Rediscovering the Pleasures of Penance

Growing up Catholic at a time when everything you needed to know to save your soul was presumptively understood by everybody, there was never any excuse for those of us who fell short or missed the mark.  Having been carefully coached by legions of dedicated priests and nuns, where would the wiggle room be when you’d clearly done something wrong?   Which happened rather a lot, actually, but only rarely were you unhinged by the experience, since the solution was so straightforwardly simple. And it was always the same, too. Even for the nuns and the priests.

You went to Confession. Where, amid the dark anonymity of the box, the whispered voice unburdening itself of its own brokenness, you discovered life.

Only consider the goods God has given us. Such a plethora he has poured out upon us. Yet even among so many one or two must surely stand out. And what could be more heartening that having the capacity to begin again? “The only joy in the world is to begin,” the poet Pavese reminds us. “It is beautiful to live because to live is to begin, always, and every instant.”

For those who traffic in the realm of sin, remaining recidivists right to the end, absolution is the relief we long to receive. This impossible gift of renewal offered as often as we fall and feel the need to get up again.  “Here was the baptismal promise beating along the pulse,” explains Patricia Hampl in a fine essay reflecting on her own Catholic childhood. This quite “astonishing procedure,” she calls it, was no mere idea of forgiveness, as if absolution were no better than an abstraction, a bloodless Cartesian exercise both boring and ineffectual. Instead, she says, it was “an intense throb of liberation,” coursing through the self, which left one speechless with gratitude.  “There is no way to describe (to over-describe) the transport of being shriven.”

What the penitential encounter aims to accomplish, in other words, whether in that halcyon world back then, or amid the messier arrangements of today, is nothing less than total release. The sudden experience of the self blessedly set free from sin. Hampl, in an inspired phrase, describes it as “an ecstasy of self,” and she is exactly right. Because the outcome of those few moments spent unloosing the chains of sin, represents the fullest possible restoration of the moral life. “The unbelievable second chance,” she calls it.   “Nothing short of rebirth. Absolution returned the self to itself, back into the housing of the body and its mind—but new, fresh, ready to roll.”

Confession, then, is the key. And there is no other way to unlock that door releasing the soul from its self-enclosed prison.   It is the pivotal moment, therefore, the moment of optimal grace when, finding ourselves alone before God, we freely acknowledge our nothingness, and thus our absolute dependence on the mercy of God that we receive in confession.

And when it happens, grace having relieved the soul of its distress, we come away, Hampl assures us, “in possession of a wondrous discovery—that we are creatures born for radiance.” That in some unmerited way, the human heart was made for more—that, to quote a lovely line from a tune sung by Marie Bellet, “hearts were made for better things, they were made to catch the light.”

There are signs and wonders everywhere /
Joys and sorrows enough to spare /
And glorious mysteries in the air.

What that means is that even the most quotidian events of the day, all boringly set down amid so much unglamorous clutter, need not defeat or oppress us. Such things are meant to become a means of enrichment, a launching pad as it were, for an ultimate liberation. To kneel before God in the ritual of the sacrament is an event meant to suffuse the whole of one’s life with a palpable sense of his presence. That is the point, the whole point, of going week after week, of repeating over and over the sins that diminish the soul.

“In the hush of the confessional,” declares Hampl in her moving evocation of the experience, “penitent and confessor huddle in the dark, a scrim veiling their faces, as if the exchange between them were so intensely intimate that it partakes of the sacred, and therefore, like the face of God, cannot be looked upon directly.”

And, as always, what it requires is a special kind of journey, an excursion undertaken toward the light. Or, better yet, a pilgrimage implicating directly two people, one of whom is there to mediate the light, the other to receive its transforming brightness and warmth.

Perhaps the most profound description of the sacrament I ever read—certainly the most amusing—was in a piece that appeared some years ago in, of all places, The New York Times Magazine.   Written by Msgr. Lorenzo Albecete, it renders in the most hilarious detail the very first confession he ever heard.

“Look Father,” said the fellow who had just wandered in off the street, “it’s been a long, long time. I’m going to tell you things you have never heard in confession before.”

“That’s not too difficult,” brightly answered the newly ordained Albacete. “This is my first confession. Anything you say will be a shock to me.” The penitent then laughed, we are told, his loud chortling evidently causing those in line to flee at once to another line.

Fr. Albacete, however, wasn’t taking the occasion lightly. “The mystical tradition speaks of something called giddiness before the sacred,” he informs us, “a way of expressing the infinite disproportion between you and the mystery with which, somehow, you have become involved. I was simply feeling the infinite disproportion of it all.”

