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Ask Mary: God’s Grace & Past Mistakes

Question: 

I have been struggling lately with my spiritual journey. I have made some awful mistakes in the past, and I am afraid that God is so ashamed with my decisions. I want to go to confession, but I am scared that God is too disappointed in me. I also feel that if I confess my sins the priest will judge my past mistakes. When I think about all of my brokenness, I become nauseous. Do you think I can start over and mend my relationship with God? I feel completely hopeless. Anything will help.

 

 Answer:

I’m very sorry to hear that you are going through such a difficult time, and I want to assure you of my prayers for you.

The short answer to your question: “Do you think I can start over and mend my relationship with God?”  is a resounding ‘YES!’  And you may not realize this, but God has already started the process.

What you’re experiencing—that sorrowful feeling for offending God in the past, that knowledge of the fact that you need to be reconciled to Him— that is called prevenient grace.  It’s a fancy way of saying that God loves us so much that He will run after us, even after we’ve completely rejected Him and done everything in our power to separate ourselves from His love.

My grandfather once told me that every time we think about God throughout the day, that is God telling us He loves us, and inviting us into conversation with Him.  We can’t think of God unless He first thinks of us.  The very fact that you exist right now is because God is willing you into existence— at this very moment.  He created you for love of you, and nothing you could ever do can change the unchangeable God.

Now, prevenient grace is meant to precede and prepare us for sanctifying grace, which is what we receive in the sacraments.  Particularly, baptized Catholics receive actual grace in the sacrament of reconciliation.  If you’re looking for a way to mend your relationship with God, there is no better way than to be reconciled to Him in the sacrament of reconciliation (see what I did there? :-P).   If prevenient grace is God calling us to Himself out of love for us, sanctifying grace is God literally pouring out that love upon us.  But you have to first go to confession to get it.

So, none of this nonsense about God being too disappointed in you or too ashamed of you to take you back.  He loves you more than you could ever even want Him to, and He desires your happiness more than you do.  If you don’t believe me, just read the history of the Israelites in the Old Testament and see how many times they screwed up, turned their back on God, worshipped other gods, and still, God was constantly faithful to them.

Come now, let us set things right,
Says the LORD:
Though your sins be like scarlet,
They may become white as snow;
Though they be red like crimson,
They may become white as wool
-Isaiah 1:18

As for the concern about the priest judging you, I know it can be nothing short of terrifying to utter our most shameful sins aloud to a fellow human being and invite commentary on them.  But the good news is that the priest knows this too.  And he’s not there to judge; he’s there to confer absolution, to free you from your sin and guilt (through the power given him by Christ, of course).  That’s why he sits in the confessional week after week, hearing confession after confession.  And believe me, the priest has heard it all.  You’re not going to surprise him with anything you confess (Week after week, and confession after confession, remember?).

But in all the talk about being afraid to confess our sins to another human being, I think too often we overlook one of the best things about confession: we’re confessing our sins to another human being!  It’s not some emotion-less, dry ritual.  It’s real.  It’s one human being to another, talking about what actually matters. What a profound gift!  So don’t be afraid of doing it wrong or anything like that.  If you’re nervous, say so.  If you’re not quite sure how to begin, say so.  The priest wants you to make a good confession, and he is there to help you do that.

The best advice I’ve ever gotten about going to confession was to ask the Blessed Mother to help you make a good confession.  She will.

I’m praying for you.  Please go to confession soon.  Your only regret will be waiting so long.

Out of the depths I call to you, LORD;
Lord, hear my cry!
May your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy
If you, LORD, keep account of sins,
Lord, who can stand
But with you is forgiveness
and so you are revered.

I wait for the LORD,
my soul waits
and I hope for his word
My soul looks for the Lord
more than sentinels for daybreak

More than sentinels for daybreak,
let Israel hope in the LORD,
For with the LORD is mercy,
with him is plenteous redemption,
And he will redeem Israel
from all its sins.

-Psalm 130

PS- Sorry for missing Tuesday’s post!  But it felt like Monday anyway, right? 🙂

Ask Mary: Going to Confession, but…

Question:

I have a confession: I’ve never confessed. I’ve never received the sacrament of reconciliation. I was baptized and confirmed at the age of 19. It was almost two Easters ago but I’ve never gotten up the nerve to go. I couldn’t confess during RCIA because I hadn’t been baptized and now I guess I just don’t know how. And beyond not knowing how, I also don’t know what to confess. I have 21 years of sins and I’m not sure which to tell.

