I confess: it takes me a long time to prepare for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. That’s because I tend to waver between two tendencies.
Sometimes I’m overly scrupulous and feel like I sin all the time, especially in my thoughts. Other times, because I do make a serious effort to avoid offending God in my daily life, I find it hard to know what to confess. It’s not that I’m perfect—I’m far from loving God and others as I should—yet I keep coming up with the same list of trivial-sounding sins.
The Best-Laid Plans . . . I was feeling that familiar tension as I stepped into the confessional before Mass one morning. The night before, I had prayed, examined my conscience, and listened for the small, quiet stirring of the Holy Spirit. No serious sins had come to mind. Still, it had been awhile since my last confession, and I approached the sacrament asking God to help me become more virtuous.
After all my preparation, I had a good idea of what I was going to confess. When I started to talk, though, something different came out, and I began to cry. Fr. Ray helped me to pinpoint the issue: I was having a real problem with aging.
I have always admired older people who seem comfortable in their state of being—who are sweet, kind, confident, and even courageous. They are “aging gracefully,” as the expression goes. But after reaching the age of sixty-five, I began wondering: how on earth can you age gracefully—in a way that is “characterized by grace, elegance, or beauty”? The expression seemed like a contradiction in terms. What could possibly be graceful about experiencing the losses and dealing with the physical challenges that we all face as we grow older?
Perceiving my own slow losses of energy, mobility, and even brain function, I had grown fearful and sad. And so I was aging with a very poor attitude, kicking and screaming at the unfairness of it all.
Confronting Envy. Going to confession brought me face-to-face with my fear and lack of trust in God. But there was something else. As I talked with Fr. Ray, the Holy Spirit gently revealed my sin of envy. I confessed that I sometimes found myself resenting people my age or older who can eat whatever they want and who take long walks, ride bikes, and exercise often to keep in shape. Most of all, I begrudged people their ability to accept their lot in life, whatever it is, and to be so cheerful about it.
Fr. Ray wisely pointed out one practical reason for never envying a person: whatever her life looks like on the outside, we really don’t know what burdens, sorrows, or suffering she has to bear. Each person has her own cross. Father also cited the passage where St. Paul refers to his mysterious “thorn in the flesh”:
Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:8-10)
All of this gave me much to think and pray about. During Mass that day, I asked for courage to face whatever the future would bring and for confidence in God’s love, mercy, and provision for my every need. I resolved not to dwell on what I thought I was losing.
When I got home, I even looked up the meaning of “forgive”: “to cease to blame or feel resentment against.” This was exactly what I had to do—not only toward other people but toward my own weak and aging body! Then, as I thought about grace—God’s love for us and his life at work in us—I suddenly grasped what Jesus meant when he told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.” The only way I can age gracefully is if I allow God’s love and grace to operate in me.
Renewed in the Spirit. Through the Holy Spirit’s surprise during that confession, I experienced the Sacrament of Reconciliation as the powerful healing action it is meant to be. Not only did I become reconciled to the fact that I’m not as young as I used to be, but I also gained a new vision: my weakness is transformed when I rely on God’s strength and offer all my actions and experiences for his glory.
Now, whenever I’m tempted to have a pity party for myself, I try to remember that everyone has crosses and that I have God’s grace, which is sufficient for me. And so finally, I can truly say that I am aging gracefully.
Diane Stokes has been appreciating the “challenges and benefits” of Reconciliation ever since becoming a Catholic twenty-seven years ago.