I spent most of my life believing that the secret to happiness was to lead a life of no regret and fully dedicated myself to that cause. There is a lesson to be learned from every mistake and I’ve made plenty of those. I explained away each and every one of them by extracting a nugget of truth from the experience and carrying it with me through all of my endeavors. This is a useful practice and I highly recommend it to maintain a solution oriented lifestyle.
However, a life of no regret is not necessarily a life without sin. I was convinced that guilt was a useless emotion. So long as I learned from my blunders I felt free to move on from them. In this way I often successfully refused to acknowledge any shame I might feel for those things that I wish I’d done differently.
It wasn’t until I became Catholic that I realized the error in my thinking. Everyone knows that the first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one. This was the critical missing piece of the puzzle that only Catholic reconciliation could drive home to me.
Even after fully embarking on my journey to faith, I questioned the merits of Catholic confession. I’m no saint but I always considered myself a generally intelligent, compassionate, good person and God is all knowing. He knows my heart. Why then would I have to divulge my wrongdoings to some priest who may or may not know me when I could simply offer my sins directly to God?
The first answer is the simplest one. During confession the priest acts in persona Christi. In Latin this means that he is acting “in the person of Christ.” By confessing my sins to him I am confessing directly to Christ and God himself. However, this only answers part of the question. It gives the ‘how’ but I still wondered why.
It’s easy enough to doll out the words “I’m sorry” when we know we’ve made a mistake or as a means of avoiding conflict. They can even become automatic in an effort to be polite to those around us. But in order to truly be absolved of our sins we must first feel remorse for them. A hurried apology on our way to the next activity doesn’t cut it when seeking God’s forgiveness. The act of sincerely seeking atonement for our wrongs helps us to be worthy to receive it. Thus I discovered the use for guilt. Only when we grasp the weight of our mistakes are we properly motivated to seek forgiveness and to strive to do better.
But even a sincere apology to God Himself does not absolve us of our sins. Catholic reconciliation is not complete until we have performed a penance. We offer some action of atonement to God in reparation for our sins. It is an assurance of our commitment to turn away from sin in the future and turn instead toward God in all things. We’re only human after all, flawed and fallen and ever seeking God’s grace. In the blessed sacrament of reconciliation and all other sacraments that we celebrate in the Catholic church, we can be granted that grace on Earth.
I’ve never been so motivated to better myself than when I first allowed regret to color my life. In many ways I did a complete 180, upending the status quo and rewriting my core views of the world. I’ve also never been so relieved and full of joy as I was when I finally realized how God is divinely merciful, loving and forgiving us in all of our brokenness, including mine. We aren’t meant to wallow in shame but we are meant to feel it and to do something about it.