Well, what exactly does that mean, this business about disproportion?   Is there a pulse here that we need to take?   These are questions that lie at the heart of what nowadays we are taught to call the Rite of Reconciliation. And never mind what it’s called, what is meant to happen between those two people in that sacredly terrifying space, remains as deeply mysterious as the God who long ago designed the encounter.   Who is not, by the way, without a touch of irony, particularly in the disproportion he permits between so utterly over-the-top an outcome of mercy, and the strict requirements of justice which, were he to impose them, would so scarify the sinner as to leave him in state no better than that of burnt toast. But precisely because of that disproportion, the penitent is sent reeling gratefully from the box.   How can it be, he asks in a state of happy bewilderment, that a few contritely spoken words can effect so total an effacement of sin? So much so, in fact, that if I were to sit down with God and ask him to compile a list of every sin I just confessed, he would have to refuse. Why? Because he could no longer remember them. Because they no longer exist.

“Confession is not therapy,” Msgr. Albacete advises the reader near the end of his little piece. Nor is it, he insists, an exercise in moral accounting, as though God were taking inventory of our iniquities. God is not a numbers cruncher. So what goes on in that little box? “At its best, it is the affirmation that the ultimate truth of our interior life is our absolute poverty, our radical dependence, our unquenchable thirst, our desperate need to be loved.” And citing the great Augustine, who knew a thing or two about sin (also sanctity, which became the path on which he trod, finally, home to God), he reminds us that confession is ultimately a matter of praise.

His conclusion is so eloquent that I reproduce it in its entirety:

Confessing even the most dramatic struggles, I have found, people reach for the simplest language, that of a child before a world too confusing to understand. Silent wonder is the most natural response to a revelation that surpasses all words, a beauty that is beyond images; if one must say anything at all, what better way than in a few words that, in their very formalism, protect the infinite majesty of this mystery? The language of the inner life is a serene silence, a deep hurt, a boundless desire, and, occasionally, a little laughter.

Here is what I think. That in going to Confession, which I often do, I am carrying all the broken pieces of my life to God. And with as much humility and trust in his mercy as I can summon, I entreat God to forgive me. Which I feel perfectly confident in doing, thanks to the sheer wonderful transparency of the priest, who stands in persona Christi before me. And in asking God to put the pieces of my life back together, I give him reason to smile.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Confession” painted by Giuseppe Maria Crespi in 1712.

Regis Martin


Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

  • Simple & Plain

    As someone who has recently returned to my Christian and Catholic faith, I’m simply amazed at the power of reconciliation. When I first headed back to confession, I still wasn’t sure just *why* I needed to be there. Couldn’t I just confess to God myself? Like other people told me? Was it bogus that I needed to tell some man how messed up I was? But as I’ve started going at least once a month, I’m finally seeing how important and necessary it is in my life. I was also struggling, emotionally, with trying to get past some of my very strong, previously-held beliefs about the sacredness of life. When I finally took this struggle to Christ in confession, He has allowed me to get past this struggle and find healing through His great mercy.

    I hope that I’m able to keep up my monthly visits to reconciliation. It has also been a great opportunity to connect with the Priest and allow him to help me become the best version of myself.

    • PaulOfTarsus

      You might want to consider asking the priest for spiritual direction. Not all human imperfections fall under the category of sin. Spiritual direction can be very beneficial and different from reconciliation. Reading books, assistance with personal prayer, discussing your personal relationship with GOD, Jesus, and how it may be strengthened.
      Accepting oneself as broken is half the battle. That brokenness is not sin. It may be helpful to review what the RCC says about sin. You literally have to look for it and enjoy it. Once able to identify true sin in your life then you can separate it out and hopefully over time eliminate it.
      All Grace comes from GOD. Pray to receive it and be thankful when it is received. While the RCC is a sacramental church we are “temples of the Holy Spirit” so, we are our own church within a larger church. GOD made us and Loves us more than we love ourselves. He will help us in our time of need – build a personal relationship with him as primary then, let the priest help you along the way.

  • Fred

    I too struggled with reconciliation and it was that and the annulment process that I kept me from becoming whole for the longest time, like so many have felt “why do I need to tell another what I know in my heart”. Much of that comes from the root pride of sin in our unwillingness to admit mistakes. I have strong individualistic tendencies so it’s hard for me. Still, I understand that we belong to the universal church and that we are all sinners called to Christ to ask for forgiveness. I laugh at the title “pleasures of penance” because of course it is or should be uncomfortable, but that’s not the point is it. The true pleasure is receiving God’s grace relieving the burden of sin full of the desire to go and sin no more.

