The Father William Most Collection
Helps for Confession
[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]
1. Various Sins
It is useful to know more precisely the principles about various kinds of sins. Then one can confess more easily and accurately. And the priest will find it easier to understand. Here are some:
Taking name of God in vain: This is normally venial, not mortal sin, unless special circumstances should make it extreme or involve contempt. There are two cases: 1) In which the person knows he has the habit, does nothing about it. Then he is guilty of even the absent-minded slips. 2) In which the person knows he has the habit and is working to get rid of it. Then the slips are not charged against him.
Some use a device to help them. They have a jar or box, and every time they slip and say the name without reason they put in a quarter, or something, to be given to some good cause. This is of course nor mandatory, but is very effective.
Skipping Mass on Sundays and other required days: If there is a reason in proportion to the importance of going to Mass, there is no sin, e.g., really considerable illness, such that the person would not want to go out for other things. There can also be really grave difficulty when traveling, to find a church, especially in some parts of the south - though that can usually be avoided by asking at a hotel etc. One can also ask in confession for a dispensation when one foresees the case will come up.
Missing Mass is a strangely dangerous kind of sin. In some sins, such as sex, there is a strong feeling that pushes a person. But in this there is no such feeling. At the bottom is apt to be some slipping in faith. Faith is the foundation. If it goes, all is gone. So great care is needed.
Honor to parents: The strict obligation to obey ceases when one reaches legal majority. Wise parents will lighten up on their demands as that point approaches. But the word honor in Scripture basically means financial support. When we are little parents do everything for us, at remarkable sacrifice in many cases. So when they are old and broken down, it is our turn. . This is the divine social security system. If they need financial support, the children owe it. Not often is that the case. But they may need psychological support. It is not rare for a son or daughter to put a parent into a nursing home, and seldom come to see them afterwards. This is a real sin against the fourth commandment.
Anger: Anger is a feeling, and as such is neutral, neither good nor bad. If well used in proportion to the case, it can be good, e.g., the anger of Jesus against the sellers in the temple. But even when anger is justified, our human weakness commonly leads us to go beyond what is proper proportion. Then it is sinful, usually just venial, unless there is a monstrous excess.
If there is a real desire for revenge, if it is anything notable, there will be mortal sin.
St. Paul urges: Do not let the sun set on your anger. It means, do not hold on to it, settle it in a relatively short time. The case of persons who hold anger for years and refuse forgiveness even when the offender repents and asks pardon - this is monstrous, and gravely sinful. Such a person should never say the Our Father: He/she is asking God not to forgive. We think of the Gospel line: "The measure you give, will be the measure you receive." It means this: We write our own ticket. If we are hard on others, God will be hard on us. We surely cannot afford to face that!
In quarrels there are two temptations that make things extremely hard to heal. First, after both parties have used up all the arguments they have on the issue on hand, one may be tempted to recite a list of all the past offenses. Since to forgive is to let go of something: did the person ever really forgive?
Secondly there is a temptation to broaden the attack. To not merely say: You were nasty in this particular case, but to say: You are a nasty person in general.
Seldom can such things be healed without an explicit apology.
We said to forgive is to let a thing go, i.e., not to demand reparation for an offense. Here we need to distinguish two things: the attitude of will, and the feelings that go along. We can control the attitude of will. Most people do, they do not really hate, which means to will evil to another so it may be evil to him. That is seriously sinful. But even if the attitude of will is right, there is a problem about the feelings. These may be bruised, and inclined to be unpleasant. Then we need only to treat the feelings like sexual temptations in thought, i.e., try not to dwell on them.
If the other continues in the same offense, then we need not forgive unless he has in some way indicated a change in attitude.
We speak of forgiving and forgetting. Really. forgetting is different form forgiving. We may not be able to entirely blot a thing out of our memory. And it may be too that the offense reveals a facet of the character of the other-- we may learn from the case to be on guard against other things from the same person, and that will not mean complete forgetting.
