For St. Francis the sacrament of Reconciliation (aka Confession) affords us the opportunity to experience divine compassion directly. In a “memo” in which he provides pastoral advice about Confession to the priests in his diocese, the saint emphasizes the sacrament’s salutary power. He reckons that “confession and penance render a man infinitely more honorable than sin renders him blamable” and that “the greater our misery, the more is the mercy of God glorified.” With this attitude in mind, we might approach the sacrament more frequently and more profitably.
In the lifelong fight against our faults, the aid of divine grace is indispensable. To avail ourselves of this heavenly help through sacramental means, St. Francis de Sales recommends first that we prepare thoroughly to receive it. In the Spiritual Directory, he suggests several ways by which to ready ourselves for Confession.
In the spirit of deep humility at the feet of our crucified Lord, we will ask for the grace and light of the Holy Spirit to discern our faults well.
Here the image evokes the intention. Coming to grips with the theology of atonement — in which Christ’s death on the Cross responds to the deadly nature of sin for all humanity — we first humble ourselves with the consideration that our own sins contribute to what Christ suffered. This little virtue grows larger through spiritual imagination: were we to stand “at the feet of our crucified Lord,” how could we not be moved to repentance?
Coupled with this excitement of our affections, a cognitional preparation is also needed. To this end we acknowledge that, given our natural aversion to self-recrimination, we need help to know ourselves well and thereby discern what is really going on in the faults we commit. We call on the aid of a spiritual light, to shine on our deeds in such a way that we can see them not simply from our own perspective but from God’s. In this way we will see more clearly that we stand always in need of divine grace.
Then, with hearts and minds opened to reconciliation:
We should recall everything we have found in our daily examinations since our previous confession and consider for a moment if there is anything else.
This act of personal recall presumes the daily practice of the Examen. It also supposes a much more frequent practice of sacramental Confession than is common today. Otherwise, such total recall of everything we have done would be virtually impossible! Even then, the saint recognizes that we must think about this twice — in case there is anything else we might have missed, given the fickleness of our memories.
Still, recalling actual faults is necessary, no matter the length of time since our previous confession. For St. Francis de Sales, this realistic appraisal arises not simply as supplying the traditional “matter” of the sacrament, but as coming from the everyday focus of our spiritual quest. Just as our devotion is to be enacted in concrete deeds, so our failings take shape in actual times and places and affect real people. Even if we are unable to recall everything, the examination of conscience the saint calls for here is not a generalized view or broad perspective. Rather, he invites us to give humble consideration to the actual what and when and where of how we live, particularly when we do not live as well as we ought or as we would like.
After this, let us humbly ask Our Lord for pardon and for the grace to correct ourselves. For this purpose we will make a firm resolution, especially concerning the more important things we have noticed.
Acknowledging wrong is hard. But humility is good, and so is God’s mercy. To ask God for pardon and grace is to redirect our intention to our Lord rather than to wallow in our imperfection. This prayerful request turns us away from ourselves and toward God, who alone leads us along the way of the good life.
To advance on that never-ending path:
We will renounce our faults and attempt to stir up true sorrow for them, however slight they may be, because it is always too great an evil to have been displeasing to the sovereign goodness of our Savior who is so merciful to us each day.
This dual response — an effective renunciation and an affective sorrow — results from the foregoing considerations. An honest consideration of our thoughts and words and deeds in light of God’s love for us can yield only a displeasing recognition: we fail in our relationship to God and others. But, as St. Francis de Sales learned at a young age, this admission need not beget depression. Instead, the merciful goodness of God remains sovereign — and is magnanimously offered to us each day.
With this salvation in mind, one preparatory step remains:
Having noticed our current faults, we should add something from the past which is clearly sinful and make an act of contrition for all these together.
Why add some past sin to our list? Are our current faults and failings not sufficient to engender humility and sorrow? What St. Francis de Sales recommends here does not deny the efficacy of sacramental confession to absolve all sins in our life, even those we cannot recall. Rather, it serves simply as a powerful reminder that imperfection accompanies us throughout this life. Still, the saint acknowledges this human reality positively:
“Dear imperfections, they force us to acknowledge our misery, give us practice in humility, selflessness, patience, and watchfulness; yet, notwithstanding, God looks at the preparation of our heart and sees that it is perfect” (Letters of Spiritual Direction, p. 98).
The time of preparation is now complete. While it appears long and detailed, it need not be so in practice. This preparation can take place in a short period spent in quiet prayer, particularly if we have accustomed ourselves to this self-examination on a regular basis. With this humble recognition, sorrowful affection, and renewed resolution in mind:
Then we will go humbly to our confessor honoring God and the sacred priesthood in the person of the priest. We ought to look upon him in confession as an angel whom God sends to reconcile us to his divine goodness.