    • ForChristAlone

      I can honestly say that those times when I felt real joy most often happened following reception of the Sacrament. It’s when I have felt most close to Jesus. Funny that.

      • Simple & Plain

        Agreed. The rest of the day I feel like a tarnished piece of silver that has just been buffed to a brand new shine.

        • jacobhalo

          Well said.

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    I wish I could remember which saint or holy man, when asked why he went to confession every day said, “I’m a glutton for God’s mercy.”

    • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

      Thanks to blogger ‘Clinton at Father Z’ it was, delightfully Pius XII who said it:
      Pius XII once remarked in an audience that he went to confession every day. When someone expressed surprise and asked him why he went so frequently, the Holy Father explained that it was because “he was a glutton for God’s mercy”.

  • Vinny

    John; Chapter 20 –

    On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.”When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. [Jesus] said to them again,l “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

    In order for those disciples (the first priests) to forgive or retain sins they’d first have to know what they were. God himself (Jesus) gave us this way to salvation. That is why you confess your sins to a priest.

    • Fred

      It’s a good passage to remind our protestant brothers where the gift comes from.

      • Vinny

        From your comments, yourself and Simple & Plain as well.

    • jacobhalo

      Protestants counter that Jesus gave Peter and the Apostles the power to forgive sins. They say it end there.

      • Vinny

        That’s because they don’t believe in apostolic succession.

        • Vinny

          Today’s Bishops can trace their religious lineage back to an apostle.

      • TERRY

        They are wrong

  • milton

    Confession, just like sin, is no longer all that important to Church.Certain sin that is.

    Anyway i think Church and i have nothing in common anymore and it`s time we say goodby to each other.

    • Fred

      You are welcome back at any time. Sometimes it takes wandering alone in the wilderness to realize the value in the treasures you left behind. Open your heart to Christ and you’ll find joy, hardness only leads to bitterness and despair.

      • milton

        i think i will be just ok alone in the least i will know who is atacking me.

        • milton

          it`s not the wilderness i was thinking 🙂

        • Fred

          The prince of the world is lurking in the woods Milton, and he is quite cunning and deceitful is he not? Prepare yourself. You know where you will find a loving embrace and are always welcome to join the banquet.

        • Fred

          I just noted that there were 3 “I’s” in your short passage, plus an “I think”. Sounds like a gambler’s creed, I think I’ll be ok. Why trade what you think for what you know? Or if you don’t know, come to learn what others know and the joy they have.

        • jacobhalo

          Man can live on bread alone.

    • Vinny

      Just as Jesus was man and God, the Church is both human and divine. If the human side is letting you down, hang on to the divine – it’s the truth.

    • jacobhalo

      milton, we hate to see you go. God Bless!!

      • Fred

        I think I detected a note of insincerity there – maybe not.

        • jacobhalo

          no, not at all. I’m concerned with the soul of Milton. It is hard to convey an emotion on a website. I don’t want to see any Catholic leave the church. We had enough leave already.

          • TERRY

            Idea – let’s all go to Purgatory project on the internet and have a Mass offered for milton

          • Fred

            I know it is, and am glad to hear.

    • PaulOfTarsus

      Build a personal relationship with GOD & put the RCC in the proper perspective. Holy Mother Church tries to make itself #1 in your life – sometimes seemingly ahead of GOD. That is not what church is supposed to be about.
      There are many positive changes occurring in the church. Read about them and stay in touch. It may be that the church under Pope Francis will be more welcoming to all.

      • milton

        “It may be that the church under Pope Francis will be more welcoming to all.”

        Not to us that just want this:

        “You went to Confession. Where, amid the dark anonymity of the box, the whispered voice unburdening itself of its own brokenness, you discovered life.”

        You see i am just a simple sinner and there is no place for us any more.

  • grzybowskib

    Love this! 🙂

  • Dick Prudlo

    Another wonderful and timely article from someone who cares for all of us.

    I recall my preparation for Holy Penance and Holy Communion. It was an event that prospered my development as a Catholic to this day and my last. Holy Nuns did the prep, they were lovely ladies who I, even in my early youth, admired as much as my mom and dad. There was complete concern for all of us as we prepared to meet Jesus, personally, through the presence of Holy Priest’s. They counseled us on not fearing them, and they were some real men may I note, But, that it was Jesus himself who loves us no matter our crimes.

    Being a lousy sinner I have visited that box many times, but never feared to admit my wrongs. That was preparation the right way.

    • Vinny

      Possibly you’re an excellent sinner, as most of us are. A lousy sinner wouldn’t have too much need for reconciliation.

