On the first Wednesday evening of March, my parish held its annual Lenten Penance Service. Our pastor and one of our permanent deacons led prayer, read a Gospel selection and delivered a brief homily. Then, our pastor and six visiting priests heard confessions for about 80 or so Catholics in attendance – including at least one gentleman who received the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time in his life as he prepares to enter the Church on Holy Saturday.
Those 80 or so Catholics included me. And something happened to me inside St. Cletus Catholic Church that hasn’t happened often in my life, something that I hadn’t experienced since the May 2015 morning when my mom passed away.
I had a vision.
Even though I knew three of the seven priests in the church that night, I didn’t care which priest I spent time with. I ended up fourth in line for an older priest, one I never had met even though I had heard of him. I had prayed all day as I asked the Holy Spirit to shine a light on my heart and soul, to help me clearly see my sins and sinfulness, to clearly elicit genuine sorrow. I found some clarity as I sat quietly for about 10 minutes before the service began, then confirmed them mentally as I stood in line.
I sat down in a chair facing the priest, shook his hand and began: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was last month.” And I shared with him several things that were weighing heavily on my mind, times I had willfully turned from God and resulted in my guilt, in keeping me from union with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The priest engaged me in some further soul-searching when he challenged me. “Did you ever consider that God wanted you to sleep in that morning instead of going to Mass? And I’m not sure that other one is really a sin.”
I confessed them as sins and told the priest I indeed felt the actions and intent had created a barrier of guilt. I usually would have recited an act of contrition – and I wanted to do just that — but the priest reminded me that we already had done said one such prayer as a group during the service. As Christ’s representative, he then granted me absolution.
Oh, I forgot something: Before telling me I didn’t have to prayerfully share my contrition, the priest instructed me on an act of penance to perform. “Go back into church for a while,” he said, “and sit there quietly and ask God to show you how much He loves you.”
In almost 50 years of confession experiences, I never had received a penance worded just like that. I have spent such time in contemplation before – I try to do just that for at least 15 minutes each day, as I am called to do in my formation with the secular Carmelites – but never as penance. I understand from my contemplative experiences that it can occasionally feel like penance, though, because there are times when I ask God to just look on me with love and then wonder how God actually can love me.
On this evening, I left the confessional and knelt in a pew. I closed my eyes. I thanked God for His mercy and forgiveness. And I thanked Him for his abundant, unconditional love. Then, I shut up. A quiet mind, which I have come to call “stillness of soul” as prayed by St. John of the Cross, doesn’t always come easily to me. Okay, to be honest, I have a really hard time completely quieting my mind for any considerable time. But on this particular night, God bestowed it upon me even before I was able to ask Him for it.
In the solitude, a scene from the New Testament faded into focus.
(Note: Before I go on, I want to clarify that I was not engaging in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises by imagining a Bible scene and prayerfully place myself into the story for meditative purposes. I have done that before and sometimes – not all the time – found it spiritually enriching. This was not such a prayer. This happened to me without an ounce of effort on my part.)
My physical eyes remained closed, but my mind’s eyes opened and I saw dusty ground beneath me. I was kneeling in that dirt. I could hear a lot of people surrounding me; they were making quite a ruckus, shouting rude words, vile epithets – all directed at me. I felt like I was as low as the dirt, a part of the filth of the world. I was afraid. My head still bowed, I didn’t have the courage to look up at the commotion. To my right, one man shouted suddenly shouted louder than all the others: “He is a sinner! He had committed such horrible sins! We caught him. Cast him out! He deserves to die!”
Then, I heard a different voice, coming from my left. A man’s voice. Commanding and yet gentle. Matter-of-fact, yet firm. His words silenced all the other voices. “Brothers and sisters,” the kind man said, “have none of you ever sinned? Are all of you clean? By all means, whoever is without sin, pick up this man and carry out of this church.” Although a wave of peace warmed my entire body, I didn’t dare look up. I felt prepared to find myself lifted, carried and tossed into the parking lot.
Instead, I felt nothing. I heard nothing. Minutes passed. Finally, I looked up and saw before me the large cross on the wall behind the altar. The image of Christ’s body hanging on that cross mesmerized me as never before. It was then that I remembered the story of the adulterous woman from the New Testament, and the words of Jesus seemed directed at me in that moment.
“Go, and sin no more.”
That memory returned this past week when I spent some time reading the Scriptures for this weekend’s Mass on what the Church officially calls the Fifth Sunday of Lent. There actually were two possible sets of readings. The one we heard at St. Cletus earlier today included the Gospel selection about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead – a powerful reading indeed. The other option included the story from the eighth chapter of John’s Gospel: The tale of the adulterous woman.
Part of me couldn’t believe it. Another part of me just smiled, especially when I read the closing lines of the story:
Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
If you would like to read those Scriptures, click here: Sunday, March 13
Have you received the Sacrament of Reconciliation yet this Lent? What is holding you back?