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Stoned to Death

On Nuns' Confessions.


The last time I shocked a priest into silence during the sacrament of confession was around six months ago. The priest in question was a visitor to our convent, and I had never been to him for confession before. Having concluded the confession of my sins, I waited to see what counsel he might give me. The answer was, apparently, none at all. He stared at me with a look of bafflement bordering on horror, and simply said: “I . . . don’t know what to say to any of that.”

Eventually he recovered and managed to piece together some response—and, more important, to offer me absolution—but I feared that the content of my confession had offended him in some way. Some time later I shared these concerns with another sister, who merely shrugged and said: “Don’t worry, he reacted to my confession in the same way. He hasn’t heard many sisters’ confessions before, remember.”

There is a sweet and wholesome phrase attributed to Venerable Fulton Sheen on the subject of confession and convent life, which I am sure readers have heard before: “Hearing nuns’ confessions is like being stoned to death with popcorn.” Before I entered the convent, I liked this phrase a lot. Everyone knows that nuns have barely anything to talk about in confession, and their lives are so narrow and insular that the tiny, inconsequential little things they do find to confess must get blown out of all proportion in their minds. How funny! Now that I am a sister, I read it differently. For me, the emphasis is no longer on the popcorn but on the stoning to death, and I like to think that the archbishop meant it to be understood this way.

Attentive readers will note that I began by recounting the story of the last time I shocked a priest during confession, and will infer from that—quite rightly—that this has happened to me several times. Let me tell you about the first. I was two or three weeks into my novitiate, my veil crisp and my habit still sparkling white, and in the absence of exterior preoccupations I had discovered, quite to my surprise, that I was absolutely riven with vice. But when I took this newfound knowledge to confession, laying out the true state of my heart and my lack of love before God, the priest was dismayed almost to the point of alarm. I was being too hard on myself; I needed to stop being so introspective. He didn’t quite go so far as to call my sins “popcorn,” but I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had. Then, a month or so later, I went to confession with another priest—this time a fellow religious, who had spent many decades teaching and directing brothers in initial formation—and found that his reaction to my confession was quite different. After hearing my sins, he leaned back in his chair with a bland look of satisfaction on his face—he may as well have kicked off his shoes and cracked open a beer—and said, “Good. That’s a pretty standard novice confession. I’d hoped you’d say something like that.”

I should explain. The thing about my confessions that has proven persistently horrifying to inexperienced priests is not my sins per se, but the manner in which I describe them: splicing them open and laying out the disordered motives, intemperate attachments, willful self-deception, and hardness of heart that made them possible, like the organs of an animal cadaver on a dissection board. This is partly due to my personality, I admit, but it is also to a large extent simply what happens to one’s confessions after a few years in the convent. I am sure we are all happy with the idea that, as Saint Teresa of Calcutta tells us, we can’t all do great things but we can do small things with great love. But in religious life you quickly learn that the inverse is also the case: we can’t all commit huge public sins, but we can still do small things with great lovelessness. The acts themselves may, at first glance, seem to be mere popcorn; but the vicious force with which they are flung is the force of a stoning. Such acts are small and petty only to the penitent who has herself become small and petty in soul—the sister has given up all hope in the transformative power of God’s mercy.

The consecrated religious life is an ecclesial life and thus, like the Church itself, is in continual need of purification. Such purification takes place not only on the level of the regular observances—the recitation of the Divine Office, the common life, silence, penances—but by necessity reaches into the interior of the person who has freely bound herself to it. Such persons are, as Lumen gentium tells us, the means by which “the Church presents Christ to believers and non-believers alike in a striking manner daily.” This is a great and noble calling; it is made so not by the quality of the people attempting to live it but by the greatness and nobility of the baptismal grace on which it is founded and of the act of human freedom with which it is accepted. The consecrated religious life, then, is not a time of rest and reward for the naturally virtuous but a hothouse of purification for those who, by the immense mystery of God’s grace, are ready to enter into the depths of the Church and the depths of themselves, to receive the gift of God’s mercy, and to decrease so that He may increase.

Bishop Erik Varden recently described monastic life as a kind of applied theology, and I have to admit there are many teachings of the Church, particularly in the area of sacramental theology, that only started to make sense to me once the convent immersed me in them. Chief among these is the fact that the matter of the sacrament of confession is not sin strictly speaking, but rather sorrow for sin. Opportunities for sin come and go; in the novitiate you mostly notice them going, which is why you spend a lot of time feeling bored. But the deeper you go into the religious life—the more time you devote to uncovering the endless riches of a graced interior life lived in the heart of the Church—the stronger the desire to be free of the petty hindrances of our vices grows, and the more you sorrow over the missed opportunities to once more give Christ that wholehearted “Yes” which you first gave at your profession.

And this is why, with all due respect to Fulton Sheen, I do not like his comment about popcorn confessions. As a religious sister, I read it as a commentary on the stupidity and illogicality of sin, and on the fact that the most apparently small and innocuous of acts can be weaponized by our lack of charity. But it is far too easy to read it merely as a pat on the head to consecrated religious, and a dismissal of the need for repentance and purification in all corners of the Church—including behind the convent doors. I do not think it helps anybody in the Church to act as if the confessions of consecrated religious are something sweet and largely inconsequential rather than a necessary act of ecclesial purgation and reform, akin to Christ clearing the moneylenders out of the Temple, taking place at the very heart of the Body of Christ. If we want the Church to be purified, the souls of consecrated religious strike me as the obvious place to start the work.

I have always struggled to see religious life as a path of littleness and renunciation. For myself, becoming a religious sister has been the fulfillment of that part of my personality that strives after that which is greatest, highest, and best, and will not settle for anything less. The deep trust it has given me in the mercy of God and in the abundance of His grace has not, in itself, healed me of my disordered attachment to sin. But it has made me far less tolerant of that sin, far more confident in exploring the dark crevices of the interior life where it clings and festers. It might look like popcorn to an outsider, but flung with the force of a stoning it becomes, to paraphrase Saint John, murder in the heart of the believer. And it is from that, the loveless, death-dealing darkness of sin, that I desire myself—and all consecrated religious, and indeed the whole of Christ’s mystical body—to be free.