      • Dick Prudlo

        Poor choice of words, Vinny. Thanks

  • jacobhalo

    I’ve been a Catholic for all of my 68 years. I was in a state of temporary depression for about 3 weeks and I missed mass for those weeks. I felt so guilty that I called priest for an appt. to make my confession. It is a great weight off my shoulders.
    I hear Catholic says I wouldn’t confess my sins to a priest. I tell them people go to psychiatrist or psychologist and pour out their troubles. Why not a priest for their sins?

  • Matt

    Why is personal dignity not given any attention when celebrating this sacrament? It’s not difficult to imagine that being under the obligation to confess one’s transgressions on a regular basis in order to receive communion might not yield humility and trust, but rather humiliation and alienation.

    • slainte

      Confession reminds us of that a merciful God, who is our father, loves us so much that he yearns for us to freely come to Him, with a redemptive heart, so that He may cleanse us from the dross of our iniquities and free us from the effects of sin.
      Matt, when you leave the confessional after having relinquished your sins to God, you will experience a sense of having had a million pounds lifted off your shoulders. Sometimes tears may flow in the moments following God’s words of forgiveness. No psychologist or psychiatrist can accomplish what a single visit to the Confessional can.
      Having stayed away from Confession for many years, then having returned, I highly recommend this beautiful and saving sacrament. It is a profound gift from our Creator to each of us and is the penultimate recognition by Our Lord of our human dignity.

      • Matt

        I’m by no means opposed to the sacrament itself, for I’ve had those cathartic experiences that you describe. My quarrel concerns the frequency with which some devout Catholics must go to confession and how it ceases to be a voluntaristic act when certain sins (and not others) bar the devout from receiving communion on a regular basis. In this way, the sacrament can be transformed from a genuine act of repentance and renewal into yet another disciplinary measure in a disciplnary society.

        • Dick Prudlo

          Sin’s are soul killing, or soul marring the two are similar but distinct. God takes sin very seriously….look at the first one. The confessional disposes of all sins, and does provide means; through the priest for correction.

          How can you look into the interior of a soul to determine excessive frequency, Matt? I can’t

          • Matt

            Thanks for bringing that talk to my attention slainte, but I think that it’s largely beside the point. I’m not trying to defend some sins by relativizing them, since I believe we all should seek to eradicate them from our lives as much as possible. And that said, I believe that the main path to true transformation is through reception of the eucharist on a weekly basis.

            As for purporting to know what qualifies as excessive, I don’t. Instead, what I’m getting at is the feminization of both faith and culture (as Callum Brown has identified it and Charles Taylor discusses in A_Secular_Age) and the marked drop in male practice, especially since the late 19th c., due to it.

            • Slainte

              Apologies, I misunderstood your intent. Thank you though for the reference to Brown and Taylor’s “A Secular Age”; I will read it.

        • slainte

          God is loving kindness and grace. He invites us to come to Him freely and of our own volition. He never compels us to engage the sacrament of Reconciliation against our will. Reconciliation is not a discipline; it is an invitation to draw nearer to a God who wants to draw us into His Divinity and restore us to Him. He is our Source.
          We are most humble, most patient, and most loving when we freely acquiesce to His will.


          A Sister of Life once told me “persevere through all things” because He who is love and compassion has conquered sin and is awaiting us. Through the sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Eucharist, we may encounter Him whenever we want….He never forces us but He does await our invitation.

          • slainte

            Hi Matt,

            I thought you would find this video by Father Larry Richards on Confession informative and encouraging.


  • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

    This is a wonderful piece, as always with Regis. But it seems hopelessly tame and out of date. I would like to hear from our esteemed theologians how it is possible that we can be given an heretical pope. If there is anyone who is going to lead people away from the confessional, it is a pope who clearly no longer believes in sin (except, of course, for the sin of judging something to be sinful).

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      “Clearly no longer believes in sin” when he himself goes to Confession regularly? And when he himself publicly went to Confession in St. Peter’s to make it clear that we should all do the same thing? Not quite following you there…

  • hombre111

    Excellent, Regis.

  • confusedcatholic

    Beautiful piece. Thank you!

  • susan d

    Thank you, Regis Martin, for a timely reminder of the Gift of confession! For decades, I searched for a spiritual director, until I realized that priests were reluctant to give the time needed for spiritual direction, BUT were very happy to fulfill their vocation to forgive sin. So, the next time I went to confession, I asked the priest to be my confessor. It has worked well, helping me discern the difference between character flaws and sinful behavior, and bringing laughter when I awkwardly use the wrong words or can’t find the words to say what I mean.
    John Paul II went to daily confession. That sounds wonderful to me!