The Sapiential Character of Sacramental Reconciliation

Wisdom is not merely a final product of confession, but is diffused throughout the whole of sacramental reconciliation.

Return of the Prodigal Son by Murillo

Christ gave to his apostles a divine authority to bind and loose for the well-being of the Church and her members (cf. Mt 16:19).  This capacity received its power after the Resurrection, when Christ breathed the Holy Spirit upon the disciples: “Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:22b-23).  This same Spirit is the one who endows the Church with an intimate knowledge of the mystery of Jesus Christ, “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1Cor. 1:24).  Is it any wonder, then, that the Holy Spirit should be called the Spirit of Wisdom if it is the Spirit which raised Christ from the dead?  If such is the case, should we not readily admit a correspondence between the Sacrament of Reconciliation—where this power to forgive sins is most obviously employed—and the pedagogy of divine wisdom?  This interconnection of the mysteries of the faith has the potential to cultivate a renewed devotion toward the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and its frequent reception.

The focus here will not be on the form or matter of the sacrament, per se, but rather on the effect it has on the Christian personality.  The identity of this effect, namely wisdom, will be the subject of this investigation.  Wisdom is not merely a final product of confession, but, is also diffused throughout the whole of sacramental reconciliation.  We shall allow the sacrament, as it unfolds, to dictate the form of wisdom that is appropriated by the penitent.

The acknowledgement of sin
The apostolic writings of the New Testament clearly describe the human situation before the mystery of Jesus Christ.  Christ came for the forgiveness of sins.  Through the shedding of his blood, and the offering of his body on behalf of sinners, the Son of God merited the redemption of mankind.  His sacrifice became the occasion of man’s justification before God, and rebirth of our humanity in spirit.  The sin of our first parents, and all personal sins, are remitted in the waters of Baptism.  These waters, however, do not guarantee that man will never sin again.  He still has an inclination nestled within his nature, that when acted upon, in the presence of temptation, leads him back into a state of sin.

The possibility of post-baptismal sin means that man’s condition is precarious.  Each person must admit that he has sinned if he is to be found in the light of God’s grace.  St. John establishes a clear correspondence between this very personal truth, and adopted filiation, through communion with Christ. As John teaches us:

If we say, “We have fellowship with him,” while we continue to walk in darkness, we lie and do not act in truth.  But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of his Son Jesus cleanses us from all sin.  If we say, “We are without sin,” we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.  If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (cf. 1 Jn 1:5-10).

St. Paul, likewise, speaks of the opposition between sin and uprightness. The recognition of sin becomes the vehicle by which a person is brought into the grace of Christ.  “All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God.  They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus…” (Rom 3:23-24).  We should not sin, St. Paul continues, so that God’s grace might abound all the more (Rom 6:1).  It would amount to a performative contradiction.  Rather, those who have been given a new life in Christ, must hold near to them this memory of God’s gratuity.

This state of affairs comprises an essential part of every person’s life.  If someone is to live in truth, then he must acknowledge his sin.  Wisdom, which is a virtue based on knowing and living according to the truth, is founded upon this confession of sin.  The wise person, therefore, is also the contrite person.  It is not uncommon to hear Christians, inside and outside of confession, speak about struggles or mistakes.  These euphemisms cloak the true reality of sin.  They are attempts at disassociating oneself from the evil that has been committed through personal commission or omission.  There is a forum for speaking about the tension between the flesh and spirit, namely spiritual direction.  But, this dimension of the spiritual life must never gloss over or rationalize sin.  In other words, we must firmly assert the soteriological aspect of Christianity if the moral, sanctifying, ecclesiological, and eschatological aspects are to reach their full potential, and man is to truly be alive in Christ Jesus.

