Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Opening the Door for God’s Grace through the Sacrament of Penance

Sometimes, if you open a door, God will walk into your life and change it. I had that experience 14 years ago: I went to confession and a huge blockage in my life was resolved. Actually, the confession itself was nothing special, but what happened immediately afterward was. In fact, it changed the course of my life and was a clear sign for me that God is alive and active – and that all you have to do is open the door and let God in.

As a convert, I came to the Church initially because I felt my two sons needed me to help them understand the faith they would be learning about. My experience of the RCIA and of the parish rapidly became for me much more than that. I was soon an active volunteer in music, liturgy, catechesis and an active part of a very vital community.

Several years later, I was divorced. I had been out of the workforce for several years raising my children and the only job I could find was working as a secretary in a diocesan office, even though I had an M.A. in English and two additional years of graduate school. After a few years, with the support of the priest I worked for, I began studies for a Masters in Pastoral Studies, emphasis in liturgy. After graduation, it should have been easy, but jobs for liturgists who don’t play the organ are few. In addition, an unfortunate change of supervisors drove me to apply for any job that looked reasonable, secular or church. Although I had several interviews, nothing worked out. I was underemployed, disliked my job situation and was experiencing severe financial stress. Frankly, I became depressed.

Then I began to hear a voice in my head: “Bloom where you’re planted,” it said – at random times. Now, as a former English major, I abhor clichés – and never use them willingly. I knew instinctively that voice was not mine. I was frankly annoyed, but the voice was rather insistent.

About that time, I had an unsettling experience. Unexpectedly, I was asked to provide music for an Ignatian retreat for diocesan deacons, but when participating in one of the guided reflections, I saw the faces of three people who had recently died, and for whom I had a lot of unresolved grief. That upset me greatly and prevented me from going forward with the meditation. God, the retreat master explained, was apparently trying to tell me something through these people. I needed to journal, pray and listen, he advised. A month later, I made my Cursillo, out of a strong sense that I really needed to be there, despite the fact that I was having some major health issues

It was during the weekend that it happened. We had a communal celebration of the Sacrament of Penance. I made my confession to an elderly retired priest whom I knew very well, who occasionally assisted with Masses at my parish. Father Richter was a fine priest of the old school, kindly, but not particularly creative with the sacrament. My brief confession was pretty much pro forma – I remember vaguely expressing regret for my bad attitude and asking for God’s help. He assigned me three “Our Fathers and a Hail Mary” for my penance.

After absolution, I started to walk across the chapel back to my seat. Halfway there, that annoying voice again in my head: “Bloom where you’re planted.” For the first time, I confronted the voice: “I can’t bloom where I’m planted, God! I hate where I’m planted!” I thought. “THEN PLANT YOURSELF WHERE YOU CAN BLOOM!!” I was stunned. It was so obvious – yet I had never even considered looking for work outside of the city where I had lived for the past 19 years, where all my friends – and my sons – lived.

What followed was an intensive job search. Eventually, a job opened up – a parish that was seeking a liturgy director unexpectedly also needed a director of religious education and it turned out I was actually qualified for both, so a joint position was created. I had found my way and I knew that it had not been on my own.

Would it have happened without that moment when the grace of the Sacrament allowed me to open up the door to God? Probably. God will always find a way. However, now I know better than to dismiss the notion that sacraments do what they say they do. By removing what was blocking my vision and forward progress in that moment, God had provided me with a way through that allowed me to follow His plan for me.

I used this story in parent meetings for First Reconciliation when I worked in the parish. It is my witness to the gift that sacrament can be in our lives. I know that God will sometimes use the openness and vulnerability that we can experience through Penance to open us to His will.

That day as I celebrated the sacrament, I had unlocked a door in my heart and left it open, just for a moment. God took that opportunity and walked in – not to fix the problem (I still had a lot of searching, discerning and waiting to do) but to allow me to hear God’s will for my life: “Leave your country and your people and go to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1) I may not have found the promised land, but I found my vocation, through the grace and guidance of God.

This is a Catholic Blog Day post. Please visit this page to see links to other posts for today on the topic of Penance.


  1. What a great story! Thank for sharing it Joyce. What a great line--plant yourself where you can bloom. Love it.

  2. Yeah, but the point is that line was NOT MINE! God has a great sense of humor - he even one-upped Mary Engelbreit!