Putting Descartes Before the Horse

This week our keys for a joyful Lent are faith and virtue… those acts and dispositions we adopt in response to God’s love for us.  One of the most Lenten acts of faith we can take up is making a good confession.  Recognizing how much our Father loves us, we desire to live in accord with that love and ask his forgiveness for all the times we have not.  This moment of reconciliation, celebrated in the sacrament is an ideal way to begin responding anew to the Father.

As a confessor …and, actually, as one who confesses frequently… there’s something I hear a lot of, “Well Father, this is what I’ve been working on.”  Few people seem to have sins anymore, just what they’re “working on.”  I say that to make a point, not to judge… because for most of us (myself included) there is a tremendous gravity influencing us… a force of culture so ingrained in us that even our best intentions can be influenced by it: Cartesian thought.

Rene Descartes
Rene Descartes

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) is the father of modern western philosophy.  In a nutshell: he asked the question, “How do I know what’s real?”  His famous answer “Cogito, ergo sum” “I think, therefore I am.”  Descartes postulated that the starting point for all perception of reality is “I”… and because I can be sure that “I am thinking” (I hear that little voice in my head), at the very least “I” must be real.  This completely blew the doors off all previous thought, which recognized that all things have an objective reality of their own independent of what I may think of them.  What does this have to do with making a good confession?

Because we are basically a Cartesian people we are inclined to say that something is/isn’t a sin because “I” think/don’t think it is.  Consequently, what comes out of us in the confessional is, “Well Father, this is what  I’ve been working on.”  It’s not a bad start, but it doesn’t make for a really healthy confession because, fundamentally, “I” have put myself if the driver’s seat.  “I” am defining the Law, the truth… not God.  This is why it’s sooooo helpful, in confession, to use a good examination of conscience (Click this LINK for a good selection of examinations).  The examination is a list of questions hat help us to identify what we have concretely done or not done in preparation for the sacrament.  It is something outside of us that forces us to recognize a Truth higher than my own personal perceptions… something bigger than, “I”.

What about joy?  Joy comes into the picture when we consider a few things.  First – while personal perceptions are not necessarily bad, they are certainly imperfect.  Conforming ourselves to God’s perfect Truth revealed in the commandments and the beatitudes (for example) we are liberating ourselves from our own imperfections… a cause for joy if ever I heard one.  Second – If our goal is truly personal growth, we need someone to motivate us from the outside… to call us toward a goal that we haven’t had the internal  resources to achieve.  There’s no shame in that.  Humans are social beings.  The lonely world of Descartes’ “I” can happily be put aside for the loving support of the Church’s “We” assisting each other on the road to growth.  Finally – we rejoice that something as simple as telling the whole truth to God and doing earthly penance can win our salvation.  Consider these words from St. John Vianney (Patron saint of confessors and parish priests) had this to say:

“We should perform our penance overwhelmed with joy at being able to satisfy God, Whom we have offended, and at finding such an easy means of effacing our sins which should have earned eternal sufferings for us.”

St. John Vianney
St. John Vianney

This Lent, don’t put Descartes before the horse The world is real… our sins are real… but so are the many many people in the Church who walk in solidarity with us asking God for his very real forgiveness and love.  Likewise real is the love of your fathers at the altar who want to walk with you on this pilgrimage of joyful penance.