St. Augustine of Hippo begins his great work “Confessions” with a question: “How shall I call upon my God and my Lord, when by the very act of calling upon him I would be calling himself into myself? Is there any place within me into which my God might come? How can God who made the heaven and earth come into me? Is there any room in me for you, Lord, my God?” (I:2)
As Augustine continues to write, you can sense his feeling of frustration or bafflement grow until he asks the ultimate question to God that we all should ask of ourselves: “What are you to me?” Then wonderfully Augustine continues, “Have mercy on me, so that I may tell you.” (I:5) Augustine then proceeds with the rest of “Confessions” in which he finds God in the telling of his own story – not in the universe or theological books – but in his own story.
Writing in “America Magazine,” Terrance Klein offers that telling our story is at the core of the Sacrament of Confession. He purposely steers away from calling it Reconciliation in order to remind people what the fullness and depth of the sacrament is, “Have mercy on me, so I may tell you,” my story. “Bless me Father…let me tell you about the month since my last confession,” or “…in the many years I have been away from the Church.”
Klein writes: “Think of Confession as the sacrament of story. You come to tell God your story. You ask God to make sense of your life.” The story includes sin that has separated you from God, hurt relationships with people you love, actions and attitudes which baffle you – “how could I have done that?” and more. And so you gather your story and share it with another to gain a measure of meaning. “We gather our words so as to be gathered into the Word, the Word of God that is Jesus the Christ.”
But some people come to the Sacrament without a story. As a confessor, I can tell you that it sometimes has the resonance of a shopping list or a to-do list. It makes me wonder if the penitent understands there is a story within the list. There is a story seeking meaning; a story seeking to find God. The problem with the list-without-story is heard in the words many penitents speak: “And for all the sins of my past life and the sins I may have forgotten.” I wonder if in that moment there is an underlying image of God as the Divine Accountant, and we are trying to make sure the books balance?
Some people come to the Sacrament with a story, but it is not their own. As the “story” unfolds in the silence of the confessional, it becomes clear that the main character of the account is someone other than the penitent. Some other person said, or did, or acted in a way that sets off a chain of events: “…that made me so angry.” Only at the end of the account does the penitent appear. I wonder if in that moment there is an underlying image of the Confessor as the religious traffic cop charged with assigning the violation to the real guilty party?
Some people come to the Sacrament with a story that has been told so often that it seems as if the person is a worker in an assembly line whose hallmark is repetition, sameness, and a numbing efficiency. It is not a story in which the penitent has considered rewriting the beginning so as to have a different ending. Perhaps it is not a story at all; it is a list, well-worn and ragged. A list unconsidered but pulled out of one’s pocket with the creases and folds revealing the repetition and sameness.
We all have stories in which we are the main character who operates from motivations, desires, longing, strength, weakness, and all that makes up the human condition. Concentrate on the story. That will help you to recognize the deadly landscapes that underlie the sins. It will help you see the larger currents and swells beneath the individual acts. Confession as story also contributes part of an answer to the question: “How often do I have to come to Confession?” Do you have a story? Is there another chapter added to your story? When sense and understanding begin to trickle out from your life, it’s time to tell your story. It is time to say again, “Have mercy on me, Lord, that I may tell you my story.”