O Blessed Box!

He waited nearly a half-century before deciding to shake the Anglican dust from his feet, but when G.K. Chesterton finally resolved to become Roman Catholic, his reasons were perfectly simple: “To get rid of my sins.”

It is also why I, and certainly a great many other sinners, have chosen to remain Catholic. How else does one get to become five minutes old all over again? As Georges Bernanos used to say, “Five minutes of Paradise will make everything well.” Why not a sneak preview, then, before the show begins?

Besides, aren’t we all sinners? Why else am I asked to beat my breast at the beginning of Mass? It’s surely not my neighbor’s fault that I have fallen into sin. Grievous sin, even, which, recalling the prescribed formula, I freely admit, “in my thoughts and in my words, / in what I have done and in what I have failed to do.”

That way I may turn to God to ask forgiveness, beseeching as well both angels and saints, brothers and sisters, to lift me up in prayer lest I be tempted to refuse ownership of those sins. “May Almighty God,” I implore, joining my voice to all the members of the Church Militant, “have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.”

If you think about it, there are only two ways to go when you find yourself in a fix. Either you deny your situation, or you freely confess the fix that you’re in, and go look for immediate and blessed release from it. There is no third way, no room to maneuver between the two bookends of either complete denial or total acceptance of the mess you’ve made.

St. John of Nepomuk Hearing the Confession of the Queen of Bohemia by Giuseppe Maria Crespi c. 1740 [Galleria Sabuada, Milan]
St. John of Nepomuk Hearing the Confession of the Queen of Bohemia by Giuseppe Maria Crespi c. 1740 [Galleria Sabuada, Milan]

Certainly there is no point in fobbing it off on someone else. While it may be tempting to saddle your parents or the politicians – not to mention your wife or husband – with whatever guilt you’ve got, the impulse is not a healthy one. And it will not ultimately satisfy. It needs to be resisted, because the buck always stops with the self. How right Chesterton was on the point. “What’s wrong with the world?” asked the editors of the newspaper he regularly read. He replied: “I am.”

There can be few pleasures – for Catholics, anyway – as keen as hearing the priest announce, amid the darkened anonymity of the confessional, “I absolve you from your sins.” Which he does, we Catholics further believe, in the very accent of Jesus Christ. Thus setting free the soul from all that had previously encumbered it, immersing everything in a great sea of mercy.

What more could you possibly ask for than to regain that radiance for which we were born? It leaves you positively stupefied, while wave upon wave of gratitude washes over the guilt-free soul. Not only is it the gift that keeps on giving, but one that you could never give yourself.

I love how the Italian poet Cesare Pavese put it: “The only joy in the world is to begin,” he tells us. “It is beautiful to live because to live is to begin, always, every instant.” Each time the shriven soul emerges from the medicine box, newly minted as a bright and shiny penny, it is as though one were being freshly bathed in the light of God.

“The man upon whom God lavishes himself,” writes Adrienne von Speyr, “ought to be seized by vertigo in such a way that he sees only the light of God and no longer his own limits, his own weakness.” We really must try, she urges, “to become a simple receiver with arms spread wide yet unable to grasp, because the light runs through everything and remains untouchable, representing much more than our own effort could receive.”

It all comes down to a matter of the will. Some years ago I found myself in a TV studio where, along with a couple of colleagues, we were listening with rapt attention to a story the late Fr. Benedict Groeschel was telling. A young man, struggling with intractable sin, said two things to Fr. Benedict that I will never forget.

One, that he not stop praying for him. “I may someday want to get out of this hell,” he told him. “So, please, do not give up on me.” And the other? “Do not change the rules.” In other words, do not trivialize the seriousness of the situation I’m in by deciding, down the road, that the sins I may commit as a result of this disorder, are no longer sins.

Isn’t this pretty much the predicament we all face? That we are not where we ought to be, and in order to arrive at the place where we are not, we need first to admit the fact, then get moving in the right direction.

Isn’t that precisely what Chesterton had in mind when, at last realizing the inadequacies of Anglican theology, he became Catholic? “To get rid of my sins.”

Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Author of a half-dozen books, including, most recently, Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He lives in Wintersville, Ohio with his wife and ten children.