Uncharitable speech: This expression covers several things:
1) Slander: charging another with a fault that is not true. That always requires explicitly taking it back, for it is a violation of justice.
2) Detraction: this consists in revealing a fault of another which is not yet known to the listeners and not likely to become known soon. The degree of sinfulness depends here on the amount of damage done. In this we consider conditions, e.g., to charge a Bishop with being drunk is worse than charging a sailor with the same.
Most persons tend to underestimate the damage, conscience often is a bit dull or even blind in these cases.
We cannot take back what we said in detraction, but we could --not mandatory -- watch for an opening to say something good about the person previously harmed, before the same person who heard the detraction. This makes up in a way, and surely helps deter the detractor from more of the same.
Further, there is a thing called affection to sin. The term is a poor one, yet is commonly used. It means really that a person has as it wee a gap in his purpose of amendment. As if he said to himself; I do not intend to commit mortal sins, or ever venial sin that offers itself. But I have some reservations: if it gets too hard to keep up a conversation without some detraction, I will join in. --This type of gap in purpose of amendment is tragic, for it stops all spiritual progress - one cannot actually grow at all until the condition is corrected.
3) Uncharitable speech in which no new information is exchanged - just two or more who already know are rehashing faults of another. Here we ask: Is there some proportionate reason for doing it? If not, there is sin.
Hatred: Recall remarks above on forgiving. To hate is to will evil to another so it may be evil to him. This is easily grave matter. But we distinguish as above, between attitude of will and that of feelings. When one is having hard time, he/she can insure there is no real hatred by silently, so no one sees it, saying little prayer for the one he/she dislikes. |To love enemies means at minimum, to include them in our general prayers, for that is willing good to them for their own sake, which is love
Envy or jealousy: If I see someone has something good and say to myself; I wish I had it too, that is not envy. If I see someone has something good, and say: I see he has this, I wish he did not have it, it is bad for me that he has it. That is really envy.
"Cursing and swearing": Many use these words to mean merely they sprinkled a few damns and hells in their conversation. If there is no wishing evil to another, but just loose talk, there is no sin at all, just very bad taste. Similarly to use four letter words dealing with the processes of elimination and their products is merely bad taste.
Bad thoughts: Some confess these loosely, may even say: I took pleasures in them. But on questioning it turns out to be different. Here is the picture: a thought comes (or one sees a picture of someone dressed immodestly). It offers a sexual pleasure. To just let self go to take it in and enjoy it is mortal sin. But if instead, the person tries to get rid of it, even if it takes a dozen times before it settles, even if the feeling hangs around during that interval, there is no mortal sin, more likely much merit. There is another very tricky pattern: If someone is partly occupied in doing something, then a thought may crawl into the back of his head- may unroll itself like a movie -- may run some time, until there is a wake-up point: "Oh Oh, I should not have it." Up to that point, never a mortal sin, at most a bit of carelessness.
Premarital sex: Most people do not know what love is: they think it is a feeling. Thank heavens it is not: we could not build a lifetime marriage on feelings: they flicker much. Instead, to love is to will good to another for the other's sake. If two people use one another for sexual pleasure, that is not love at all, it is just chemistry: they put each other into a state such that if death came along they would be wretched forever. That is closer to hate than to love. it is easy to see that real love will hardly develop in such framework. Yet the people will think they have much love, when all they have is a lot of chemistry. For the chemistry feels the same whether real love in the will goes along with it or not. Then they are apt to marry on the strength of that chemistry, and when things simmer down later, they may find themselves locked in the same house with someone they do not love at all. No wonder the marriage failure rate is about 60%.
2. Excursus on Human Sexuality
We need to look at the tremendous psychological design made by our Father in Heaven.
We all start out life as babies - no other way to do it. But a baby is perfectly selfish. If he could talk he would say: These big giants around me - they are here to give me what I want, when I want it, as I want it. Or I will fix them: Waa!
