the light. The still, small voice. Add charity to my blog. Not a donation button, but charity to others. Offer the benefit of the doubt. Express without stepping on others. I can be me without putting others down. I can be angry with others, but I can’t ONLY be angry with others. I need to be productive.

Not all of this was specifically said for my penance, but my priest gives me a guide. This is what you should do, and now I need to figure out how to do it to meet my penitential obligation and my human one as well.

I was told to add a moment of charity to my blog; to pray for the President that I didn’t vote for and don’t trust. What does that charity look like? What does being a Christian look like? Show them; show how to be a Christian. Or a Muslim. Or a whatever. The labels are interchangeable. It doesn’t matter which book we read; they all say basically the same thing, and whatever we believe, we can share it in charity to one another and with each other.

Whatever religion, or non-religion, we all have some sort of penance to offer. Whether it is to our G-d, our gods, or ourselves. Know when to lead, and when to follow. What the last two weeks of political protests have shown is that we can all lead, and we must, and we must do so by our example. We certainly can’t lead others if we can’t lead ourselves. So, lead with charity, and compassion, and together, and we can achieve anything.

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