Making Peace with Your Past

“Can We Find a Friend So Faithful?”

Once again he fell in love — but she, too, died before they met at the altar. It was then he penned those familiar words:

Oh, what peace we often forfeit.

Oh, what needless pain we bear!

All because we do not carry

everything to God in prayer.

I grew up singing this simple song, reminding me to take my own sorrows into the presence of my Heavenly Friend. But recently I heard a true story that gave me fresh insight into the old hymn. For the first time, I noticed that the second verse reads not, “Have I trials and temptations…?” but “Have we trials…?” Even in his anguished and isolated state, Scriven understood the spiritual power of the united Body in Christ. This applies equally in times of grief, and in times when we wrestle with (and sometimes stumble over) the allure of evil.

As a Catholic, I came to understand that this power is uniquely present in the hands of God’s ordained ministers, who are entrusted with the authority to bind and loose sin (Jn 20:23). As a new Catholic, I sometimes wondered why more people didn’t take this liberation seriously enough to avail themselves frequently of these sacramental graces. Now that I’ve been in the Church awhile, I am all the more convinced that more people would make this a priority if they only understood how much healing power slips through their fingers, simply by staying away.

Sin craves the dark and hidden recesses of the soul; temptation likes to “piggy-back” on psychic wounds inflicted by other people. As a result, we may need to receive healing in order to break free of sinful patterns. The sacraments are one such way to receive the healing graces we need.

My friend Susan is a case in point. At seventeen, Susan was raped by a casual acquaintance. Though she was blameless, Susan felt so ashamed of what had been done to her that she told no one — not even her own parents — what had happened. Numb from the experience, Susan experienced an increasing sense of isolation, and in time threw herself into a series of promiscuous relationships. Years passed, she finally met a kind and patient man and fell in love with him. However, she still carried a great deal of baggage.

A week before her wedding, Susan decided that if the marriage was to succeed, she needed to make a fresh start. She drove out into the country to a small rural parish and, slipping in to the confessional, knelt down. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been many, many years since my last confession.” And with that, she tearfully poured out her heart to the silent presence on the other side of the confessional screen.

There was no answer.

“Father?”

At last a thickly accented voice spoke. “I’m so sorry, child. Have you been carrying this burden long?”

“About ten years.”

There was another pause. “You have been terribly, terribly wronged. Thank God He has given you a husband who can help you to heal. Go in peace. You will be in my prayers.”

As she related her experience to me, Susan’s eyes fill with tears. “All this time, I had felt so ashamed, especially about the empty relationships after the rape. But you know something? I’m glad I finally told. Now I don’t have to carry this guilt into married life.” The priest’s reaction gave Susan confidence to confide in her new husband, and in time, as the priest had predicted, they sought the healing she needed together.

“Jesus Knows Our Every Weakness…”

Not everyone is as fortunate as Susan, of course. This kind of vulnerability carries with it a certain amount of risk, and the sense of forgiveness may not be immediately forthcoming. Another acquaintance, Peggy, carrying the guilt of not one but three abortions, has sought relief from her burden in the confessional and in professional counseling, to no avail. She is a broken, lonely human being.

While others her age have grown children, she lives with a sense of dread about what she will say one day when she faces her three children, and explains to them why she did not chose life for each of them. Hers is a self-inflicted prison based on a lie: that she is “too bad” to receive God’s forgiveness.

The Catechism calls this self-deception a sin of despair, “contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice — for the Lord is faithful to His promises — and to His mercy” (CCC 2091). In The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II urges women who have suffered the violence of abortion to trust in the mercy of God. “The Father of mercies is ready to give you His forgiveness and His peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”

“But my priest is so old-fashioned. What will he say to me?” According to Canon Law (1398), a confessor must consider possible “mitigating circumstances” of the one who procured the abortion. Examples include:

• persons under the age of sixteen;

• persons who “without negligence” unknowingly violate a law out of ignorance, inadvertence, or error;

• persons coerced by “relatively grave fear”; and

• persons who lack the full use of powers of reason.

Fear of the unknown, of public exposure, of loss of reputation — all these things are tools used by the Evil One to keep us in bondage. However, God delights in those who place personal integrity above personal comfort. “I knew you before I knit you together in your mother’s womb,” God whispers. “I loved you enough to die for you. There is nothing you could possibly tell Me about yourself that I don’t already know. My child, lay your burden down.”

No Condemnation

This sweet surrender is at the heart of the Sacrament of Confession. The God Who created us, and Who loves us more than any human person possibly could, knew we would need a way to restore inner peace. The Church is not only a house of saints, but a hospital for sinners. As we read in the Catechism:

The Church is…holy though having sinners in her midst, because she herself has no other life but the life of grace. If they live her life, her members are sanctified; if they move away from her life, they fall into sins and disorders that prevent the radiation of her sanctity. This is why she suffers and does penance for those offenses, of which she has the power to free her children through the blood of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit (CCC 827).

For some, this liberation takes time — or a courageous leap of faith.

Just as we must receive the grace of God to confess wrongdoing, it is sometimes necessary to ask for the grace to release ourselves from self-inflicted wounds. Humility is found not only in acknowledging God’s greatness, we must also acknowledge the truth of who God has called us to be. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” the Apostle Paul reminds us (Rom 8:1).

There comes a point when we have to set aside our feelings, and act in faith. In Peggy’s case, I suggested that she consider taking a foster child into her home, to redeem the past by investing in that child’s future. The experience would reshape her future, too.

“It was for freedom that Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery,” Paul urged the Galatians (5:1). Starting today, you can start over. The Holy Spirit is waiting to pour out God’s graces generously upon those whose pride does not obstruct their pursuit of holiness.

Go on… confess… let go… It’s good for your soul!

© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange

Raised in the Evangelical Protestant tradition, Heidi Saxton was confirmed Catholic in 1993. She is the author of With Mary in Prayer (Loyola) and is a graduate student (theology) at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. You may contact Heidi at hsaxton@christianword.com .

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

MENU