Knowing oneself
Wisdom is a form of knowledge that is, at one and the same time, practical and speculative.  Platonic reflection lends itself to the latter, while Aristotelian reflection tends toward metaphysical aspects of intelligibility.  Broadly speaking, the platonic conception of wisdom has found a theological reception in Augustinian thought; whereas, the Thomistic and scholastic have theologically developed the Aristotelian emphasis.  Both dimensions are necessary for holistic knowledge.  Neither is exclusive of one another.  The first would describe, from within experience, means and ends, and the place of affectivity in that dynamic; the second would give precedence to the rational principles that guide conduct and intellectual inquiry.1

Is it any wonder, then, that it was St. Augustine, who inspired by the platonic idea of wisdom, should have produced a narrative of such profound self-examination and personal scrutiny like the Confessions?  He articulates quite clearly that the desire to behold beauty, and to possess wisdom, are both built upon self-knowledge.  There must be a terminus a quo (point of departure) if there is to be a terminus ad quem (point of arrival).  Grace augments self-knowledge and, therefore, self-possession, but it never negates the self as a priori to acquired wisdom.  Consequently, “the possession of God,” as Beauty itself, is conditioned by self-possession.

In the Sacrament of Reconciliation the individual must confront himself before God.  He must assess his deeds, motives and manner of consideration.  There is a profound humiliation, shame and guilt that follow upon this act of self-assessment.  These sentiments, rather than in themselves turning him away from the truth, are actually phenomena of the truth.  They are signs that his conscience has been formed in the truth of what is good.

In this environment, the penitent must settle within himself.  It is the moment of beholding the truth of oneself.  There is no mask to hide behind, or excuse that can be proffered.  The nakedness of one’s being and conscience echo in the recesses of interior solitude.  There is no escape from the person I have become through my own immoral choices.  Here, the penitent catches a glimpse from within himself of God’s omniscient gaze.

The fear of the Lord
The omniscient and omnipotent presence of the Lord in the Sacrament of Reconciliation causes yet another sentiment to arise within the penitent.  This sentiment is the fear of the Lord.  It is an aspect of the virtue of religion, and the feeling that is accorded that virtue.  This fear is not slavish fear or a sign of duress.  Rather, this experience is caused by God’s otherness and holiness.  It impresses upon the penitent an acute sense of tremendum et fasciens, that is, trembling and fascination before an overwhelming mystery.

Sacred Scripture links the fear of the Lord with particular expressions of God’s self-disclosure.  Consequently, the fear of the Lord is set against the backdrop of the Lord’s action in history.  Those who live according to that saving action are deemed wise and prudent.  They are the ones who are attentive to the power of God at work in their midst, and sing of his mercy and justice.  Thus, the psalmist arrives at the conclusion: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; prudent are all who live by it” (Ps 111:10).

In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the central events and fruits of salvation are re-presented.  The penitent experiences, once again, the power of the Lord, vanquishing sin, ignorance, and obstinacy.  It is not a generic experience, but one that personally and actually addresses the penitent.  The fear of the Lord, which materializes within the penitent, assumes the form of compunction.

There are two expressions of compunction.  The first is a feeling of sorrow and regret, resulting from sins committed, or goods omitted.  This feeling is associated with the justice of God, the canon of all moral action.  For a properly formed conscience, the voice of God will appear as a reproach, for the ill-formed conscience a reproval, and for the ignorant a reprimand.  Compunction of this sort causes remorse, guilt, and shame.  It gives birth to firm resolve, the continued formation of one’s conscience, amendment of one’s life, and a confidence in the restraint, meekness and gentleness of the Lord.

Compunction may not always be felt by the penitent in the confessional.  It might seem, then, that there is something deficient in the penitent, or that there is something lacking in the sacrament.  However, we should be cautious of limiting the scope of compunction.  It does not merely address itself to the irascible faculties, or to the imagination, but also to the memory.  The desert fathers circulated an anecdote among themselves in order to draw attention to this dimension of the fear of the Lord.

A brother asked a hermit, “Why is my heart hard, and why do I not fear God?”  He said to him, “I think that, if you have reproach in your heart, you will know fear.”  The brother said to him, “What is this reproach?”  The hermit said, “To reprove your soul in all things, saying to it, ‘Remember that you have to meet God.’  Say also to your soul, ‘What do I want with people?’  I think that if anyone tries to do this, the fear of God will come to him.” 2

The second characteristic of compunction is a piercing knowledge of divine mercy.  It is the overwhelming feeling of God’s divine love and compassion.  Here, a person knows that he is not worthy of this total loving concern, but has no other way to respond to it than surrender in gratitude.  A type of sorrow is caused in the depths of one’s being because the penitent longs to be enveloped by God’s love, but knows that he has not yet fully surrendered to the simplicity of that love.  The more a person surrenders, the more he is filled with joy and gratitude.

