John 21: Shredding the Past

There’s a lot of power in shredding your past.

As a convert to Catholicism, I was not initially a big fan of the sacrament of reconciliation (or confession, as it’s generally known). I was a firm believer that you didn’t have to confess your sins to another person, since you could always confess them directly to God. Even though I never actually did.

I’m still pretty awkward at the whole thing. Mostly, it’s because I wasn’t raised on the rote prayers Catholics learn early on – I stumble through the “Bless us, O Lord” dinner blessing that every Catholic kid can spit out in 10 seconds or less if they’re hungry – so I get a little tangled in the process of the rite. I like to think that it keeps things fresh for the priest to have someone make up their own act of contrition, but what do I know.

I have to tell you, though, if you make yourself do it, reconciliation is a profoundly freeing experience. And I have learned that, for me, the best part isn’t when the priest pronounces the absolution of my sins or I do my penance (which, if we’re being honest, is usually ridiculously easy). 

It’s when I rip up the paper.

See, I have had the experience of going to reconciliation, coming out of the booth, and realizing I forgot something I wanted to get clean with God on. (Then I usually curse, which I guess doubles my list for the next time immediately.) So I have gotten in the habit, in preparing for reconciliation, of writing down the things that I know have kept me from being what I should be, so I don’t forget when I’m in the booth.

When I leave, having covered all the things on the list, I tear up the paper into tiny pieces and throw it away (usually at the bottom of the kitchen trash when I get home). It’s partly a records-retention strategy, but really, it’s a tangible sign to myself that those particular things are no longer valid. They are no longer things to be guilty about. If they ever really held me back from being my best self, they are no longer. The slate is clean.

That is an incredibly powerful, freeing experience. And, so as not to spoil any recent cinematic examples of someone carrying something around for a long time and then tearing it up when it had lost its power, I’ll refer you to my favorite movie, The Mission.

If you haven’t seen the gorgeously shot, angelically scored 1986 classic starring Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro, well, that’s on you. Go take care of that right now. (I just found out it’s on YouTube; I’ll be blocking off 2 hours and 6 minutes very soon to rewatch).

For those who saw it back in the day, you will recall that DeNiro was a slaver who came to faith and joined Irons and his band of Jesuits as they ministered to the very same indigenous tribes that DeNiro had once preyed on. For his penance, DeNiro chose to climb the ridiculously treacherous mountainside to the tribe’s cliffside home while dragging the heavy weight of his former tools of aggression behind him. At one point, Irons, so frustrated by how impossible a burden DeNiro had chosen for himself, cuts the cord, sending the armor clattering down the mountain. And DeNiro pushes Irons roughly aside, goes down to get it, and starts his arduous climb again.

I mean, sure, ripping up a piece of scratch paper is a lot easier. But the principle is the same: when DeNiro finally lays down his burden of his own choice, he is truly free. (And, being the actor that he is, you will know it.)

(BTW, if you only think of Jeremy Irons as Scar from Lion King, add that to your scrap of paper, because it’s a sin to ignore how good an actor he is.)

John 21 is almost certainly a late addition to the text, and the story – Jesus encounters some of the disciples while they’re fishing – is iconic, deeply symbolic, and leaves me with questions (Why is Nathanael in this scene, but not Peter’s brother Andrew? And Peter fishes naked? That seems unsafe.). But the scene around the fire, where Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?” to unwind the three times Peter denies Jesus in the Passion? That’s the shredding of the paper that Peter needs to become the rock you could build on.

I guess here’s the point. I spend a lot of time with recurring thoughts running around my head, and usually they won’t let me sleep until I write them down, at which point they lay off for a while. If they’re “to-dos”, which usually they are, they stay in the background until I cross them out, which is almost as good as ripping them up. But if they’re a really big deal, I’ll tear up the to-do list, or the thing I screwed up, or the thing I’m holding against someone, whether I have the chance to tell them or not. And I am always more free when I do that.

So if you’ve wronged someone you can’t apologize to directly, or if you’re beating yourself up over something you let yourself down on, let me suggest you write it down. Then speak it to whoever you need to speak it to, present or not. Then tear up the paper and let it all go.

In John’s telling, it was an unwinding like that which freed Peter to be Peter. Who knows what it will free you to be? 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: