16 February 2008

Confessional Advice


Advice from Fr. Philip Neri’s Confessional

I. Starting point:

1. Sin. When we sin we abuse a gift from God. Just about every sin we commit can be traced back to a disordered use of some grace we have received from God. Abusing God’s gifts is a dangerous practice b/c it is through the charitable use of our divine gifts for others that God perfects His love us. If you are not using your gifts for the benefit of others then God’s love is not being perfected in you.

2. Forgiveness. When we ask for forgiveness we are not asking God to do something He has not already done. All of our sins are forgiven right now. All of them. Then why go to confession? God gives us forgiveness always, constantly, without ceasing. We go to confession to receive His forgiveness. Let’s say I call you up and tell you that I’ve purchased a nice Easter ham for you at Central Market. It’s a gift from me to you and your family. I give you this ham. For the ham to be a proper gift, you have to go get it. Once you have received the ham, it is a gift. The ham is no less real b/c you haven’t picked it up yet. The ham doesn’t materialize out of thin air when you go to Central Market and ask for it. The ham is just sitting there waiting for you to come ask for. The same is true for God’s forgiveness. Just ask and you will receive.

3. Charity. Once you have received your gift of forgiveness, you need to put it into action as a gift for others. We do not have the option of failing to forgive. We are commanded to love and when we love, we forgive; i.e., You give your gift of divine forgiveness away by forgiving me my sins against you. In this way, you enact your most basic ministry as Christ to me.

II. The Sins (in order of frequency heard in the Box)

4. Lust. What gift does lust pervert? You might be tempt to say “love” or “sex,” but I would say “beauty.” We know from the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei verbum) that God reveals Himself to us through His creation, His only Son, and scripture. As the rational members of His creation, we humans are particularly capable of revealing Who God Is, that is, of revealing Divine Beauty, Goodness, and Truth to others. In other words, you are a revelation of God to me and I to you. When you see a beautiful woman (or man) she is beautiful b/c God’s beauty is being revealed through her. She serves as an icon through which God shines His beauty and through which you receive His beauty. Your attraction to her is the attraction you know and feel for Beauty Himself. When you take that Beauty and pervert it for temporary pleasure (porn, masturbation), you sin against God.

Advice: Begin to habituate yourself to giving God thanks for the Beauty He reveals to you. When you see an attractive person lift them up in your mind and say, “Thank you, Lord, for showing me your beauty through this beautiful person!” Be truly grateful each and every time. Over time, it will become harder and harder to think of others as objects when you know that they are actually icons.

5. Envy: What gift does envy pervert? I would say that envy perverts the nature of giftedness itself. We are all created as graced creatures…THAT we exist at all is a grace, a gift of God. Beyond the gift of existence, each of us is gifted in some particular fashion—singing, writing, patience, piety, etc. These gifts are mixed and matched and combined in all sorts of odd configurations. Our job is to organize these gifts into a coherent “charitable personality,” to become the best possible version of ourselves that these gifts will allow. The way we do this is to use the gifts for others. When we do this God’s love is perfected in us. However, when I lust after the gifts of my friends and neighbors, ignoring my own gifts in favor of coveting theirs, I fail to use my own gifts and God’s love is not perfected in me. So, envy is a double-edged sin in that it promotes covetousness and makes us lazy in being charitable.

Advice: Being grateful is the key here. When you feel yourself becoming envious of another’s gifts, stop and give God thanks for that person’s gifts. Pray that they might use their gifts well and grow in holiness. Gratitude is one of the things that the devil can’t fight against. A truly grateful heart is well protected from temptation.

6. Gossip: What sin does gossip pervert? Gossip tends to pervert the gift of Truth, or in other words, gossip distorts our view of objective reality in favor of the illusions generated by lust, envy, jealousy, etc. Depending on the subject of the gossip, gossip is exciting b/c there is the great potential there for making oneself look good or better in front of friends. It is important to us that we appear to be “hooked in,” so we gossip. Gossip, in its worse form, is also a form of tearing people down—lying exaggerating, etc. all build up a false picture that then gets used to make rash judgments.

Advice: St. Philip Neri once took a penitent to the top of his church. He handed the woman a feather pillow and told her to rip the pillow open and scatter the feathers. She did so, watching the thousands of feathers fly all over the city. He then told her that her penance was to go and collect every feather. Such is the nature of gossip.

