If you have to ask ....

I sometimes lurk on Catholic Answers forums while feeding my five-month-old. A question with endless (yet remarkably similar) variations that comes up constantly there is "Do I still have to go to Confession if (I'm really sorry, I did an extra penance, I did an Act of Contrition, I already took Communion anyway, the legal statute of limitations has expired, it's Tuesday, etc., etc., etc.)?"

I'm going to make this really easy: If in doubt, GO TO CONFESSION. Whether you "have to" or not. It will make you feel better, and more importantly, it will literally cleanse your soul. The goal should not be avoiding the Confessional at all costs .... the goal should be the squeaky clean soul, bathed in grace and working at peak competency.

Don't try and avoid it. There's nothing you can say that the Priest hasn't heard before, and God already knows you did it, so you don't need to pretend you're hiding from Him, either. Remember Jonah and the Big Fish? How did hiding from God work out for that guy? Yeah, I thought so.

If you're asking yourself (or worse, OTHER PEOPLE!) if it's absolutely necessary for you to go confess whatever you did, then it's a safe bet you'd be helped by the Sacrament, whether strictly required or not. So get thee to a Priest, confess your sin, bask in God's forgiveness and grace, and move on with your life! It has to be better than agonizing over whether or not to go and asking random people on an internet discussion forum whether your sin was evil enough to damn you to hell.

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How I wasted (and didn't waste) Lent '08.

In my last post, I mentioned that I didn't put much effort into Lent this year. I won't make excuses for it. Being busy, tired, worn down, in a funk, or whatever is no excuse for wasting opportunities for grace (in fact, they are reasons to seize those opportunities!). But for whatever reason, I just couldn't get into Lent this year.

I had grand plans. Last year, Lent was amazing. I did daily spiritual reading, prayed the Rosary with regularity, gave things away, kept my difficult Lenten promises .... in 2007, God allowed me to be a Lenten powerhouse and showed me in my first Lent as a Catholic what that season of sacrifice (and so much grace) is really all about.

So what went wrong in '08? The simple (and truthful) answer is, I have no idea. Yes, I was busy. Yes, I'm a tired mother of an active preschooler and a baby. Yes, I'm teaching CCD and RCIA and working from home and recovering from surgery and all the rest. But none of that was it ... it was like I just couldn't, and I mean COULDN'T get into the spirit of the season. I couldn't even try. It felt as if this cloud of dark oppression settled over me from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday and occluded my view of God and all that is holy. I wish I could say I rose to the occasion and plowed through with prayer and deep spiritual exercise. But really, I just did the bare minimum to get by.

Interestingly, I think God was telling me something through all of it. My first Lent as a Catholic, I saw the best of what the season has to offer in terms of growth and grace and spiritual depth. My second year, I saw that the Church in her wisdom has provided us a way to grow at least a little even when we are not at our spiritual best, and it's called obedience. Cling to the precepts of the Church and don't let go.

I kept the fast and abstinence days (except for one lunch time when, as I swallowed my last bite of chicken, I realized with a panic "it's FRIDAY!!!!"). I went to Mass and Confession. I can't say I had a great attitude about any of it. I failed at my Lenten promise (it was to give up meat, and I felt horrible after a week of that and quit and didn't really replace it with anything because it's not required). I prayed much less often than usual, and stopped reading my St. Bernadette book halfway through because I got too busy with other things. And still, by my minimal obedience, God in His time gave me the grace to see that He was with me all along, guiding me through the barren desert even when I couldn't feel Him and despite the fact that I wasn't earnestly seeking him.

My bad attitude and general annoyance at the restrictions of Lent this year did nothing to damage the grace that came from simply obeying the law of the Church. My lack of stamina when it came to my Lenten promise made me appreciate the grace that got me through it last year. In short, I realized two things: 1) I can do NOTHING apart from God who gives me strength, and 2) Obedience brings grace even when done without enthusiasm. God's allowing me to go through this dark night of the soul during what should have been a period of intense fellowship with the Lord seriously wounded my spiritual pride (O happy dagger!) and made me MUCH less judgmental of people who seem to simply "go through the motions" during Lent and other liturgical seasons. Holy Mother Church isn't stupid, and she knew what she was doing when she set the rules. Expecting others (even if those expectations are unspoken) to do more than she prescribes is unfair. Only with the help and grace of God can we do anything good at all. Sometimes I forget that, and this Lent was an important wake-up call.

