Penance is one of the two great healing sacraments. Along with the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, it is an invitation to a personal encounter with none other than Jesus Christ Himself -- in the flesh, one might even say -- to experience His healing touch as the divine physician.

All of the sacraments involve some form of touch. It has to be that way. We are not pure spirits like the angels. We are incarnate spirits, which means that our bodies and our souls are intimately united. In order to experience the divine presence, it has to somehow be seen, heard and felt through our senses.

In the sacrament of penance, like any visit to a good doctor, there has to be a certain sense of unburdening of the pain. Usually, that is why one seeks out a physician: Something in one's system isn't working right.

The doctor will ask about the symptoms, how long they have been acting up. A little history might be enlightening for an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment: any allergies, chronic conditions and previous injuries or diseases.

Eventually, the doctor will examine the patient, gently palpating the affected area. Conversation is an important part of this process and, above all, a mutual trust. Both doctor and patient must trust each other: the patient, that the doctor wants only to help and heal that person; and the doctor, that the patient will report truthfully and follow the course of treatment prescribed.

Penance is not much different. A patient who has cultivated a good relationship with a professional physician often leaves with a sense of peace.

Sometimes, the doctor may have to be very direct, even stern. Not all news is good news at first. Since we are mortal beings whose bodies do eventually deteriorate in the face of disease and the aging process, we cannot expect the doctor will be able to perform miracles, though living in our times certainly is something to be thankful for, as medicine and technology continue to raise our hopes.

Often, however, what ails us is much deeper than the experience of physical pain or discomfort. There is a certain soul weariness, an ache in the heart, a disturbance of the mind that eats at our core -- often like a cancer or acid reflux -- and troubles our sleep and our most fundamental relationships.

We may not always know what it is but, chances are, it is some toxic pattern, attitude or memory that is stewing in our inner core and just won't go away. And it can be deadly.

Who does not seek that "peace of mind" that, like the proverbial balm in Gilead, will heal the sin-sick soul? That peace, of course, is Jesus Christ. It is His first promise after His resurrection from the dead: "Peace be with you" (Jn 20:19) is His greeting to His terrified and anxious Apostles, to whom He appears on Easter night.

This is the divine physician, about to heal the hearts of His disciples, many of whom betrayed or abandoned Him at His darkest hour. Their wounded state is obvious and Jesus is wearing those wounds on His hands, feet and side.

He shows them the suffering their sins and ours have caused Him -- a strange reversal of the usual doctor-patient relationship. Here is a physician who has taken on the pain and suffering of the patient, absorbed it completely and now is extending mercy and healing. Now, Jesus will breathe on the Apostles and give to them and their successors the gift of this healing power: to release sinners from the burden of their sins, to heal them and give them lasting peace.

This is the sacrament of penance!

As we can see, it is quite Scriptural and spiritual, but it is also profoundly human: that is to say, respectful of our human nature. Jesus does not just wave a magic wand of the world and say, "Let's just forgive and forget." He knows that deep spiritual wounds do not vanish that easily.

He envisioned a very personal encounter in this sacrament, where the penitent hears and feels the healing words and touch of another human being -- the priest -- through whom Jesus speaks and acts.

A good confession will involve conversation. One can expect that the priest-confessor will do very much what a good doctor does on a routine visit, as described above. The priest will help the penitent make a good confession, praying alongside and encouraging trust in God's mercy.

To prepare for a good celebration, it is not necessary to remember every single detail of every sin committed since the last confession. Just ask the Holy Spirit for the grace to be able to mention what really are the sins most affecting your peace of mind: what your conscience, your most true and honest self, tells you are the things you need to be free of so you can be at peace.

Expect the priest to be kind and patient and encouraging. He wants you to know the love and healing touch of Jesus without getting in the way. He will likely place a hand on your head if you are close enough to him and if you have chosen to confess without a screen between you -- which is an option, of course, that you are always free to choose.

Most importantly, you will hear the words of absolution -- "I absolve you from all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" -- after you have confessed and said your Act of Sorrow or Contrition (he will help you that, with if don't have it memorized).

You will be free, your soul as pure as the day you were baptized.

Do not be afraid, especially now as we are about to enter the holiest season of the year. Do not be afraid to let Jesus look at you and touch your heart, to free your soul from the burden of sins that you have been carrying around for too long.

God does not expect us to punish ourselves for our sins and failings. That is the whole point of Jesus coming to us and taking our sins on His own back. This sacrament of peace of mind was His first gift to a broken world after His resurrection.

He puts the gift right in your hands. Open it. Seek out a priest, either in a confessional or by making a personal appointment. No matter how long it's been -- years or decades -- you will be amazed how well you can become!

(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)