This morning I was thinking about a homily I heard once. The priest was preaching on the need for people to return to confession. One of his points went something like this: 'When you pray, no voice comes back. If you do hear a voice speak back, that's called mental illness. But on the other hand, when you receive sacramental absolution, you actually hear the voice of Jesus Christ speaking to you.'
On the one hand I liked it. I appreciated that the priest was preaching on our need for a return to the sacrament of Penance. It wasn't until I became a parish priest and got to know older Catholics that I realized the extent of the decline in this practice. Priests don't preach it a lot either, which perhaps is partly because some of them don't go themselves and many find hearing confessions tedious or boring. I do too sometimes, but then I think that it's probably nothing compared to the tedium and boredom I must have caused confessors over the years (and still do, no doubt!). Most of the time priests have treated me gently, so should I not do the same?
I also appreciated the good sacramental theology of this priest. It is our catholic belief that the divine presence of the incarnate Word of God in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth has been passed into the eschatological presence of Jesus Christ in the Sacraments. The name of this passing over is Resurrection. When we are baptized, we are in the same position as Jesus being baptized by John; the Spirit descends upon us and the Father proclaims his pleasure. When we receive Holy Communion, we are in the same condition as our Blessed Mother who consented to the Word of God being conceived in her body. When we receive sacramental absolution we are just like those whom Jesus heals, forgives, and sends in the gospels. The only difference is one of something like dimension; it is between the historical and the eschatological. Our faith tells us, however, that in the end these will be rolled into one in the New Jerusalem that is, in herself, the marriage between heaven and earth.
On the other hand, I had some trouble with what the priest said. Even though we live in a sacramental community in which the primary presence and communication of God comes to us as an assembly that extends through space and time, we cannot push this too far. God does communicate with individual souls through their prayer. Yes, if we hear a voice in the same way we hear another physical person speak to us, we should probably see the doctor. But there are suggestions that come to us in prayer, or after we have prayed for guidance. There are phenomena that occur that we might call 'interior locutions.' Of course such experiences always have to be tested and should be reviewed with a spiritual mother or father. It is very easy to be tricked in this regard.
In the end, it's true that Jesus is not my 'personal Lord and savior.' He is the savior of the world, and I wish to tag along. But we do have an individual relationship, and there's no denying it.