Is such a baby ready for real love, for willing good to another for the other's sake? Far from it: it is completely in a shell of self. But then: How get away from that shell to the point where he can really be interested in the well-being of another for the other's sake? That takes some doing. Our Father's plan has arranged a marvelous machinery as it were. If we use it the way He built it, it will work wonders - if not, the results may look good, but will be foul on the inside, and in time, one must pay.
We follow the development. Baby soon plays with other little ones, and soon makes a horrifying discovery: "Why that little guy thinks he has some rights - he does not. I am the only one who has rights." They are fighting over a toy. There are many such incidents, and a beginning is made of chipping away at the shell of self.
Around age 9 for boys - and similar for girls - comes a time many psychologists call the flight of the sexes. Little boys have no use for little girls - and vice versa. But this too is part of our Father's plan: He wants them to run away from each other to develop their own special characteristics, to prepare for the next stage.
This next stage comes automatically, when biochemistry changes, when certain hormones start to operate. Then, to his surprise, one day little boy sees a girl, and says to himself, "She is wonderful, marvelous!. If he had merely said she is a good conversationalist, plays tennis well etc. - nothing much has happened. But if he uses such words as wonderful or marvelous, he has been hit. And really, he is glad he has been! There is of course a parallel development in the girls.
In this new phase two powerful processes begin to work. If we use them the way our Father has planned, they develop real love - if not, only a sad counterfeit that look the same to a confused eye.
First, love as we said means willing good to the other for the other's sake. Psychologically the process starts when a boy or girl sees something fine in the other: this leads to the reaction: So fine a person, I hope he/she is happy and well off. Then if that is strong, he/she will even want to try to make it happen, to bring about this happiness and well-being.
Now this starts if one merely sees the other as fine or good -what if he/she sees the other as it were in a magic light, so that he/she says: wonderful!
Then we have a powerful starter for real love. But it is only a starter. It is so vitally important to play the game in such a way that it really does develop love, instead of just a fake chemical counterfeit.
But as we can see, this process only tends to develop love. A person can wreck it all without knowing it. Really he/she can wreck it, make it turn out just a fake, and not even know it. How? Will explain.
There is a second process at work at the same time. Modern psychology speaks at times of an important idea called somatic resonance. (We have two parts, matter and spirit, so closely joined as to form one person. Hence if I have a condition on one side, for normal running I need a parallel -- called a resonance - on the other side). Now when hormones begun to bubble, they start up the somatic resonance to love. It tends to develop real love.
But it is so important not to mistake the resonance for the real thing. But if one plays it right, it will develop love, even great love.
We said something can go wrong - or rather, the person can make it go wrong. In two ways: First if he/she uses sex for private entertainment, masturbation, that does not get one out of the shell of self where he/she started. No, it turns one back right into that shell - a poor forecast for a happy marriage which needs real unselfishness and love.
The second way, as we explained above, takes two, namely, two people use each other for sensory pleasure. That word use is really right: if they do that, they are not only not watching for the happiness and welfare of the other - they are putting each other into a state such that if death happened along, they would be miserable forever. This is more like hatred than love, for there is no willing good to the other for the other's sake. They, we said, are using each other.
It is easy to see that real love can hardly develop when they are using each other, instead of really wanting the happiness of the other. Yes, they are giving sensory stimulation, very strong at that. But that is not the same as love.
But, tragically, this will feel the same as if there were real love, the biochemistry is identical. But in such a premarital pattern real love could hardly develop. It is closer to hatred. since it endangers the real, permanent happiness of the other.
Next we see: it is so easy for a person to make the mistake of a lifetime, in mistaking chemistry for love. In time, when emotions simmer down after marriage, he/she will find out it had been only chemistry. Can this really happen? Ask any marriage counselor. He/she knows so sadly that it can easily happen. No wonder the marriage failure rate is about 60% today.
But let us look at the pleasant side of the picture.