I don’t know how to go about doing it now and I’m a little scared to confess that I’ve never confessed. What should I do? I want to receive the sacrament. I guess I just need help finding the correct way to do it.

 

Answer:

Thanks for the question!

First of all, some good news: you actually only have two years of sins to confess!  Baptism cleanses you from all your past sins, no matter how grievous or how many they number.  So when you do finally go to confession, you don’t actually have to confess every one of your sins since you were born, but only those that you have committed since you were born again in Christ in baptism.  🙂

That being said, here are some practical guidelines for going to confession:

Step 1: Get to confession early.  Check the local Catholic Churches’ websites, bulletins, or call the office during the week to find out when they offer confession.  Either choose to go during regularly scheduled confession, or schedule an appointment (even feel free to tell them that you are making your first reconciliation). Depending on the parish, a line may begin to form outside the confessional anywhere between 10-20 minutes before confession actually is scheduled to begin.  Get there early not only to secure your place in line, but to spend some time in prayer and examining your conscience.

Step 2: Examine your conscience.  In your case, you may want to start this process a day or two before.  I recommend writing your sins down (privately of course) so you know that you won’t forget anything (you certainly don’t have to do this, I just personally find that it often helps me.  I can focus on confessing myself well and feeling sorrow for my sins without stressing that I will forget to say something).  Obviously after confession you can tear the list up, burn it, whatever.

What should you be looking for when you examine your conscience?  Sins.  Anything you have intentionally done, or intentionally did not do, that has hurt your relationship with God.  There are many guides for examining your conscience.  Here is an example of one.  The bottom line?  You may not remember each instance you have hurt God since your coming into the Church. But you likely have a few or several that pop into your mind the moment the topic of confession is brought up.  Yes, those need to be confessed.

This is important: You have to confess all of your mortal sins during confession.  If you willfully leave any sins out of your confession, none of your sins from that confession are forgiven, and you have committed a mortal sin by choosing to withhold a sin in confession.  Don’t worry about taking too long, and do not be too embarrassed to confess a sin.  Trust me.  The priest has heard it all (And I guarantee you that you are not the first person who unfortunately waited a couple of years—or more—to go to confession after being baptized).

Step 3:  Go into the confessional.  Depending on the parish, there may be a screen with a kneeler in front of it for you to use as you make your confession, or there may just simply be a chair in front of the priest so that you can make your confession face-to-face.  In many parishes, they have both and you can choose.  It’s entirely personal preference; so choose whichever way you would be most comfortable if you are given the option.

Step 4: Begin your confession.  I like to begin mine the old-fashioned way: “Bless me Father, for I have sinned.  It has been _____ (amount of time) since my last confession.  [insert list of sins here]”  In your case, I would just say, “I’ve actually never been to confession,” or, “I was baptized two years ago and this is my first confession.”  Something to that effect.  Most likely, the priest will help you through it, and don’t be afraid to admit that you’re nervous, or unsure of what to do next.  This is his job.  He will help you.  He wants to help you.

A couple small tips: This is where that list comes in handy.  Make sure you confess your sins in content as well as number (i.e. “I lied 3 times”).  Don’t get too stressed out about the number if you can’t remember.  Even admit that you can’t remember.  “Too many times to count,” or, “a lot” or even, “a handful of times” are acceptable.  What you never want to do is try to make your sins sound like less of a big deal than they are.  This is the sacrament of reconciling ourselves with God.  We need to be genuine; we need to be humble.

Step 5: Conclude your confession.  A few years ago I learned this handy little phrase: “And for these and all my sins I am sorry.”  Bam. A magical way of saying, “yes Father, those were all of my sins.  That was the end of my list.  Now feel free to give me my Penance.”  Before that, my confessions were full of awkward silences, waiting for the priest to ask me, “is that all?” and the old standby, “um…that’s it, Father.”  Not anymore.  A solid, clean way to conclude my confession.  Wonderful.

After you’re done with your “list,” the priest may say a few words or even ask a few questions.  Don’t freak out.  He’s doing this to help you and to try and give you some advice and guidance as a means to avoid those sins in the future.  So listen up.  After that, he will give you some sort of penance, usually a few prayers or some act of service.  It can be anything, really.  Another important thing: be clear on what the priest tells you to do for your penance.  Repeat it back to him, just so you are sure.  If it is something that you feel that you cannot do for whatever reason, then ask the priest for a lighter penance.  (I’ve never had to do this; I have just heard a few priests mention it as an option so I’m passing it onto you).  The reason why this is important is because penance is an important part of our reconciliation.  It is a sin in itself to fail to do our penance.

