“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was about a year ago. Since then, I used vulgar language about three times. That’s about all I can remember, Father. For these and all my sins, I am heartily sorry.”
So goes the lukewarm penitent, only superficially aware of his sin, yet still tepidly compliant with the Lord’s intent that we should confess. I hear such confessions routinely every Saturday—and often enough, I’ve made them to my own confessor, with only slight elaboration. Yet, every once in a while, a penitent cracks open a door, “Father, it seems like there should be something more to this.”
Yes. Yes, it does so seem, and yes, there is something more. The tragedy of sin is well dramatized in the New Testament and in the stories of so many saints. “Unless you repent, you will all perish!”
The Dragon’s Claws
In C. S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the character of Eustace Scrubb figures the typical sinner. His selfish greed transforms him into a dragon, in which form he suffers an exaggerated loneliness and pain. The Christ-figure, the lion Aslan, invites him to bathe in a well that will heal his pain, but Eustace must first shed his dragon scales, lest the rough, hard skin simply slough off the water.
Just so, sin impedes our reception of grace. We may immerse ourselves in Scripture or the sacraments, in prayer or study, in service or sacrifice, but our immersion avails us little if we are too well insulated by the scales of unacknowledged, unrepentant sin.
Eustace attempts to shed his skin and—like any snake or lizard—as often as he sheds his scales, finds underneath yet another layer of scales. His molting no more suffices for his transformation than our casual confessions.
The claws of the lion, however, dig deeper into Eustace than he was willing or able to scratch himself. “The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt,” Eustace says.
To heal us, to perfect us, the Lord Jesus is willing to dig more deeply into us than we would ever dig into ourselves. Where we might gloss, “At least I didn’t murder anyone this week, at least I didn’t commit adultery,” he judges our every angry word tantamount to murder, our every lustful thought tantamount to adultery.
And even if my conscience is so dulled that I still discern in my soul no sins of commission, there are always the sins of omission. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Our Defiant Disability
These instructions highlight our defiant disability. Were I to strive to exceed the Pharisees in righteousness, I would merely succeed in turning myself into—well, into the Pharisee of Jesus’ parable. Were I to love my brother Christians as the Lord has loved me, I would be hanging on a cross instead of writing this note.
But thanks be to God, our Lord not only cuts deep with his Word: He also pulls away our sin-scales, and tosses us into the healing well. “It hurts like billy-oh,” as Eustace puts it, “but it is such fun to see it coming away.” To confess my sins as Jesus judges them, whether the sins of commission or the sins of omission—the deeper confession confronts me with the painful truth that I am still a selfish, unloving man, but the relief is all the richer, the forgiveness more fully felt.
Better still, once stripped and washed by Jesus, I catch a glimpse of the man he will make out of me—as yet pasty and scrawny, to be sure, but a man, and not a dragon.
Fr. David Poecking is pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. He contributed a guide to using the Ten Commandments for confession to the collection Thoughts and Meditations for Ash Wednesday.