Compunction is a fruit of the gift of the fear of the Lord.  It arises within the penitent as he or she comes into contact with God’s absolute holiness and salvific action.  Both forms of compunction overwhelm the penitent, and create an atmosphere of trembling and fascination.  They are evidence of God’s action in the penitent’s life.  If the penitent should live in accord with the grace of this divine activity, then, he will be called wise and prudent.

The unity of life in Christ
Wisdom grasps the organic nature of the virtues, and aspects of the moral, spiritual, intellectual and practical.  It is found at the intersection of speculation, understanding and practice.  It establishes the limits and purpose of each virtue and faculty within the person.  In a manner of speaking, wisdom is the heart of prudence and commonsense.  It searches for balance and relationships so that a person may live a peaceful, harmonious and ordered life.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is organically linked with the whole life of the Church.  As the sacrament imparts the actual forgiveness of sins, it also reintegrates the converted sinner into the life of the Church.  This sacrament exists with an eye toward the whole project of Christian life.  Therefore, the power of this sacrament depends upon the graces proper to the other sacraments in order to effect the sanctification of the penitent over the course of his lifetime.

Additionally, the Sacrament of Reconciliation relies upon the pastoral activities of the Church, in order to educate and form the penitent in the Christian life.  The counsel that a penitent receives from a confessor addresses the context and conditions of the sins committed.  Very often, penitents are looking for mentoring and spiritual direction so that they may avoid the near occasion of sin in the future, fulfilling the Lord’s will in their lives.  They want to, not only know how Satan tempts them, but, also how to grow in the grace of the Holy Spirit.  This means that the confessor must be keenly aware of the scope of the sacrament, and direct the penitent to further opportunities available to nurture the Christian life restored in him.

It should be noted that the Sacrament of Reconciliation not only forgives sins committed, and reincorporates the penitent into full communion with the Church, it also strengthens the penitent against future temptations.  Sin makes the will impotent against temptations, creating a whirlpool of vice.  Vices compound upon one another, weakening a person with each sin committed.  A movement of God’s grace is necessary for a person to resist such temptations.  The grace proper to the sacrament forgives the actual sins committed or omitted.  However, there remains an inclination toward the sins that have been confessed.  This inclination is not sin, but it does demand a greater attentiveness to situations that may lend themselves to sin.  The mission of the Holy Spirit cultivates the grace given in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, so that it is able to mature through the resistance of temptations.  The Christian life, animated by the Holy Spirit, is, therefore, predicated upon a new integrity and unity of being.

The idea of wisdom offers a particular analysis of the Sacrament of Reconciliation that has the potential to cultivate a new consciousness about the sacrament.  Revelation specifies the reality of sin that grips the human situation, and man’s role in perpetuating sin.  Wisdom acknowledges the true state of the world, and, thus, every man’s responsibility in the light of sin.  If a person is to become a man of wisdom, then, he must confess the evil that has entered the world through his agency.

The sapiential aspect of the Sacrament of Reconciliation has its point of departure in the self-knowledge of the penitent.  Its end resides in the justice and mercy that come from the Father through the Death and Resurrection of the Son.  This sacrament is the place of actually experiencing the fruit of Christ’s Paschal Mystery for all post-baptismal sins.  Moreover, it allows the penitent to look beyond the debilitating shame and guilt of his confession, seeing how this sacrament grounds the Christian life in the truth of God’s infinite mercy, and in the life of the Church.  Christ instituted this sacrament in order to restore joy, peace and life in the contrite heart.  Would that all might be filled with such joy!

  1. K. Conley, “Wisdom,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XIV (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1967) 968.
  2. “Compunction,” in The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, trans. Benedicta Ward (London: Penguin Books, 2003) 17.
Fr. Richard L. Schamber About Fr. Richard L. Schamber

Fr. Richard L. Schamber is a priest of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee and was ordained in 2007. He is presently a student at the Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum (a.k.a. "Augustinianum") in Rome, Italy, currently in the propaedeutic year leading into the Licentiate in Theology and Patristic Sciences.


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