When I went to my first confession at the ripe age of thirteen I really, really wanted to go behind the screen. I walked into the confessional and the priest told/asked me to sit in the chair and not behind the screen. Mortified and nervous beyond words, I sat in the chair and had my first confession. I never went to confession with that priest again, but I never wanted to go behind the screen again either.
In time I came to love going to confession without the screen. For me it meant that I had to look a priest (who is acting as the person of Christ in the confessional) in the eyes and tell them what I did. I had to come face to face with my sin before God. Personally that is a lot more humbling than going behind a screen. I’ve heard the case for and against screened confessions, but I’ve always preferred to go to confession face to face. The other thing I love about face to face confessions is you get to see the mercy in the priest’s face, and sometimes he’ll even put his hand on your head as he gives you absolution. Maybe it is just me, but I love seeing and feeling the love and mercy after bearing my sinful soul to the priest.
Recently I went to confession and the only option in the confessional was to have a screened confession. I walked in the confessional and realized that there was no other option and I nearly walked out. If I hadn’t felt the need to go to confession, I might have walked out. Instead I knelt down by the misty plexi-glass window, my insides churning. Everything about this experience already felt wrong and the priest hadn’t even begun “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…” yet. I strongly, deeply disliked everything about being in a tiny, screened box with no warmth of a human face. I felt stripped of my dignity as I got down on my knees in a small, cold, lifeless cell.
The priest began and I went through confession just like always, my insides still reeling that this was not at all the experience of confession that I wanted. I wanted my dignity and my ‘normal’ confession routine back. Then it hit me: confession isn’t about what I want. It isn’t about the experience or the comforts I’m used to. In fact, it isn’t about comfort at all. Being forced behind a screen is a metaphor for what sin does in our lives. We want to see the face of God and live, much like Moses desires in the Old Testament. However, sin separates us from Him and we can no longer see His face or be in His presence. Sin literally precludes the presence of God because He cannot dwell where sin is present. Feeling stripped of my dignity was, in a sense, how I should feel after sinning. I was alone in a cold, small, lifeless cell and the only way out was to beg for mercy.
Confession behind the screen felt cold and impersonal, much the way I imagine our sins feel to God. After I’d fallen prey to the same old sins it really wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about the way I wanted to confess my sins. All that mattered was coming before Him, even if it made me uncomfortable and stretched me, and begging for His forgiveness.