Sunday, April 13, 2014
On Failure and the Sacrament of Confession
By now it's probably obvious that I think parenting mortification is a great idea. Suddenly even things that seem bad - from sleep deprivation to a sick kid - can be viewed more positively, as opportunities for dying to self and living for God. Ideally, we parents who have embraced the daily sacrifices of parenting in this way would deal gracefully with each challenge that besets us, seeing every difficulty as a blessing that allows us to look beyond natural inconvenience to supernatural significance.
In reality, even those who embrace parenting mortification (or write a blog about it!) can fail in trying to live it out. It's wonderful to have thought about how to embrace particular problems of parenting, as well as discerning false crosses, and striving to find prayer to sustain ourselves spiritually in the midst of parenting. But let's face it, we all fail to embrace our crosses (parenting-related or otherwise) at some point. Sometimes that failure is partly the result of difficult circumstances. But at other times that rejection of the cross is an embrace of the self, whether purposeful or caused by a lack of recollection, examination, and reflection.
There are times that we not only fail to bear cheerfully with our burdens, but in addition to losing that opportunity, we also sin by complaining bitterly about them, taking out our frustration by yelling angrily at our kids or spouse, and then staying up too late consoling ourselves with ice cream and a novel. At times this can even become a cycle, since staying up late can make us tired the next day and impatient and perhaps needy for affirmation, which doesn't always come on demand from our children. Like defiant little kids, we may recognize that we've done something wrong but respond to it indignantly, behaving even worse than before and making angry excuses for ourselves.
Of course, that doesn't solve the problem or ultimately make us feel any better about the sins we commit toward others, including our children. Like those defiant little kids, what we really want is forgiveness, a merciful embrace that affirms us and our efforts, eases our burdens, erases our sins, and gives us the strength to try again.
Such an aid is readily available to us in the sacrament of confession.
Here are a few ideas for dealing with the failure of parenting mortification and the sin that may accompany it. At the moment when you catch yourself, mid-sarcastic remark or mid-yell or mid-complaint (or even post-sarcastic remark, etc.) try to stop immediately and recollect yourself. Calm down. Admit to yourself you could handle this better. If you still feel ill at ease, say an Act of Contrition. You can even say it multiple times. Make a mental note of the sin to remember it later. Now, move on. Get up and try again.
Before you go to bed, make an effort to do a good examination of conscience where you identify those sins from earlier in the day, and say another Act of Contrition. If you do this every night, you may begin to identify patterns or name particular difficulties with which you really struggle. Maybe it's yelling or being distracted by your iPhone or spending more time cleaning than interacting with your kids or not being kind enough to your spouse at the end of the day.
So the next step is to go to confession, and bring those sins with you. Then, leave them in the confessional. And begin again.
When you sin again, confess again, and try again.
You may not see any progress being made. You may feel like you are struggling with the same sins each week. But with regular (weekly, monthly) practice of the sacrament of confession and effort strengthened with God's grace, you will improve. You will get better at embracing parenting mortification. You will even get better at getting up again after a failure. Grace can do that, meeting us where we are and raising us beyond where our natural abilities would leave us.
Unfortunately, many Catholics have had poor experiences of the sacrament of confession. I can count myself among them. But it would be a mistake to forego the sacrament just because of one, or two, or more bad experiences, especially since this sacrament is such a help for parents who seek to embrace the mortifications of parenthood. So here are a few tips to make the most of the sacrament.
1. Prepare yourself well. Frequent examinations of conscience allow you to "have your sin always before you" so that you are able to make a good confession. Pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to help you receive the sacrament well. If you get tongue-tied or nervous, you may want to jot down your sins on a piece of paper.
2. Go regularly to the sacrament. The Catholic Church prescribes a minimum of annual use of the sacrament of confession. But if we really view it as an opportunity for grace that will strengthen us in the difficult tasks of parenting, it will be hard to make such little use of the sacrament. Monthly or weekly use of the sacrament forms us in the habit of identifying our sins, confessing them, seeking to amend for them, and trying to avoid them in the future. The grace of the sacrament aids us in these struggles.
3. Find a good confessor. This may be a difficult task, but it makes a huge difference. Finding a good confessor can take resourcefulness and perseverance. You may have just have to try out various parishes or you may be able to ask around to see if your good Catholic friends have recommendations. You may have to pray for God to send you someone, and you may have to be patient. During this time, try to focus on the efficacy of the sacrament. Even if your confessor doesn't seem to understand you or your situation and hence gives you what you consider bad advice (or excuses your sins, saying they aren't really sins), so long as he absolves you, you are receiving grace. God will continue to help and strengthen you in your struggles against sin regardless of the skill or demeanor of the priest who hears your confession.
4. Employ a particular, as well as a general examination of conscience. In other words, pick one particular sin to address. When you confess your sins, you'll likely have a few areas of struggle, but identifying one issue to focus on can really help you make progress. For example, you may be especially prone to yelling angrily at your children when you are trying to rush them out the door in the morning. Or you may realize that you are not as affectionate to one of your children as you are to the others. You may not be communicating effectively with your spouse regarding your schedule, and then blaming him when he fails to adhere to that schedule. Of course we need to try to avoid all sin, but it can be overwhelming to work on all our weaknesses at once. So a simple resolution concerning one particular struggle can be truly beneficial in aiding us to chip away at patterns of sin in our lives. By "simple" resolution, I mean something like, smile in the morning and embrace the kids the first time you see them for the day. Or get out of bed earlier so that you can slow down the morning rush. Or check in weekly with your spouse concerning the family agenda. Try to end each day with an examination of conscience and Act of Contrition.
5. Provide some background. Before you find a regular confessor, or for those times when you go to confession to someone other than your regular confessor, it is helpful for the priest if you provide some information about yourself, e.g. "I am a married father of four young children, employed as an accountant at a manufacturing company." You may mention your particular resolution, "In the past week, I've been working especially on trying to be affectionate to my oldest son, who has been going through a very obstinate phase. I think I made progress on that early in the week, but I became so frustrated with him yesterday in the evening that I didn't even tell him goodnight when he went to bed." Such context about your state of life and your past sin struggles and resolutions may prevent the confessor from misinterpreting or undermining your confession. Also, it is OK to challenge the priest if you feel he is too easily dismissing your sins. Something akin to, "Father, I respect your opinion but I don't think you understand my situation. I didn't come here for a psychological back-pat; I want you to trust my examination of conscience and absolve the sins I've identified."
6. Don't give up if you have a bad experience. This is a sacrament, after all, and is an important source of grace, whether you "feel" it to be helpful or not.