Lent: a time for self-examination and a time for seeking renewal in discipleship. In this time of new beginnings Christians will inevitably find themselves turning over old ground. In Lent we can find ourselves unearthing old treasures in our memory – we may learn in new ways, truths half forgotten, but we may also uncover old hurts. The wounds picked up on life’s journeys sometimes never heal, and often leave a deep scar, which causes discomfort emotionally and spiritually.
In times of self-examination, perhaps in preparation to make a confession, prayer stumbles across these wounds or is inevitably drawn to them. I am thinking of broken relationships, of actions that caused hurt and damage to others and oneself. Bereavement, in all its expressions, does make its lasting marks on us – and to touch them is painful.
Some off these scars are reminders of past sinfulness, they bring vividly into the present actions or omissions for which we have been truly penitent and feel a sense of penitence again. It is at this point that the scars can become something malignant in our spiritual life. When this happens an experienced confessor or spiritual director must be careful in offering ghostly counsel.
It is not unusual for a penitent who makes a regular confession to cover the same ground – everyone has his or her besetting sins. The confessor has to be careful in distinguishing the guilt that comes from sinful action or omission, and the pain that is caused by the memory of a past action or hurt. Say, for example, a penitent through lying caused someone a great deal of trouble. It would be quite correct for them to confess the nature of the lie and feel the weight of their action. But once confessed and absolution is given that one action lies in the past and is dealt with by God’s grace. If the penitent keeps coming back to the same lie and keeps raking over the same scenario something else is happening. What is forgiven sometimes cannot be repaired or healed. The penitent has to learn to go forward in life knowing God’s forgiveness as real despite that scar or wound.
God is the source of forgiveness because only God has the power to bring reconciliation in a broken creation and a sinful world. This forgiveness and reconciliation cannot mend creation or remove all sinful rebellion from human society in the present time – ‘we await a new heaven and a new earth where righteousness dwells.’ We must always remember that our risen Lord still bears the scars of the crucifixion. We too will bear our wounds until all things are reconciled in him.
Once confessed and once absolved the penitent is forgiven. What must be remembered is that this forgiveness is not the end but a beginning. Confession ends with the dismissal ‘The Lord has put away your sins; go in peace.’ We leave the confessional as an agent of peace and reconciliation, and by God’s grace our scars and wounds can become not prompts for guilt, but prompts for prayer of intercession and personal reminders that we are called to be agents of healing in a world full of pain.