Trembling at Confession

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As we approach Holy Week, I’ve been thinking about all my friends and readers who are going through RCIA this year to be confirmed this Easter. Are you afraid about making your first Confession? I was. I was terrified. I was so excited to be confirmed, but the anxiety of making that first Confession loomed over me. It felt like an excruciating torture I was going to have to endure before being accepted into the Church.

I remember so vividly coming to the end of the Penance service during Lent, lining up for the confessional and trembling. Most cradle Catholics I know are surprised to hear how scared I was, but they also haven’t ever carried 25 years of unconfessed sin around. It’s a tad intimidating.

One of my anxieties was just the shame of telling someone out loud everything horrible I had done. As I waited for my turn, I realized my perspective was off. Jesus already knew. He already knew everything. And he was the only one that mattered. But I was still afraid that I would chicken out. That I would hold back the worst things because I was too ashamed to speak them out loud. There was a statue of Our Lady right next to my spot in line. I asked her to pray for me. “Please give me the courage to make a true, full confession. Don’t let me knowingly hold anything back. Please, please, help me.” My hands shook. The people in front of me in line were chatting together about this and that and I was baffled by their nonchalance. Why aren’t they scared? I wondered, as my knees knocked.

When it was my turn, my stomach lurched. I knelt. My voice trembled. The tears came. It all tumbled out: my sin, my selfishness, my failures. Then I heard the priest’s voice. Not words of condemnation, but encouragement. Not despair, but grace. He told me my penance. I prayed the prayer of contrition and heard the words of absolution. Then: Go in peace. And let me tell you, I did. When you get to leave 25 years of guilt behind you, you go in peace.

I left and knelt in the church to complete my penance. Ask for Jesus’ blessing on you and your family. That’s it? Is that even a penance? I wondered. Sounds more like a gift. That’s not nearly enough to make up for what I’ve done! I thought as I looked up at the crucifix above the altar. It’s not enough. Was the answer. You can’t make up for what you’ve done. I made up for what you’ve done. Just like this. On the Cross. This is all my gift to you. I love you this much.

Can we understand God’s love and mercy if we don’t face our sin? Can we rejoice over our salvation if we don’t realize what we’ve been saved from?

I had been wrong about Confession. It wasn’t a humiliating hoop God was making me jump through. It was a gift offered out of His love. He didn’t want me to bear the weight of my guilt any more. He wanted me to offer it to him, to let it go, to be reconciled, to live in grace. He wanted to give me the chance to be free from sin, to receive his mercy and love.

Now when I hear someone is about to make their first confession, I am so excited for them. The joy, the peace, the beauty of it. During this lenten season when I go to Confession before Holy Week, I won’t tremble in fear like I did the first time, three years ago. I will tremble instead at the weight of God’s mercy. Behold! God’s love for you.

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  1. Selina says

    Wow, your story is my story. I remember being terrified as well. Now, like you I see confession as such a gift.

    God Bless you and your family.

  2. Lauren (LPatter) says

    so moving!

    a cradle Catholic, I’ve had those moments individually at separate confessions (except for the 25 years one, that is an amazing experience only a chosen few get to own – so very special!), and the thing that I struggled with for so long were those baby penances. I thought in my 20s for sure the priests were being wayyy too easy on a seemingly sweet how-bad-could-she-really-be young woman, but gradually, lately, I’ve realized its more about exactly what you described. (And I’m sure they heard the real, present selfishness I confessed….just like the rest of the human race…) Allowing Jesus to give us that gift, take it all away (sin/our baggage) and truly see, with total humility and gratitude, the personal gift of the cross made real in our lives.

    Thanks for sharing your story!

  3. says

    Nail on the head. =) This is actually a theme I’ve heard from many RCIA folk – the scariness of that first confession. The little things I think I’ll be fine with – there are a few big ticket items I’m not sure if I’ll have the courage to talk about yet.

  4. Neika says

    Thank you for sharing. You almost made me cry. But I’m also confused. I am a convert and did NOT have to make confession until after my baptism. So I did not have to confess 20-something years of (stuff) because baptism washed me new, right?? Am I wrong here. Because I was pretty happy about that little treasure….

    • Selina says

      Yes you are right. But if you have been validly baptized either as a Catholic, or in another faith, you would only be receiving the Eucharist, and confirmation. That would be when you would need to make a life time confession.

      • Neika Seibold says

        It worried me until I got in the shower. Then I figured it out. Sorry! That is just my mind before coffee. 🙂

  5. kirstin says

    Thank you for posting that. I am going through RCIA and was in a panic about confession. I appreciate your perspective!

  6. says

    That’s so beautiful, Haley! I can imagine that it would be daunting to have to catch up on your whole lifetime in a confession! But it really is the best, once you’ve gotten through it. Even as a cradle Catholic, I still have hesitations and get nervous sometimes. And every single time, Our Lord teaches me once again how intense and freeing His grace is. I am still routinely moved to tears at the encounter with God’s forgiveness. It’s overwhelming.
    Also, I recently read that the priest makes penance for the souls who confess to him. So, often, when we’re getting those puny little penance “assignments” and thinking, “This is way too light!” part of the story is that the priest is also making penance on our behalf, taking some of the weight off of us. Isn’t that amazing?! I only learned that this year.

  7. says

    Yep I am standing at that very point right now! I have been catholic for twelve years and confession isn’t a big thing around my parish. For years I thought nobody was doing it anymore. Apparantly not so. I have found out that nearby, a 15 minute busride away, there is an opportunity to go to confession. But, strange parish, strange people… scary. Scary anyway, confession. I was taught when you are baptised, your sins are washed away, so you do not need to confess your sins up till then. Anyway, you are reminding me that I want to go to confession (for the first time) too. Glad I am not the only person wrestling with this. Still scary though.