If the people play the game as our Father designed it, it will really develop powerful love, and make for a happy life in the future. Male and female psychology are terribly different. A recent popular book had the title You Just Don't Understand. It means that when the wife says something, it is very apt to register as something quite different on the husband's ears. And vice versa. They really have to learn to translate.
During courtship, these differences cannot be seen - they are all papered over by intense emotion. But as we said, after marriage, things do simmer down - and then they find out. They may find themselves locked into the same house with someone they do not really love at all. This is a real tragedy, one of life's greatest tragedies.
Even in a fine match - does not always happen - each one will be able to say honestly: I have to give in most of the time to make this work. But if they play the game as our Father designed it, they will find that they can make the sacrifices that are needed and can be quite content and happy in doing so.
Further, parents and often do develop marvelous generosity to each other. And if children come - babies are so cute part of the time, pesky part of the time - then this generosity spills over onto them. The generosity of even ordinary parents to their children often is astounding. An insurance commercial said: When you have children, their goals become your goals.
In fact, if they positively intend to do things and accept sacrifices as part of our Father's plan, then marriage is, as Pope Paul VI said, "a long path toward sanctification. Then, for example, if baby cries at 3 AM, if the Mother or Father intends taking care of it as part of our Father's plan, then that time can rightly be called a holy hour. A religious getting up at the same hour knows he/she can go back to bed in 60 minutes - with baby , it is quite uncertain.
So one needs to be intelligent and smart, to understand how it all works, to realize what the system is that the Father has produced for our happiness, both here and hereafter.
But: how can one protect against making the dreadful mistake some make, who react in the opposite way? First of all, as we said, play the game the way our Father has designed it. That really will generate love. But also, have enough good sense to ask for help.
In some countries, even in so advanced a nation as Japan today, young people often ask for an arranged marriage. They say to themselves: I am so blinded by feeling now, I cannot really know what the other party is like. There is even a saying, in the U. S. : "You marry a stranger". So they ask the older people to arrange. Legitimate use of sex can and will generate love in an arranged marriage.
One need not go that far - but at least, he/she should have the good sense to ask for help from two kinds of people - the people of their own age, and older people.
Young people of the same age - probably they do not have the same romantic infatuation as the prospective couple. They can see straight. To ask for this help from good friends of one's own age is very valuable. One is not bound to follow it--but should be terribly careful about vetoing it.
Older people, as we said, see it differently. And they too have been young once, and they can remember what it is like. If they veto a partner, the young people are not obliged to follow them. But again, it is only good sense to be very slow to go against it.
As we said, male and female psychology are tremendously different. Even in a fine match, there will be disagreements, probably some of them strong, in a marriage. But what if one marries someone of a very different culture , or even a different religion? Then the potential for trouble is greatly multiplied. Again, one with good sense will use really great care.
3. Why Does God Command?
Our Father does not give us commands because He enjoys using authority. Really it does Him no good at all if we obey." The words, "serving God" are not really very accurate: He cannot gain anything from anyone. But He does want us to follow Him for two reasons: 1) He loves everything that is good - goodness does call for us to follow Him; 2) He wants intensely to give us good things and happiness. But it is one thing for Him to be willing, another for us to take these in. For that, we need to be open to receive: His commands really are instructions about how to be open. At the same time, they steer us away from booby traps that lie in the very nature of things - such as hangover after a drunk, or a loveless marriage after a lot of premarital sex.
Some time back, when we first had electric fridges, the instructions used to tell us that if we want it to be cold, we must at intervals defrost, take the ice out. Someone might say: That manufacturer is silly: ice makes things cold. Similarly, to one in a daze from emotion, our Father's plans may seem foolish. But He is our manufacturer. He knows how we are built. If we did not defrost the old fridge, it would not work well - neither will a human life work well if we do not follow His principles, which tell us at times to do what our feelings seem to say is a mistake.
He wants our eternal happiness so much He sent His only Son to a hideous death to open up the possibilities of eternal happiness for us. Cannot we trust Him? He wants us to be happy here, and hereafter too.