Step 6: Make your Act of Contrition.  In all honesty, I carried my printed-out version of the Act of Contrition into the confessional with me until I was about 18 years old.  I liked being able to read it, and I felt I prayed it more sincerely when it was in front of me.  This is fine.  Print out an act of contrition to bring into the confessional with you if you want to.  However, it is not even totally necessary to recite the entire “O My God, I am heartily sorry…” Act of Contrition prayer that we often think of in order to make a good confession.  An act of contrition is simply meant to be what it sounds like: some act that shows your contrition (sorrow) for offending God.  A perfectly valid and acceptable act of contrition could be just to simply say, “Jesus, I am sorry for hurting you, and I will try my hardest not to do it again.”  But of course, the other one is beautiful, too.  🙂

O, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you. I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all because they offend you, my God, who are all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin

Step 7: Receive Absolution.  The priest may give you absolution as you are reciting your Act of Contrition, but regardless, this is the point where your sins are forgiven.  Here is what the priest will say (or some variation of it.  The simplest form is “I absolve you”. Oh, and he may be saying it quietly… and/or in Latin):

God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of your son, you have reconciled the world to yourself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the church, may God grant you pardon and peace. And I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This Sacrament is one of the greatest gifts that God has given to the Church, and we would be wise, and so much better off, to frequent it as often as possible.  Happy confessing!

PS – I also really like these 20 quick tips for Making a Good Confession — from a priest!

Breaking Up…With a Friend

I have received a few questions that fall under the category of discerning whether a particular friendship is good for you, and what to do if it isn’t.

We know from Scripture that Christ is pretty clear about loving your neighbor, and even loving and praying for your enemies.  On the one hand, it doesn’t seem like a very “loving” thing to do to just up and cut someone out of your life completely.  At the same time, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that, “bad company corrupts good morals,” and furthermore, Jesus says that, “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.”

From Paul’s words we hear that we cannot play the, “my friends do bad things but I’m still a good person” card. And Jesus’ command tells us what to do when the inevitable occurs if and when we decide to keep the bad company anyway.

All of that sounds pretty cut and dry in the abstract.  But how do we apply it to our life?  In other words: How do we know if we need to cut a specific relationship out of our life?

For starters, you know that friendship (or friendships) that popped into your head the second you started reading this post?  I’m just guessing here, but they may not be the best people you could be hanging out with…

The way I see it, there is only one reason to cut someone out of your life completely.  “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.”  Translation: If you find yourself committing the same sins over and over again every time you hang out with a certain friend or a certain group of people, you need to lose those friends.  And before you accuse me of being judgmental or of advising you to be unnecessarily harsh, hear this: those friends need to lose you, too.

This is a two-way street.  The relationship is mutually detrimental if it leads to sin, no matter who introduced the sin in the first place.  By choosing to walk away, you’re witnessing to the fact that sin is not acceptable, and that leading a holy life pleasing to God is worth any sacrifice.  That is a great act of love, and it is one of the best things you could do for the other person.  Staying in a friendship that centers on or leads to habitual sin is just going to continue to hurt everyone involved, and in a much more profound and potentially permanent way than bruised egos.

So you know you need to distance yourself from a specific person, or group of people.  But it’s much easier said than done, I know.  To help, here are some suggestions.

1. Be honest

Honesty is always, always, always, the best policy.  Explain to your friends that you need some space, and be honest about why.  Don’t blame them (use “I” words, not “you” words).  Say that you’re trying to change ____ in your life, and that you need the space so that you are truly able to do that.

2. Try to Avoid the Last-Minute Promise to Change

It may be that your friend will hear what you’re saying and, in an attempt to keep you in his or her life, will make some sort of gesture to offer to help you beat this.  This could be the most well-intentioned statement, but I would still advise to resolve to some distance.  The reason being: the habits you have formed while hanging out with this friend, or group of friends, may be deeper than you realize.  And despite best intentions to change, if the only thing separating last Friday night from this Friday night is a flimsy agreement to change, it will be all too easy to fall back into not-so-old [bad] habits.  You need the distance.  And, depending on how deep-seated the habits are, you need some drastic change to overcome them.

