Confession: there’s a guilt-wrenching, excuse-making word! Whatever has been said and written about sacramental confession (and much has) one thing is certain: more people ought to make a confession more often. There are reasons for such a bold statement – everybody falls short of God’s purpose for them. Most people are burdened by a slow- burning guilt and frustration about their inherent failure to do the good they ought to do, and a matching failure to refrain from that which they should not do.

Without much fear of contradiction I add one last judgement – confession works. It works by bringing healing, peace and hope. It works as a means of renewal and reconciliation. A penitent person who hears the authoritative words of absolution hears the Gospel anew. Confession provides the pruning by God’s word necessary for spiritual growth and fruitfulness. There are only positive outcomes to confession.

The good confession begins with good preparation. This takes time. It is important to ‘soak’ the whole process is prayer. It may take several sessions over a week or two to ‘hit the bottom’ of what needs to be confessed. Ask the Lord to help you see yourself as he sees you – as loved and redeemed despite all the sins and failing. It is only in the security of God’s love that we can discern and then confess own our proud and rebellious sinfulness. Preparing for confession should not be like prodding in the dark with a blunt instrument; it should be more like dragging into the light the contents of a seldom visited room; there can be a shock and pain in the process – but there is a clear sense of breaking new ground and dealing with long ignored rubbish.

It is essential to have a scriptural element in preparation. Scripture can hold up a mirror to our hidden life and help us reflect on what is out of place for one who is part of Christ’s body and should reflect his likeness in our life. The three texts that ‘frame’ the biggest mirror with the clearest light are the Ten Commandments ( Exodus 20), the hymn to Love (1 Corinthians 13) and the Beatitudes (Matthew 5.1–12). It is vital to become familiar with the text, particularly any parts that stir the mind and conscience.

Then bring the mirror of scripture in your prayerful reflection and ask the Lord to give light to your memory. Begin with your last confession (in the case of a first confession go back to your earliest memory). Then recall places you have spent time; home, work, church, school, places of recreation, family and friends homes. Once you have a series of places you can ‘visit’ them in your memory; recall the people in each place and what has happened in your dealings with them. It is essential to begin making lists and notes at this stage. Using the method of ‘place setting’ allows a penitent to divide their time of preparation.

Nearer the time of confession make an orderly list. It is important to be as detailed and specific as possible. Confession means owning up and this means not feeding in any excuses or extenuating circumstances. Be prepared to answer any questions the priest asks to seek clarification, and listen prayerfully and carefully to his advice. It is all the work of God’s gracious Spirit.

Andy Hawes exercises a ministry of spiritual direction at Edenham Regional House