  8. Bernadette says

    I just thought you should know … Confession can be pretty terrifying for Cradle Catholics, too 😉 And even though I was only seven when I made my First Confession, I was ABSOLUTELY TERRIFIED … and to make it worse, there were like six priests hearing the Communion Class’s confessions, and so they were using all these different little rooms (with no screens) and one of the teachers grabbed me out of the line I was in (for a priest I knew, in a real confessional with a screen) and forced me to go to another priest in a little room with just two chairs … It was pretty traumatic 🙂 I am glad you saw the beauty in it, though … it’s pretty hard for a seven year old to do so after such an experience, but it got better. (Have you ever read Frank O’Connor’s short story, “First Confession”? There is an author who really remembers how children think!)

  9. says

    Wow! I’m surprised all the Catholics around you were so nonchalant! I trembled at my first confession and get butterflies in my stomach every time. Pretty much every Catholic I know is the same way! But that relief after…lovely!

  10. says

    Your post could not have come at a better time since I am going to confession for the first time on Saturday. It’s so intimidating when I think of exactly what I have done over the years, things I don’t even like to talk about with my friends. I am really hoping that it will be a positive experience like you had and my sponsor has had. The one thing that is keeping me from completely freaking out at this point is that my husband is making his first confession on the same day so we are able to prepare together to some extent.

  11. Cristina says

    Thanks so much for the beautiful reminder about God’s gentle mercy — we’re the ones who muck it up with so much over-thinking and worrying, no? It’s just the nudge I needed to get to confession before Holy Week, thanks again!

  12. says

    Excellent post!! When I joined the Church I had 30 years of sins to confess and I was terrified!! I was really hoping I’d go into early labor and it would be postponed. 😉 For weeks I’d have this dream where our priest forgot to turn off his microphone and everyone heard me confession! It. Was. Awful. LOL!! I was so scared that night, and it was worse because he insisted everyone confessing for the first time do it face to face (are you kidding me?!).

    Confession was one of the main reasons I didn’t want to join the Church, and now it’s one of the things I love the most about being Catholic. Nothing compares to the feeling I get when I hear the words of absolution. Even still, at times I tear up or outright cry after a good confession. It’s still hard (I’m not looking forward to going tomorrow!) but the grace that is poured out on us makes it worth it. 🙂 It’s then that I feel the most peace & joy, the most loved by God. It is truly a gift from Him.

  13. Christina says

    I’m a Cradle Catholic, and I still get choked up & cry in the Confessional! I cry for many reasons, 1. Because I’m terribly sorry for my sins and 2. Because I feel so humble & thankful for the precious gift of absolution. I haven’t been to Confession in a while, mostly bc my husband works on Saturdays & I don’t have anyone to watch my babies, so I can go. (I don’t know anyone in the church, really & feel akward asking a strnger.) I tried to go during the Christmas Season, but the line was so long and it was getting so late that I had to leave beforehand. It as 9pm on a school night and I had gotten no closer to it being my turn. If you have any suggestions for me, please, I’m all ears!

    • says

      Have you thought about scheduling a time for confession? Most priests are more than happy to meet at another time if you’re unable to make it at the regular confession times.

    • Haley says

      Yes to Jessica’s idea about scheduling one at a more convenient time. It is so hard to figure out childcare and I felt the same way about not knowing anybody at our church when we moved and my husband was also working weekends, it was such a challenging time! I felt like I didn’t know how to get connected with other women, but I finally talked to one of the priests and asked him to introduce me to someone who could get me plugged in. Getting to know these women in my parish has been an unbelievable blessing and encouragement in my life, so I highly recommend asking your priest how you can get connected. I hope that helps, Christina!

  14. Christina says

    Thanks for the tips. I keep forgetting that I can schedule a time with my priest! (My youngest is about to turn 6 months & I’m still not getting enough sleep. As I’m sure you all can understand.) And what a brilliant idea asking the priest to introduce me! Unfortunately, our priest just got promoted (YAY) and we have a new priest from out of state. But I think I’ll call the office and see if there’s a support group for Stay at home moms, & if not, see about starting one. I love being at home with my babies, and it would be great if we could get something started for other Catholic Moms in the community. Thanks so much ladies!

  15. says

    I am little late, but I saw this linked in the post you made today. (2/27/14)

    I am in RCIA currently and preparing to start my first Lenten Season and I am so excited. And, so scared.

    I am unbaptized, so I am not recieving my first Reconciliation during Lent, my RCIA leader cheerfully exclaimed, “Your baptism will wash away everything you’ve done up to that point.” But, I am still going to have a conversation with our Priest and even that is scary, because I expect it will be like a confession, but I will be unable to recieve reconcilitation, until baptism. I understand the joy and peace I will recieve, but the shame of speaking my sins aloud, as you said, is terrifying. But, I will do it, and I will survive, and I will be granted the gift of New Life, and that is worth the fear I have now tenfold.

  16. Desiree says

    Ah, Haley. This is an old post, I know, but I found this one after googling “convert afraid of confession.” 🙂 I’m in RCIA and honestly I am just terrified. I told my husband the other day that it feels like the last month of pregnancy…you know something amazing is waiting on the other side, but first, childbirth is lying in wait for you, and there is no getting around it. I was baptized as a baby and I am nearly 38…and I was an unbeliever for a chunk of my teens. *Gulp* Prayers much appreciated!


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