3. If You’re Convinced Your Friend Just Won’t Understand…

Then you just have to go cold-turkey.  Cut off all communication, even if it has to be without explanation.  Honesty is best, but if the relationship you need out of your life is so destructive that you do not even feel comfortable sharing your true feelings, then maybe they wouldn’t even be heard anyway.  If your friend does care about you, they’ll seek you out and ask you what is going on.  When you’re ready, you can tell them.  If they’re true friends, they’ll understand in that moment.

4. Be Patient (and pray!) for New Friends

The bad news: this may mean your next couple of weekends are kind of boring.  That’s really ok.  Better to experience a little bit of boredom than placing your soul in jeopardy, right?  God knows your struggle, and He’s with you through it.  Finding good friends may not come easy.  It may take an awkward young adult gathering (or 4), or putting yourself out there when it’s uncomfortable, but it will happen.  God knows you need friends, and do not fool yourself into thinking otherwise.  Just be patient in waiting to find the right ones.

5. Look in the Right Places for Friends

It’s kind of like dating.  If you’re looking for a nice Catholic girl, don’t go looking in the bar at 2:00am.  It’s not that you won’t find Catholics who like to have a good time, it’s just that you have a better chance of finding them if you first look for the “Catholic” part of the equation, and then narrow down your options from there.  Likewise, with friends, first look for the ones who are “good”, and then narrow down your options.  So start in places that have a high probability of “good” people, like church, school (the people that actually go every day), or even some sort of extracurricular activity.

 6. Pray for Your Old Friends

It will help you through the lonely times, and the reality is that you will always care about them, even if you don’t speak.  Praying for them is truly the best thing you can do for them and for yourself during this time.  And who knows?  Maybe in the future, after you have both had time to get over your bad habits, God will bring you into each other’s lives again.

“Church-Approved Birth Control” and A Lesson in Logic

I got a question from a reader asking why NFP is ok when the Church says artificial birth control is not.  I was reminded of this comment I received on a recent post of mine:

Use the pill for a month while having sex. No pregnancy.

Use condoms for a month while having sex. No pregnancy.

Use NFP for a month while having sex approximately for a possible 10-11 days of the month because that’s when fertility is low [disclaimer: this number is way off].  No pregnancy.

Different ways of getting the same thing. No real difference.

Well, NFP does have a difference I guess. It means having a lot less sex.

I see why the Catholic Church approves. 

Zing!  Gotta love the one-liner, right?  Unfortunately, while one-liners are great for eliciting laughs, they’re rarely ideal for facilitating thoughtful discussion.  And even though thoughtful discussion may not be the goal of the mock-news shows we watch on Comedy Central, it becomes a problem when us normal, everyday-folk confuse these snarky remarks for valid arguments.  So let’s take this one head-on.

“Natural Family Planning is just Church-approved birth control”

The funny thing is that no one is really trying to say this premise isn’t true.  The Church has always said that there exist valid reasons that a married couple may have for wishing to delay or space out pregnancies.  If you want to call it “control” then fine, but we’re less delusional about how much control we actually have over things in this life, so we call it “planning.”  Semantics, I guess.

Anyway, the issue I have is with the unspoken punch line that, since the Church approves a “natural” form of birth control, it’s silly for Her to oppose it in an artificial form.

Logic 101

Clearly this argument is operating on the [false] assumption that just because two parties may agree to a certain end, it automatically follows that they must agree on each and every means to achieve that end.  (“Different ways of getting the same thing.  No real difference”) We hear it argued again and again that contraception and natural family planning are of the same moral and ethical weight because their goal is [often] to achieve the same end: No pregnancy.

Allow me to show you how absurd this assumption is.

I can agree with you that someone who is 70 pounds overweight should probably lose those 70 pounds.  It doesn’t mean that I have to agree with you when you tell that person, “Hey!  A great way to shed those pounds is to just throw up after every meal…you can eat whatever you want to and still lose weight!”

End result of bulimia: 70 pounds lighter.
End result of healthy diet and exercise: 70 pounds lighter.

“Different ways of getting the same thing”?  “No real difference”?  Hardly…

No psychologically healthy person is trying to say that these two options used to achieve weight loss should be treated equally, much less that the option that makes rapid weight loss “easier” (bulimia) should be preferred to the natural and healthy way.

A common goal does not automatically validate every means used to achieve that goal.

To be clear: Even if you don’t think there is anything wrong with using artificial contraception, please realize that you’re not making any sort of witty argument against the Catholic Church by pointing out that the Church, too, understands there are valid reasons for delaying pregnancies.  …You’re kind of just helping out bloggers like me in showcasing Her Wisdom.

