My daughter, who is almost two, picks up new words every day; but she also parrots back full phrases she hears people say. This is adorable when she shouts, “HI! NICE-A SEE YOU ‘GAIN!” when I come out of the bathroom; less adorable when she growls, “I gonna step on you” as I’m just waking up. (Okay, that’s actually adorable, too, although I wish she’d take her boots off first.)
There was one thing that puzzled us, though. When she does something “naughty” like hitting someone or knocking down a stack of books in a fit of temper, she will sometimes run to me and sob, “I so sorry!”
It may sound like she’s precociously morally developed, but this is my tenth kid, and I know that is not how it goes. Kids who are almost two are not sorry for making a mess. They may be abashed, or startled, or overwhelmed, but they are not sorry in the same sense as an older kid or an adult would be — nor should they be. It is their entire job to explore the world, discover their own skills, and to be perfectly confident that they can always run to me.
Finally, I realised that when she says, “I so sorry,” she means, “I so sad.” She must have noticed that, when things are going badly, when people are crying and there is fuss and unhappy commotion, someone generally says, “I’m so sorry.” So that’s what she said, and it got her the response she wanted and needed: I would hug and kiss her and tell her it was okay, and that I love her. It didn’t matter that she said the wrong thing, and it certainly didn’t matter that she wasn’t actually sorry. When she gets older, she’ll begin to understand why we don’t want her to hit or wreck stuff; but right now, it’s all about knowing she can run to me.
Hold that thought, and flash back with me almost thirty years, when I was a teenager, and not doing great. I went to Mass because my parents insisted, but I skulked darkly in the back of the church; and when I got home, I sealed myself back in my bedroom, emerging only for the occasional meal. I hadn’t received Communion in months and I hadn’t been to confession in years.
Someone who loved me took me aside and offered to bring me to confession right away, without delay, so I could get back on the right track. I shook my head. The one-sided argument went on way too long, with him getting more and more agitated, and me digging in deeper and deeper to my refusal. He wanted to know, “But why? Why won’t you go?”
I refused to answer, but my heart cried out, “Because I’m not sorry!” I was too attached to the things that were keeping me away. I wasn’t sorry. I wasn’t ready to stop committing those sins. I couldn’t bring myself to say, “I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee,” and … I was so sad. So sad, all the time. And angry.
But not sorry.
I wish I had said out loud what the problem was. Maybe someone could have told me what I needed to hear, which was, “Sad and angry is good enough! You can go to confession and tell Jesus that your sins have made you sad and angry, and He will still forgive you, even if you’re not sorry. Even if you only wish you were sorry.”
That is what is called “imperfect contrition,” and, because of the mercy of God, it is good enough to get you absolution. You can go to the sacrament even if you don’t understand what’s so terrible about your sins — even if you have very little hope that you can stop committing them — even if you can’t bring yourself to regret them. You don’t have to be sorry! All you have to do is be sad.
Heck, you don’t even have to be sad. If you go to confession because you’re afraid of dying and going to Hell, then that is good enough. If you go to confession because you have no idea how you’re ever going to change your life, and you’re not even sure that you want to, then that is good enough. If you go to confession because you don’t see how it could help, but you have some sliver of hope that at least it couldn’t hurt, then that is good enough.
When you go to confession, you’re running to the one who loves you because that is what you do when things have gone wrong. And that is good enough. He does the rest. You can go to Jesus and say, “I so scared,” and He will take you in His arms, comfort you, and tell you that He loves you. And then you can start over.
You can start over even if you’re not sure God loves you. You can start oven even if you’re not sure He should.
And you don’t have to run. You can shamble over resentfully. You can sidle in doubtfully. You can skulk in with fear, doubt, despair, or even rage. As long as you go because you’re acknowledging that things are not good as they are, then that is good enough. It may not feel like it is enough, but that is what Christ has promised.
One more thing: If you go to confession for your same old sins often enough, you will see something happen: Your “I so sad” or “I so mad” or “I so scared” or “I so tired” will begin to change to “I so sorry.” This is one of the effects of frequent, persistent confession and the healing effects of forgiveness. Absolution not only takes away the sins you’ve already committed, but it works on your heart so that you see them more clearly. It helps you see what your sins are really about, and then it helps you get past them because you start to see what Christ is really like. Over time, your “I so sad” of imperfect contrition will become closer and closer to the “I so sorry” of perfect contrition.
I wouldn’t have believed it as a scowling, despairing teenager; but decades later, after hundreds of imperfect confessions, I see that it is true. And it is such a relief to know that it isn’t up to me to get it right. All that matters is that Jesus loves me and wants me back, even while I’m sad or mad and nowhere near ready to be sorry.
So don’t wait until your contrition is even perfect. Don’t wait until you feel sorry. Just go, go, go, and Christ will do the rest.