ASK FATHER: My mind goes blank just before confession

From a reader…

QUAERITUR:

I have a frustrating problem that has plagued me for years without fail. Throughout the week, all my faults and sins that a I’ve committed since my last confession ruminate through my mind clearly and distinctly. Like I could confess them there and then if the opportunity presented itself. When it’s time to actually examine my conscience before I go to confession each week, all those sins and faults that ruminated throughout my mind during the week seem to disappear. My mind goes blank and I can’t remember them at all. It takes me an hour just to examine my conscience before confession. It’s so frustrating! I hate it! Do you have any practical suggestions that might help with this? Even prayer doesn’t help the matter. Sooo frustrating!

First, thanks for being diligent about examining your conscience.   The spiritual life needs discipline.   We have to develop good habits.  We members of the Church Militant do well to have well-ingrained behaviors of prayer and reflection which then free us also to be spontaneous.

Everyone should examine his conscience on a daily basis.  It’s good to do so in the evening, after one’s day.   Newbies perhaps could associate this with another activity which – I trust – they never omit: brushing teeth before bed.   Linking the two can help form the foundation of the good habit.

If you are regularly examining your conscience but still having a hard time just before confession, there are a couple things you can do.

First, remember that, even though it might take a hour to pull everything back up to the surface… it’s worth it.   Think of the benefits of absolution!   Mortal … let’s repeat that… MORTAL sins forgiven!  The soul strengthened against sin!   Reconciliation within the Body of Christ, the Church!  Not bad for an hour of work.   Picture yourself in Garden with the Lord, watching and pondering.

It could be that the Enemy of your soul is trying to fog you up.   Pray to your Guardian Angel as you get ready for confession.  Invoke your special helper sent by God.   Angels rejoice at the reconciliation of sinners.  They will help.

Click!

Next, you might write things down.  There is a risk in this that someone might find what you wrote.   Perhaps you care and perhaps you don’t.  Use a safe place or create one.   Off the top of my head, for example, some people who conceal and carry a firearm, have lock boxes in their dwellings, especially of there is some traffic of other people or children around.   Why not use something like that?  It’s a small biometric safe and some of them open with the touch of your fingers and no one else’s.   These small safes or vaults can be used for anything, not just your pistol: jewelry, documents, diary, cash, etc.  Some are are expensive, but there are some reasonably priced ones too.  And, if you get one that uses a key or just buttons, it’s a great deal less expensive.  The one pictured is around $17.

Also, you could have one in your car.   Moreover, perhaps you could create a kind of code for yourself if you don’t want to be explicit.  It may be that just a slight mark or brief phrase will be enough to bring something back.

Don’t allow yourself to be so frustrated that you stop or hesitate going to confession.

Also, remember this important point: If you have sincerely done your best in the confessional to confess your sins, then all your sins will be forgiven, even those which you forgot.  Even if you remember them 10 seconds after you get out of the confessional, all your sins were forgiven.   It is good to mention them the next time you regularly go, but they were forgiven, provided that you did your sincere best.

I hope this helps.  I know that others might have this difficulty, so it is good that you brought it up.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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11 Responses to ASK FATHER: My mind goes blank just before confession

  1. DebbieInCT says:

    Thank you for addressing this as I have the exact same challenge. Writing things down helps, but I know that feeling of wishing that I had the priest right there at the exact moment that my heart was so open and free with words to articulate my sorrow and my sin. The way the questioner describes it is very well done. Thank you Fr., for your responses, your encouragement and teaching is always welcome and appreciated!

  2. I am very glad someone asked this question. Thank you.

  3. Diana says:

    I used to have this problem. I forget at the confessional and I forget at the end of the day. When I went to do my evening examen, I’d think, “Wait… what happened today?!” It’s amazing.

    I find that a twice daily examen–once around noon and once at night–helps with the evening forgetfulness.
    Writing things on my phone helps combat forgetfulness in the confessional. There are even apps where you can keep track of your examen and password protect it, if you’re worried that someone will find your list.