The Church’s Teaching: NFP vs. The Pill

So we have established that NFP and artificial contraception are not one and the same, and that to support one does not necessarily mean you are required to support the other.  Now we should probably answer the question of why, according to the Church, NFP is ok and artificial birth control is not.

[I’ve already written a post about why the Catholic Church is against artificial birth control, so I won’t re-hash all of that here.]

To deny the reciprocal total gift of self its true expression in the marital act is to deny a true expression of love, which the Church is just not ok with.  You are not expressing love for someone when you are holding back a part of yourself from him or her.

So, then why is NFP ok?  Well first of all it’s not always ok.  If your motivations are simply selfish and there really is no serious reason why you cannot or should not have another child at this time, the Church does not intend for NFP to become simply a “natural” alternative to artificial birth control.  It’s meant to be a way for families who would be harmed financially, or in some other way, by having another child at that time.  Also, it should be said that choosing to practice NFP has to be agreed upon by both husband and wife.  If at any time either the husband or wife wishes to stop practicing NFP, the other cannot use NFP as a justification for denying his or her spouse their marital right.

Natural Family Planning is not simply a “natural” alternative to artificial birth control because it does not reduce sex simply to a means to achieve pleasure.  It’s not that pleasure is bad; it’s just that sex is supposed to be about so much more than pleasure—it’s supposed to be about love (i.e. total gift of self).

So yes, while practicing NFP, you are choosing to abstain from sexual activity during those days on which you are most fertile (which by the way, is usually about 4 days out of the month).  But you are choosing to do this with your spouse, whom you love, and whom you would never wish to reduce merely to an object of achieving pleasure for yourself.  It’s a more consistent expression of the life-giving love that isn’t afraid of a little sacrifice for the greater good of the family.

Ask Mary: Discernment (And other stuff…)

Happy Fat Tuesday!

Couple things:

First, if you haven’t read the “Diving Into Lent” post from Thursday, go ahead and check that out now.  (And remember: contrary to popular belief, binging today will not make the sacrifices you begin tomorrow any easier.  In fact, the reverse is probably true.  Just something to keep in mind 🙂 )

Also, big thanks to Tara over at Impacting Culture for awarding Young And Catholic with the Versatile Blogger award!  To pay it forward, I’m supposed to come up with 15 links to other blogs I’d like to nominate—but I don’t have a list that long quite yet.  So just check out Impacting Culture for now!

Finally, a great question from a reader on discernment.  (And I’m linking to an even better answer from Peter Kreeft)

Question:

Hi Mary!
Lately, I have been struggling to understand what God expects of me. I have been praying a lot,and I know I need to be patient. However, the matter of discerning really confuses me. I am somewhat of an analytical person, so I tend to question every decision and thought.  This may not make sense, but I honestly struggle daily with separating what God is telling me from other thoughts. I feel hopeless and as if I will never understand exactly what he wants from me. Being in this struggle makes me feel as if I am disappointing God. I really just want to be at peace and know that I am serving him the way He has planned. I know that discernment is a personal relationship with myself and God, and that there is no magic formula, but I guess I am just asking for some advice.

Answer:

As a fellow analytical person, this question makes total sense to me.  I know God should be in control of everything (and I want Him to be!)—but at what point can my free will step in and make the decision already?  By far the best answer I have heard on this struggle you describe comes from Peter Kreeft:

Does God have one right choice for me in each decision I make?

When we pray for wisdom to discern God’s will when it comes to choosing a mate, a career, a job change, a move, a home, a school, a friend, a vacation, how to spend money, or any other choice, big or little, whenever there are two or more different paths opening up before us and we have to choose, does God always will one of those paths for us? If so, how do we discern it?

Many Christians who struggle with this question today are unaware that Christians of the past can help them from their own experience. Christian wisdom embodied in the lives and teachings of the saints tells us two things that are relevant to this question.

First, they tell us that God not only knows and loves us in general but that he cares about every detail of our lives, and we are to seek to walk in his will in all things, big and little. Second, they tell us that he has given us free will and reason because he wants us to use it to make decisions. This tradition is exemplified in Saint Augustine’s famous motto “Love God and [then] do what you will.” In other words, if you truly love God and his will, then doing what you will, will, in fact, be doing what God wills.

Do these two pieces of advice pull us in opposite directions, or do they only seem to? Since there is obviously a great truth embodied in both of them, which do we emphasize the most to resolve our question of whether God has one right way for us?

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