Stop me if you’ve heard this one (from me) before!
Most honest Catholics will recognize what I’m trying to get at here. We are trying to do the right thing; we’re really not trying to game the system; we are tired of confessing the same sins over and over. What’s going on?
Our Lord gives us a parable that can help us to understand what we’ve been doing right, and what we’ve been doing wrong. If we understand this parable, then we can (with God’s grace, of course) make very significant progress in our discipleship:
When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. (Luke 11:24-26)
Let’s flesh this out with a simple illustration. You’ve got a garden. Your garden has weeds. What happens if you ignore the weeds? The weeds kill off everything that is good in the garden—The End. It’s a simple story, isn’t it? So, you’ve got to do something with the weeds.
Suppose the weeds are dandelions. You trim the bright yellow tops of the dandelions, but do nothing else. What happens next? Well, in very short order, the dandelion sprouts another bright yellow top. It’s as if your corrective action never took place. What did you do wrong?
You trimmed the tops of the dandelions, but did nothing about the stalk emerging from the ground. And, more importantly, you did nothing about the root system that gives life to the stalk and flower. So, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that the dandelion blossoms repeatedly, right?
Now let’s apply that imagery to sin and repentance. The bright yellow tops of the dandelions are the misdeeds of our lives— acts of theft, the telling of lies, etc. The stalk are the habits of behavior that support the sinful actions, making them easier to grow each time. If we repent of the misdeeds— but do nothing else—then we’re like the foolish gardener who trims the tops of the dandelions and is nonetheless amazed that the dandelion has blossomed again.
Apply this observation to the sacramental life: It’s like going to confession to recite misdeeds, with the intention of getting our record expunged, but not allowing God’s grace to touch any other aspect of our lives. What do we think is going to happen next?
If we say: “I’m sorry I did that!” and do nothing else, then the misdeed will almost certainly be done again. If we say: “I’m sorry I did that and I’m never going to do that again!” then the misdeed will still almost certainly be done again. But why?
Imagine trimming the top of the dandelion (i.e., repenting of the misdeed), and then trimming the underlying stalk right down to the ground. That’s equivalent to saying, “I’m sorry I did that and I’ll never do that again!” But the misdeed will almost certainly return because we’ve left in place the root system— the malformed habits of mind and heart— that gave rise to the weed/misdeed in the first place.
Real repentance means getting rid of the misdeed, the habit of behavior that supports the misdeed, and the distortions of soul that fed the habit. In other words, repentance is not enough. What’s needed is conversion— a reorientation of life.
Ripping out the whole weed, “root and branch,” is going to leave a hole, a wound. If that wound isn’t exposed to grace for healing, it’s likely to get infected with toxic shame and self- pity, which will almost certainly lead to another weed settling in. And even healing is not enough.
Remember in the parable that Jesus warns against leaving the house unoccupied. The former squatter will return with companions to occupy the house. That empty space once occupied with the bad habit/weed needs to be filled in with virtues. That’s the only way to keep those bad weeds from growing back.
The moral of the story is this: Confession and repentance don’t begin and end with entering the confessional. To cooperate fully with God’s grace, we agree to work to change our whole lives, our deeds, our habits, our thoughts, our hearts. Anything less is delusional and worse. Let’s act accordingly, and let’s teach our children as well.
When I write next, I will reflect further on the importance of contrition and compunction. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Fr Robert McTeigue, S.J.