  4. roma247 says:

    Father, correct me if I’m wrong, but confessing your sins to a priest in kind and number is just one of the three elements that make up the matter of the sacrament of Penance for the penitent. The other two are true contrition and the performing of the penance assigned. [An act of contrition should always contain a firm purpose of amendment of life: the intention not to sin again. Performing the penance is necessary, but your sins are forgiven if you don’t perform it. For example, your sins are forgiven when you receive absolution with the intentions to amend your life and to do penance. The sins don’t remain until you do your penance and then, after, you become absolved down the line, after you said your “three Hail Marys”. Furthermore, even assigned penance by the priest is arbitrary. Our mortal sins open up a gap between us and God that our own works can’t close. God closes it. An Our Father or a hundred thousand Our Fathers… it’s all God. Hopefully what the priest assigns will spur the penitent to deeper penance and resolve. Also, it should be something that can be done and the penitent knows that it is done. Something like, “Think nice thoughts about someone today”, doesn’t cut it, no matter how well-meaning the priest.]

    So for those of you who are finding that you have no trouble knowing your sins and being truly sorry for them outside of the confessional, but struggle to remember them inside it, take heart in knowing that it is not only in the tribunal of the confessional that Our Lord knows your true contrition.

    Father is of course right that you should continue to do your best to recall your sins before entering the confessional, and that this forgetfulness should not deter you from persevering in regular confession. A small pocket notebook can be a very handy aid, and you should not neglect to pray for the aid of the Holy Spirit and your Guardian Angel, but always remember for your own peace of mind that an act of perfect contrition is considered sufficient for those who cannot get to confession…

    Therefore when you do remember your sins during the week, do your best in those moments to offer God your act of perfect contrition with the intention of confessing them as soon as you can. The superfluity of sorrow and heartfelt contrition that DebbieInCT describes is not wasted just because it is not spoken to a priest, and the combination of your acts of contrition both outside and inside the confessional are even more pleasing to God. Coupled with the knowledge that your sins are forgiven even if you have forgotten them, this should give you solace.

  5. Gab says:

    I have to keep a log book otherwise I forget. I’ve tried the “oh I’ll remember this” and never do. Only takes a word or two jotted down to jog the memory. Plus it’s a good reminder for the next day, at the beginning of one’s day, to revisit the list and resolve not to commit those sins this new day, a “preventative” examination of conscience.

  6. BrionyB says:

    Definitely a good idea to keep a running list that you update throughout the month (or whatever interval you have between Confessions). I always prepare my final list and run through it a few times to practice at home the day before – if I left it until I was in church or under time pressure, I’d be sure to get in a panic and not be able to remember anything!

  7. APX says:

    BrionyB,

    My mind goes blank as soon as I walk into the confessional and close the door. I just write everything down word for word and read it. I tried just jotting down notes, but that doesn’t work for me. The joys of having an anxiety disorder. At least it used to give my former confessor an opportunity for puns about getting a good read on things.

  8. bartlep says:

    I use the “notes” on my iPhone to list my sins. I take my phone into the confessional so I don’t forget anything (of course, I can’t remember every sin and defect, so I confess that I am sorry for those, too).
    I note the date and priest, also. After confession, I delete my sins from notes but keep priest’s name and date of confession for reference.

    My goal is confession every 2 weeks.

  9. JonathanTX says:

    I was once chided by a Fr. Firstname priest for bringing a list of sins as a memory aid; not out of concern for privacy if I misplaced it, but he considered it legalistic and over-scrupulous.

  10. BrionyB says:

    The confessional at the church I usually go to is so dark I can’t read from a list – so I now try to memorize it in advance. An incentive to not commit too many sins (or be over-scrupulous in deciding what is a sin) so the list stays short!

    I don’t see what’s wrong with using a list if it helps you make a good (and quick, efficient!) confession, though I’ve heard of priests disparaging the approach. Not very pastoral of them, I think – Confession is difficult enough for many people, especially those with social anxiety or perhaps memory problems, without making it harder.

  11. Bonaventurian says:

    Great advice, Father. I have this problem as well. I keep a password-protected memo on my phone where I log my sins before confession. It feels a little weird to have my phone out, but I want to make sure I recall everything.