I don’t suppose standing in the confession line is usually thought of as the best place for people-watching, but on the other hand there is a collective nature to the act of waiting your turn, a sense that "we’re all in this together" (as, indeed, we are), and so it’s almost impossible to resist checking out who your fellow confessees (penitents?) are.
I recall one time seeing a young family standing in line. The woman went first, handing their baby off to the man standing behind her (her husband, I presume). When she emerged from the box, he handed the baby back to her before going in himself. I got a good feeling seeing that.
Another time a vision-impaired young woman went in. I use the PC term because I don’t know the extent of her impairment; she probably wasn’t totally blind, since she carried her white cane with her but didn’t appear to use it to find her way to the box. (On the other hand, perhaps that meant she was so familiar with the route she didn’t need to use her cane to get there. I doubt it would mean she was a horrendous sinner; more likely, she’s just more vigilant than some of us about frequent confession. That makes me feel good, too. And a little ashamed.)
This morning I was standing behind a fireman. As he went in I had the idle thought that he might be a frequent penitent, given the dangerous nature of his work. After all, a fireman faces the possibility of death every time he goes to the office, and how many of us can say we’re in the same position? My first reaction was a surge of admiration for the man, and for all firemen, putting their lives on the line for us.
Right after that, though, I had another thought: how important it is to make sure you’re not in a state of mortal sin. The end could, literally, come at any time for any of us, and sometimes good intentions alone aren’t enough. "I meant to go to confession" may or may not cut it. What is it Christ said about the virgins and the oil lamps?
And it was then that I realized, once again, that the confessional is not a torture chamber, as so many (Catholic and non-Catholic alike) may think. It is, instead, a place of love. The love that Christ has for us and the love that we reciprocate for Him as we humbly approach Him seeking mercy and reconciliation.
Now, perhaps it’s just that the confessional in the chapel at St. Olaf has a red sticker on the door with the words "Fire Extinguisher Inside," but this caused me to consider the Sacred Heart of Jesus that beats inside the confessional when it’s occupied by a priest. And in that moment it seemed to me that the confessional was literally radiating with His love for us. I didn’t experience anything supernatural - the door didn’t start glowing with an intense light as if it were out of a Spielberg movie. This was more of a mild revelation, perhaps a reminder, of what this sacrament is all about. Because I don’t think you can have forgiveness without love, just as you can’t have mercy without love; likewise, I believe true repentance has to be accompanied by love, just as true thanksgiving expresses that love.
What you have, therefore, is a supernatural exchange of love in that confessional. Indeed, God is a jealous lover. He demands love from us, even if we are only able to offer to Him a shadow of the love He has for us. He is a generous lover as well, however, since His love is given to us freely and without reservation. Look at the Cross hanging above the altar, and you realize He gave His life for us freely and without reservation as well. Throw Mary and the saints into the mix (looking at Mary you can almost feel her rooting for you) – well, there’s not much else you need. The chapel (or the church, wherever you happen to be standing) fairly pulses with love.
All this came and went in a few seconds; when you’re next in line, you don’t have that much time to do anything more than concentrate on your own situation. It did give me a relatively tranquil feeling, however. Ashamed as I am of my own sins, I realize that there’s nothing else to fear. True love, though it may sometimes seem harsh, is always beneficial in the long run; and God’s love is the truest and purest around.
In the confessional we come into God’s presence, gently and peacefully. Reflecting on how this sacrament represents His love can fill us with a sense of comfort and encouragement.
As, indeed, it was intended.