11/15/2011 11:06 am ET Updated Jan 15, 2012

Why Would Anyone Go to Confession?

I find that I'm only able to put my spirituality into practice when I am willing to enter into what I find to be most strange. This happened when I used beads, icons and special feast days of saints that are precious to me to help me in prayer. Most of these things were strange to me at first, really strange, in fact, given the rationalism I was raised with.

This is not spiritual tourism -- or at least it doesn't have to be. I'm not just "trying these things out" before moving on to another set of unusual spiritual practices. What I'm actually trying to do is move beyond tourism and dive headlong into what might make me at first feel uncomfortable. I find my faith becoming deeper the more that I am able to do that.

Eamon Duffy, an Irish scholar of religion, once wrote: "[My childhood] Catholicism was also mystery: the competent mutter and movement of the priest at the altar, the words of power half-understood, the sense of being in touch, literally in touch, with holy things, with Holiness itself." Yes, I understand the appeal of that.

Holiness is necessarily evocative. Mutter and movement, words only half-understood, the sensuous as a path to the divine -- I used to dismiss these out of hand, but I know realize that my faith has always grounded itself in these things whether I admitted it or not. I don't know nearly as much as I used to think I knew, and I now know that it doesn't particularly matter.
But going to confession is a whole different animal. Why do it? Why would it be necessary to confess one's sins to another, let alone to a clergy person?

The first time that I went to confession, I was in another country. I was 32, in London on business and felt safe in the knowledge that no one would know me. I can't explain where the desire to do it first came from. But I know that I never could have brought myself to enter a confessional in my own hometown.

It was a Friday, a popular day for the sacrament in Catholic churches, and I cheered myself through it by thinking I was mostly curious to see if the conversation would go as it does in the movies. I imagined myself to be a Michael Corleone-type character, but nothing could have been further from the truth.

The night beforehand, I sat on my hotel bed and began to think of what I would confess to the priest. Nothing came to me. So I grabbed a pen and notebook in order to stimulate the brain and prompt a list of sins. Still, nothing came. I have never believed myself perfect, but pressed for specifics, I was a blank slate. After an hour or so of this, I finally went to bed. The next morning I ducked into the confessional booth with a short list of general faults and sins from years earlier, because I was so out of the habit of considering my own unrighteousness. By going through the process of trying to go to confession, it had become clear to me that it was something I sorely needed.

So that's the first reason why anyone would go to confession: It might force you to realize that you are not perfect.

Secondly, Catholics confess their specific sins to someone else because they need to say them out loud, heal and move on. Humans heal best when they allow others to help them. And we cannot heal unless we can actually recall and name what we need to heal from. As G. K. Chesterton said,


W]hen a Catholic comes from Confession, he does truly, by definition, step out again into that dawn of his own beginning and look with new eyes across the world. ... He believes that in that dim corner, and in that brief ritual, God has really remade him in His own image. He is now a new experiment of the Creator. He is as much a new experiment as he was when he was really only five years old. He stands, as I said, in the white light at the worthy beginning of the life of a man. The accumulations of time can no longer terrify. He may be grey and gouty; but he is only five minutes old.

Jon M. Sweeney's next book is 'The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation,' coming from Image on March 6, 2012.