7. Doubt/Not praying: These sins can also be understood as a perversions of God’s Truth. One thing we have to get clear, however, is there is doubt and there is Doubt. Little “d” doubt is acceptable if and only if you are truly confused about or unsure of the right way to think about and believe an article of the faith. Being ignorant of a teaching can lead to doubt, so can the complexity of some of our beliefs. Big “D” Doubt occurs when you are actually rejecting a de fide (of the faith) teaching of the church for no other reason than you don’t like the teaching or that you the teaching teaches against your favorite sin. This occurs a lot with contraception, masturbation, and pre-martial sex. So, when you confess “doubt” be sure and distinguish between the two. Doubt often leads us to stop praying or to stop using the sacraments.

Advice: Know your faith! You are responsible for knowing and living the faith as it has been given to the Church. If you are truly confused about a teaching, ask for help or get a copy of the Catechism. If you find yourself Doubting, try saying to yourself: “I am one person in a two-thousand year old Church. I’m smart but I’m not Two-Thousand Years Smart, so I will assent to this teaching and assume that my rejection of the teaching is based on my ignorance and not on the falsity of the teaching.” This is a properly humble way of approaching difficult teachings. When you find yourself unable to pray with any eagerness or force, just pray anyway…”fake it ‘til you make it through the dry spell.” Prayer is a habit like any other and requires constant maintenance. Prayer is the means by which God speaks to us, so keep the channel open even when you are convinced that there’s no one on the other end. Think of yourself lost on a deserted island and you have a radio. When you give up hope that you will be rescued, you will turn the radio off. How will the rescue team find you then? Leave it on so you catch anything that might come through. In fact, pick several times during the day when you will sit with the radio and broadcast your location.

8. Lack of charity: This is a really BIG sin. This sin perverts God’s love. First, we are commanded by Christ to love one another. He never says that we have to like one another. This is the whole problem with equating “loving others” with “being nice to others.” We should be nice to other out of a sense of civility but the failure to be pleasant or polite is not a sin. When you find yourself actively working against the Good of another person, then you are in trouble. Charity requires that we will the Good of the other at all times. I can truly dislike someone and still will the Good for them. In fact, there may be more merit to loving someone you dislike. “Willing the Good” requires that we treat others as persons with their own ends, meaning we treat others as fellow creatures created in the image and likeness of God. We cannot use people as means to other ends. This is uncharitable.

Advice: Giving thanks for everyone in your life is key to being charitable to these people. Pay attention to how you are thinking and feeling about the people you interacted with daily. For everyone you meet send up a prayer that whatever they need to grow in holiness will be given to them. If there is someone you really, really dislike make that person a part of your daily thanksgiving. Have a Mass said for them! Beware one common pitfall: “Please, Lord, help Philip to change his ridiculous ways and make him a agree with me about X.” This is a prayer to change me to fit your expectations of who you want me to be. For some reason, I find mothers are terribly burdened with this temptation, especially when it comes to their children! Try instead: “Lord, I give you thanks for Philip. Grant him all he needs to grow in holiness.”

III. Resisting Temptation

9. Temptation: Temptation is the pressure we feel when our disordered desires rise up and urge us to indulge them against God’s will for us. Entertaining a temptation is not a sin. Merely thinking about lying is not the sin of lying. However, if you decide to lie and do so “in your heart,” then you have lied whether you actually give voice to the lie or not.

10. Resistance: When you resist temptation on your own you are rejecting God’s grace and denying the victory of the Cross. There is no reason to resist temptation. You are perfectly free not to sin. Rather than steel yourself against temptation and fight like mad to resist the sin, turn and face the temptation square on. Name it. Hand it over to God. And move on. Resistance is actually the first step we take toward the sin. Be honest: how many times have you resisted a temptation only to submit to it eventually? What you are doing is habituating yourself to surrendering to sin. Break the cycle here by taking control of the temptation itself. Let’s say you are being tempted to lie to your professor about cheating on a paper. Say to God, “Lord, I am being tempted to lie to Dr. Jones about my paper. I give this temptation to you to deal with. I’m going to the library. Amen.” This is both an act of the intellect and an act of the will. Habituate yourself to using Christ’s victory over sin and stop resisting temptation!

______________________________

No doubt there is much more I could say here. Much, much more. But these are the common sins I hear in the Box. Keep these basic principles in mind at all times:

You are free. Right now, right this second, you are free. You do not have to sin.

