I have never been afraid of the dentist, not even as a little kid.
That’s not to say I always look forward to going to the dentist — it’s just that I had so much dental work done to me from a very young age that I suppose I’m just accustomed to strangers having their hands in my mouth.
Every year my family and I get messages telling us it’s time for a check-up with our dentists. The postcard my wife and kids get is cheerful, full of happy language and cute pictures, intent I’m sure to remind them that the end result of their dental visit will be clean teeth and a smile that will last another year. As a military officer, my reminder is more straightforward: an email telling me when my appointment is, complete with a reminder to be “15 minutes early” or else my commander will be notified. Sigh.
Well, I suppose the method of being alerted to our impending dental appointment doesn’t matter as much as simply getting to the doctor’s office and getting the work done. Like most things medical, putting off the visit doesn’t harm anyone but us – and absent divine intervention medical conditions rarely improve spontaneously. Dental problems in particular seem to have a low tolerance for procrastination.
So it is with our souls.
While no fleshy metaphor for sin works precisely, the metaphor used most often to make sin understandable is “decay.” Just like tooth decay, sin often starts small. Like a tiny little bacteria colony on your molar, small sins begin to eat away at your soul. As the decay goes untreated, it gets bigger and bigger. Left alone without any cleansing the entire soul can begin to rot to the point of total decay.
The Good News that Christians know is that Christ came to give us a way out of sin. The Divine Physician offers us treatment for what ails us, sin, in the form of those channels of His Grace: the Sacraments of the Church. In particular, the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) is an opportunity to cleanse the decay in our souls, no matter how bad it has become. Certainly, we need not wait until our souls are full of rot to go to Confession; it’s available to us at almost any time. Besides the usual Saturday afternoon when Father waits to “treat” his “patients”, many priests will allow you to make an appointment to see them if you need to do so.
This is why Holy Mother Church, like any good mother, requires Catholics to go to Confession at least once a year. Think of it as Mom making you go to the dentist.
The second precept (“You shall confess your sins at least once a year”) ensures preparation for the Eucharist by the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, which continues Baptism’s work of conversion and forgiveness (#2042).
Confession is a lot like a dental appointment. Just as at the dentist, we will be examined for what’s wrong with us. Through our examination of conscience, the Holy Spirit helps us (and the priest) find where we’ve injured ourselves and our relationship with God. The Divine Physician then treats our decay with the power of grace through the absolution the priest gives us in the confessional. And just like the dentist’s fluoride treatment, the grace received in the confessional hardens the soul’s “enamel” to enable us to resist sin better after we leave.
Naturally, it follows that if once a year is good, then once a month or once a week is even better. The practical reason for frequent confession is that we can do a more thorough examination of conscience and therefore have a better awareness of our need for Christ’s grace in our lives. Certainly, the grace to avoid sin better (the “fluoride”) is as beneficial as the cleansing. I try to go often since I have a hard time remembering what I ate last week, let alone how I sinned last week.
The Precepts of the Church, like going to Confession at least once a year, are “Mother’s Rules” for good living. It’s a wise son who follows his mother’s advice.