1. The sacrament of penance is a sacrament of mercy. We should therefore approach it with confidence and in peace.
Saint Francis de Sales assures us that for those who go to confession once a week a quarter of an hour is enough for the examination of conscience, and a still shorter time for exciting contrition.
Not even this much is necessary, he adds, for those who confess more frequently.
2. Faults omitted in confession either because they were forgotten or because they seemed too trivial to mention, are nevertheless effaced by the absolution.
St. Francis de Sales has this to say on the subject: “You must not feel worried if you cannot remember your sins when preparing for confession, for it is incredible that any one who often examines her conscience would overlook or be unable to recall such faults as are important.
Neither should you be so keenly anxious to mention every minute imperfection, every trifling fault; it is enough to speak of these to our Lord, with a sigh of regret and a humble heart, whenever you remark them.”
And do not imagine in consequence that you are guilty of secret sins which you are hiding from your confessor.
This fear is an artifice made use of by the devil to disturb your peace of mind. *
“You must not be so anxious to tell everything, nor to run to your superiors to make a great ado over each little thing that troubles you and that will, perhaps, be forgotten in a quarter of an hour.
We must learn to bear with generosity these trifles which we cannot remedy, for ordinarily they are only the consequences of our imperfect nature.
That your will, feelings, and desires are so inconstant; that you are at one time moody, at another cheerful; that you now have a wish to speak, and presently feel the greatest aversion to do so; and a thousand similar insignificant matters are infirmities to which we are naturally prone and will be subject to as long as we live….
It is needless to accuse yourself in confession of those fleeting thoughts that like gnats swarm around you, or of the disgust and aversion you feel in the observance of your vows and devotional exercises, for these things are not sins, they are only annoyances.”—St. Francis de Sales.*
3. Rest assured that the more closely you examine your conscience the less you will discover that is worth the trouble of telling.
Moreover, you must remember that too long an examen fatigues the mind and cools the fervor of the heart.
4. To those who in their confessions are inclined to confuse involuntarily movements with sins, Saint Francis de Sales gives the following useful advice: “You tell me that when you have experienced a strong feeling of anger, or have had any other temptation, you are always uneasy if you do not confess it.
When you are not sure that you have given consent to it, I assure you it is unnecessary to mention it except it may be in spiritual conference, and then not by way of accusation, but to obtain advice how to behave another time in like circumstances.
For if you say: I accuse myself of having had movements of violent anger for two days, but I did not give way to them, you are telling your virtues, not your sins.
A doubt comes into my mind, though, that I may have committed some fault during the temptation.
You must consider maturely if this doubt have any foundation in fact, and if so, speak of the matter in confession with all simplicity; otherwise it is better not to mention it, as you would do so only for your own satisfaction.
5. “Omit from your confessions”—we again quote the same Saint—“those superfluous accusations which so many persons make merely through habit: I have not loved God sufficiently; I have not prayed with enough fervor; I have not loved my neighbor as much as I should; I have not received the Sacraments with all the reverence due to them; and others of a like nature.
You will readily see the reason for this. It is that in speaking thus you tell nothing particular that would make known to the confessor the state of your conscience, and because the most perfect man living, as well as all the saints in Paradise might say the same things were they making a confession.”
6. Those who go to confession frequently should always bear in mind what the saintly director says in addition:
“We are not obliged to confess our venial sins, but if we do so it must be with a firm resolution to correct them, otherwise it is an abuse of the sacrament to mention them.”
7. After confession keep your soul in peace, and be on your guard—this is a point of cardinal importance—against giving access to any fear about the validity of the sacrament, either as regards the examination of conscience, the contrition, or anything else whatsoever.
These fears are suggestions of the devil whose aim it is to instill bitterness into a sacrament of consolation and love. *
“After confession is not the time to examine ourselves to find if we have told all our sins. We should rather remain attentively and in peace near our Lord, with whom We have just been reconciled, and thank Him for His great mercy.
Nor is it necessary subsequently to search out what we may have forgotten. We must tell simply all that comes to mind; after that we need think no more about it.”—St. Francis de Sales.*
8. It is essential to be sorry for our sins—it is not essential to be troubled about them. Repentance is an effect of love of God, anxiety is an effect of self-love.
In the midst of the keenest and most sincere repentance we can still thank God that He has not permitted us to become yet more culpable.
Let us promise Him a solid amendment, relying for success solely upon the assistance of divine grace; and should we fall again a hundred times a day, let us never cease to renew the promise and the hope.
God can in an instant raise up from the very stones children to Abraham and exalt the most corrupt natures to the highest degree of sanctity.
At times He does so, but usually it is His will that we long continue to bear the burden of our infirmity: let us not then lose our trust in Him, nor mistake a state of trial for a state of reprobation.
*God has, indeed, on some occasions cured sinners instantaneously and without leaving in them any trace of their previous maladies.
Such, for instance, was the case with the Magdalen. In a moment her soul was changed from a sink of corruption into a well-spring of perfection, never again to be contaminated by sin.
But, on the other hand, in several of the beloved disciples this same God allowed many marks of their evil inclinations to remain for some time after their conversion, and this for their greater good.
Witness Saint Peter, who, even after the divine call, was guilty of various imperfections and once fell totally and miserably by the triple denial of his Lord and Master.
“Solomon says there is no one more insolent than a servant who has suddenly become mistress. A soul that after a long slavery to its passions should in a moment subjugate them completely, would be in great danger of becoming a prey to pride and vanity.
This dominion must be gained little by little, step by step; it cost the saints long years of labor to acquire it. Hence the necessity of having patience with every one, but first of all with yourself.”—St. Francis de Sales.*
*There is no sight more pleasing to Heaven than to witness the persevering and determined struggle of a soul which, throughout, remains united to God by a sincere desire and a firm resolution not to offend him—and maintaining this struggle calmly and patiently even when it is to all appearance fruitless.
Such a soul, resigned to retain its defects if it is God’s will, yet determined notwithstanding to fight against them relentlessly, is more precious in the eyes of God than if the practice of virtue were easy for it and it were in peaceful possession of spiritual gifts.
Labor, then, in the presence of your heavenly Father; struggle on with strength and courage; but do not be too desirous of success, for when this craving for self-satisfaction is excessive it is sure to be accompanied by vexation and impatience.
“Evil things must not be desired at all,” says Saint Francis de Sales, “nor good things immoderately.”
And elsewhere: “I entreat of you, love nothing too ardently, not even the virtues, for these we sometimes forfeit by exceeding the bounds of moderation.”
And again: “Why is it that if we happen to fall into some imperfection or sin we are surprised at ourselves and become disquieted and impatient?
Undoubtedly it is because we thought there was some good in us, and that we were resolute and strong. Consequently when we find this is not the case, that we have tripped and fallen to the earth, we are anxious, annoyed and troubled; whereas if we realized what we truly are, in place of being astonished at seeing ourselves down, we should wonder rather how we ever remain erect.”
“We should labor, therefore, without any uneasiness as to results. God requires efforts on our part, but not success.
If we combat with perseverance, nothing daunted by our defeats, these very defeats will be worth as much to us as victories, and even more.
But beware!—there is a rock here!
If this conflict is not undertaken in perfectly good faith, we will try to deceive ourselves as to the genuineness of our efforts by calling the cowardice which caused us to refuse the battle a defeat, and by dignifying with the name of trial the results of our own effeminacy and sloth.”*