So my "wasted" Lent, especially when juxtaposed with my awesome Lenten memories from last year, wasn't wasted at all -- it was a valuable experience in several ways and taught me a lesson I'll not soon forget. God's grace is not something I will again take for granted or expect to fit into a pretty box, at least not while this experience is fresh in my mind. (May it stay fresh forever so I don't have to go through this again!) Mind you, I'm not recommending everyone go out and intentionally do the bare minimum for Lent next year as a method of growing closer to God ... I assume everyone reading this is more spiritually advanced than I am and wouldn't benefit from that kind of thing. But for me, finishing up my second year as a Catholic, the experience of basic obedience during a spiritual dry spell was a worthwhile one.

Thankfully, it's over now. God gave me my spiritual "groove" back on Good Friday as I prayed the Stations of the Cross, and the last three days have been wonderful as I feel once more connected to my Lord and my Church. But I have been reminded that faith is not about feelings -- and God is fully, totally, 100% present even when I'm not.

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He Is Risen! (thoughts on the Vigil and other things)

A very happy Easter to everyone, and a joyful "WELCOME HOME!" to the thousands who entered the fullness of the Christian faith last night at the Easter V.I.G.I.L. Mass!*

(*As anyone who has brought small children to this Mass can attest, V.I.G.I.L. stands for Very Incredibly Gigantically Interminably Long.)

As RCIA coordinator at my parish, last night I had the profound honor of seeing ten people I've taught, talked with and prayed these past six months find their home in the Holy Catholic Church. I met their families, heard more about their individual stories, learned the names they had chosen for their Confirmation, and watched with joy as one by one they proclaimed their faith and received our Lord in the Eucharist for the very first time.

My eyes welled up with tears as I watched our two catechumens receive the Sacrament of Baptism. Two lifetimes of sin, washed away in a moment. Two brand new starts, this time with sacramental grace to guide them. Maybe it's the former protestant in me, but I get much more emotional watching adults choose baptism than I do watching infants be baptized. The baptism of an infant is a pure, happy, and beautiful moment, to be sure, but the shock factor of an adult raised in our anti-Christian, shallow, hedonistic culture choosing to follow Christ, and all that entails, is a powerful reminder that the Holy Spirit is still actively at work in the world. What other explanation could there be for such a thing?

I may have teared up a bit at the baptisms, but I lost all pretense of keeping it together when the catechumens and candidates received Holy Communion. I was overwhelmed with the memory of the experience I had when I took my first Communion two years ago and crumbled into a full-on lip trembling, teary, mascara-smeared mess. I hope the experience of receiving Jesus -- body, blood, soul and divinity -- for the very first time was every bit as thrilling for my friends as it was for me, and then some.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't have my favorites in the class, just by virtue of their backstories and varying participation levels. Despite the fact I've known them all the same amount of time, some have been more active in class, so I feel I know them better. One of my favorites, whom I feel okay about outing here because he already outed himself, is John C. Wright, science fiction author, lawyer and ex-atheist Christian apologist extraordinaire. He joined late in the year, and the level of discourse in the class escalated rapidly after that -- rather unsurprisingly for anyone who has read his blog, he had a lot of thought-provoking questions and commentary. I am honored and grateful to have been used by God in even the smallest way to assist this man on his journey into the fullness of faith. I'm excited to see the ways big and small in which God will use his servant John. If you're reading this, John: Congratulations and welcome home.

All in all, it was an incredible night. My biggest regret is that I didn't make the most of Lent this year -- I know the experience could have been even richer if I had sacrificed more and focused harder on having a spiritually productive Lent. As it was, I didn't really buckle down and do more than the minimum required by the Church until Holy Week. I have another post's worth to say about that, but for now, it's off to spend time with my family and enjoy this, the greatest feast of the Christian year.

He is risen, indeed!

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