You cannot sin in ignorance or by accident or by being forced or coerced.

Mortal sins “kill charity in your heart.” Ask yourself: have I killed charity in my heart? Don’t turn every sin into a mortal sin “just in case.”

For most sins only you can decide whether or not you have sinned, meaning, sinning is a highly subjective affair and you must decide what your intent was at the time. Of course, there are intrinsically morally evil acts but these acts have to be committed before they are sins in the real world. If you commit an IMEA, then you have sinned objectively. Examples of IMEA’s are murder, apostasy, adultery.

I hope these help during your Lenten journey to Jerusalem and the Cross!

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7 comments:

  1. Re #7: My spiritual director often advises if you don't have the desire (to avoid temptation for example) - pray for the desire. If you can't bring yourself to pray for the desire, pray for the desire to pray for the desire!

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  2. Father,
    I have a technical confession question if you don't mind. If the confessor does not think what you are confessing are sins, can he absolve you? Very often when I go to confession, our priest tells me "don't worry about that, you are a good Catholic mother" and seems to dismiss them out of hand. I am a Catholic mother, still working on the 'good' part!

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  3. Milehimama,

    As I note in my post above, 99.999% of sins are adjudicated best when treated subjectively, that is, the penitent gets to decide almost everytime what counts as sin for herself. The obvious exception here, of course, are acts that are intrinsically morally evil. The subjective element has to come in b/c intent is so radically important to the definition of sin. Sins are deliberate acts of disobedience. If you tell me that you have sinned, I must assume that you did so with intent. The one case that pops up occasionally is the penitent who says, "Father, I might have sinned against charity..." "Might have"? Did you or didn't you? We can discuss the incident, and I might very well tell you that the matter was not grave or that your obvious ignorance mitigates the incident to mere error.

    I hope this helps!

    Fr. Philip, OP

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  4. Concerning your advice:
    Don’t turn every sin into a mortal sin “just in case.”


    When I knowingly commit an intrinsically morally evil act but am unsure as to the level of my free cooperation, does this mean I cannot receive communion until I go to confession even though I might not be in a state of mortal sin?

    My research so far has always told me to consult my confessor and he will help me make this determination. Unfortunately, my confessors have refused to do this and instead fall into one of two camps:

    1. just make an act of contrition and go to communion and go to confession as soon as reasonably possible. This directly contradicts what I have read in the Catechism and from JPII's Reonciliatio et Penitentiae

    2. assume the sin is mortal "just in case" which directly contradicts your advice.

    Would you be able to help me out like you did for milehimama?

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  5. Burnt,

    If you have knowingly committed an intrinsically morally evil act, I'm not sure why knowing the "level of [your]free cooperation" is important. It might be important for your spiritual director to know this so you guys can work on any vices that lean you toward committing IMEA's. Otherwise, why would you need to know the extent of your cooperation?

    Piece of advice #1: No, not for mortal sins. Venial sins are taken of in the Mass proper, but mortal sins need a greater effort on your part to recognize and seek out penance.

    Piece of advice # 2: No, this is a lazy way of out of taking responsibility for your sins. If every sin is assumed to be mortal "just in case," then there's no point in any of us using the gift of our deliberative faculties when it comes to make a moral choice.

    Hope this helps.

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  6. I have a question, Father. I understand that grave sin is done with knowing intent. And information on what constitutes sin is readily available from the Catechism, for example, which can be found in many places on the internet. But can Catholics truly be culpable for their actions if they never hear such instruction from the pulpit (and I do mean NEVER)? I know many who have never even heard of the 'Catechism' and feel themselves informed simply from word of mouth. Thank you.

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  7. Anna D9:27 AM

    Fr Philip,

    thank you for this post. I'll leave a comment just in case you still check them. Most of what you wrote is very helpful, but I do find that this part has unfortunate implications:

    "I’m smart but I’m not Two-Thousand Years Smart, so I will assent to this teaching and assume that my rejection of the teaching is based on my ignorance and not on the falsity of the teaching"

    While calling us to humility is proper, this way of putting it effectively suggests that we should stop thinking and reflecting ourselves. That is advice fit for the Dark Ages. Catholicism has a strong tradition of welcoming and encouraging rational enquiry - see eg Pope Benedict XVI's Angelus on the Faith-Reason Synthesis, http://www.zenit.org/article-18765?l=english.

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