Here, it seems, is where the celebration of this sacrament has run into difficulty. A common objection today asks why we should confess our sins to a priest instead of entreating God’s forgiveness directly from the Almighty. Particularly if one has had a bad experience in the confessional, this element of the divine-human interaction becomes an obstacle to the reconciliation we seek.
Sadly, that experience is all too real. Logically, the objection appears legitimate. But if we were to consider the process on a purely human level, we can come to understand why this sacramental process works in parallel fashion. When we wrong someone we love, our own recognition of what we have done and our own hope that we will be forgiven does not suffice to right the wrong. We must admit to the beloved our own culpability and express our sorrow for having harmed the relationship. And when we hear the one we love express forgiveness, we know for sure that our harmful deed is relegated to the past; then, and only then, does our reconciliation really begin.
So, too, when that reconciliation takes place with God. In St. Francis de Sales’s words, we honor this process in the humble recognition that this sacrament is the ordinary means of experiencing divine reconciliation, as established by the Lord himself in his commissioning of the disciples to forgive sins in God’s name. We may be able to speak directly to God, and we should; after all, it is to God, not a priest, that we confess our sins and express our sorrow. But in our limited human state, the other side of the conversation remains imperceptible; we cannot hear the divine response directly, as we would in a human relationship. Yet the concrete experience of forgiveness requires that we “sense” it, that we hear the words, that we know it to be so.
This is the role the priest plays. As St. Francis de Sales pictures it, the priest is the “angel whom God sends” to make this forgiveness real and enable divine reconciliation to be experienced. By this, the saint is not describing the priest’s personal character! In fact, he advises confessors to assure the one who comes to confession “that you are not an angel, no more than he is” (“Advice to Confessors,” p. 3). Instead, what is “angelic” in this image is the need for, and process of, mediation: just as angels serve to communicate a divine message, so the priest conveys divine mercy in human words that we are able to hear and understand. To emphasize this interactive reality, St. Francis de Sales has strong words for the priest in the confessional. In addition to pointing out that “ordinarily it is better to treat the penitent with love and mildness . . . than to treat him sharply” (“Advice to Confessors,” p. 8), he advises them to remember that at the beginning of their confessions the poor penitents call you Father, and that you must indeed have a fatherly heart towards them, receiving them with a great charity, bearing patiently their uncouthness, ignorance, weakness, slowness, and other imperfections. Never leave off aiding them and assisting them as long as there is hope of their amendment. (“Advice to Confessors,” p. 3)
In the Spiritual Directory, St. Francis de Sales also explains the penitent’s side of the conversation:
Let us be brief and clear in our confession. Let us never confess out of routine or scrupulosity, but rather out of devotion and attention as in an action of great importance and value.
With this counsel, he expresses the nature of and the motivation behind the conversation that takes place in the sacrament. His call for brevity suggests that this dialogue differs from that of a counseling session; after all, God already knows what we have done or failed to do. St. Francis’s call for clarity is simply practical; the reconciliation process, as in any earthly encounter, requires knowledge of what is really going on in the divine-human relationship.
In his Introduction, St. Francis provides further insight. To assist us with being clear in our confession, he says:
Do not make mere pointless accusations as many do in a routine way, such as: I have not loved God as much as I should; I have not prayed with as much devotion as I should; I have not loved my neighbor as I should; I have not received the sacraments as reverently as I should, and the like. The reason is that when you say such things you say nothing definite to help your confessor know your state of conscience. Every saint in heaven and every man on earth might say the same thing if they went to confession. (Introduction, part 2, chap. 19, p. 102)
Instead, he suggests that we not only confess what we have done (or failed to do), but, more importantly, that we acknowledge the reason for it and the motive behind it. These are what allow us to see ourselves as we really are and become the place where we focus renewed energy, with the help of divine grace, in becoming who we are called to be.
This, ultimately, is the point of going to Confession. Engaging in this penitential dialogue can improve our self-understanding through the process of acknowledging where we still need to grow. It also affords us a chance to “practice the virtues of humility, obedience, simplicity, and charity” in a way that surpasses any other act (Introduction, part 2, chap. 19, p. 101). But the real benefit to the sacramental celebration comes in the opportunity it gives us to encounter God and experience divine grace. In hearing the words of absolution, we know directly and concretely that our sins have been forgiven, that our faults “are buried before God and the confessor in such a way that they will never be remembered” (“Advice to Confessors,” p. 3). And on account of this sacred moment of never-ending mercy, we can “go in peace” — to begin again, one step farther along the path to the good life.