In recent months the world has had numerous opportunities to be left in awe at the destructive force of nature. But earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes and wild fires are nothing compared to the most powerful force at work in the world—the Sacraments. These seemingly benign ceremonial rituals have the power to render Almighty God Himself captive in what looks like bread and wine, infect the omniscient Deity with amnesia of evil committed, and make mere mortal men into something akin to gods. And it is the Catholic Church that has been given the ability to harness this power, unleashing it upon her faithful children whenever they desire it.
Yet, if we the Faithful are honest, we mostly go through the motions when it comes to the Sacraments. Surely something so powerful does something to us we reason. Sure, we would like it to do more, but truth be told, our hearts are not in it. We all want to approach Our Lord in the Eucharist with our hearts hurting because we love so deeply, but we easily succumb to distraction and our desire deflates. We all want to enter the confessional with the tears of sorrow, but no matter how hard we try, they never come. It is not that we don’t care, it’s just that we have not a clue as to how to engage our hearts. How can we form hearts ready to be overpowered by Christ in His Sacraments?
What is Love?
Many well-meaning apologists have said something like “love is not a feeling. Love is an act of the will.” Many of us have swallowed this whole and are very suspicious of our feelings. Subsequently, our hearts atrophy. Even if there is a certain primacy of the will, any love that lacks feeling is somehow incomplete and its coldness can, quite frankly, be pretty scary. What our friends really should say is “love is not only a feeling.” For a person to fully love, they must love fully, that is, with a love that flows from both soul and body.
When Our Lord appeared to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and revealed His burning heart to her, He complained of receiving only “coldness…in this Sacrament of Love.” In other words, what love He did receive in the Eucharist was love that was heartless. This was not a concern of just the 17th Century, but one that was on Our Lord radar all along. In fact when Our Lord was asked what the greatest commandment was He replied that it was to “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind”(Mt 22:37). It is the heart that is primary.
You might object and say that I am misinterpreting what He said. God does not command a feeling of us that we are incapable of producing. First we must clarify what we mean when we speak of the heart. It is not just our physical heart nor is it just a collection of bodily emotions. When Sacred Scripture refers to the heart it locates it as the seat of joy and deep love. That is, it is viewed as the “place” where our emotions are elevated or spiritualized by our intellect and will. The Fall crushed our hearts. Christ came to restore them to their rightful place under the dominion of intellect and will enabling us to do everything with a bodily intensity.
Second, and most relevant to the discussion at hand, Christ never commands something of us without in turn also empowering us to do it. In other words, Christ is commanding us to have a feeling we are incapable of producing because He is determined to give us the power to produce those feelings. The biggest obstacle to pure love is, according to Scripture, a hardened heart and Christ wants to make them come alive again. It should not surprise us then that if He is going to heal that hidden place in us where body and soul meet that He would create material things that have a hidden spiritual power in them. In other words the Sacraments, especially Confession, not only heal our souls but our hearts as well.
While the Sacraments contain grace ex opere operato, the amount of grace we receive depends upon our readiness. One Confession contains enough grace to heal us completely. All that stands in the way is our own subjective disposition. Therefore, if we are to maximize our yield, it is instructive to look at the Sacrament itself.
The Sacrament of Confession
For the Sacrament of Confession to be valid three things are required of the penitent—sorrow, confession and amendment. All three being necessary it is hard to rank them in importance, but for most of us there is an over-emphasis on the confession aspect. The other two are equally important, especially because they directly involve our hearts. Having sorrow, or to use the classic term contrition, is first and foremost an act of understanding and will. We understand that what we did was wrong either because we have offended Our Beloved (perfect contrition) or because we fear punishment (imperfect contrition). To feel sorry is not necessary. But truth be told even though we may not feel sorry, we should. In other words true sorrow of soul should be accompanied by tears of sorrow, especially if we are conscious that we have offended One Who is worthy of all my love.
Likewise with our amendment or penance. The priest assigns a penance to us to provide suitable satisfaction for the sins we have confessed and through our the grace of the Sacrament there is a certain remission of the temporal punishment of sin and the curing of evil inclinations. The actual amount is proportional to both the measure of the penance imposed (an argument for asking for giving/asking for harder penance) and the disposition of the person making satisfaction. That disposition of course has to do with having a firm intention to repair the harm done by the sin, but again it would be more complete if we did so accompanied by sorrow and determination exhibited through our bodies.
There seems to be a Catch-22 of sorts in that for the Sacrament to have a greater effect on our hearts, we have to awaken our hearts, which we already said we can’t do. That is why we also believe that the Sacrament itself entitles the penitent to all the actual graces needed to deepen our sorrow, increase self-knowledge, and make firmer our purpose of amendment (c.f. Pius XII, Mystici Coroporis Christi, 88). Obviously the more deeply you experience sorrow, the more intensely you will make satisfaction for your sins. In short, our hearts come into the orbit of the Sacred Heart and we begin to experience an acceleration due to gravity with each Confession made from the heart. Confession absolutely forgives our sins and removes the eternal punishment for them, but it is only through frequent reception of the Sacrament that we can hope to win healing for our hearts. Through frequent Confession, our will becomes stronger not only in resisting sin but also in stirring up our bodily passions to more fully participate in our sorrow and penance.
When Jesus healed the paralytic and forgave his sins he literally dazzled the crowds because of His Supreme Power. Matthew says that the “crowds saw this they were struck with awe and glorified God who had given such power to men” (Mt 9:8). We too should marvel at this tremendous power and make Confession a regular habit.