Should you recall past sins? The basic answer to this is one that most of you already know: Do not beat yourself up about sins you have confessed because those sins have been washed away by the blood of Jesus. (Or, if you are an adult convert, your sins were washed away in baptism.)
Keep in mind in St. Luke chapter 15, we have the Prodigal Son parable: After a significant stint of sin, he returns to the Father and he is planning on saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” But the Father doesn’t even let him get that far, for the prodigal son only gets out of his mouth the first two of the above three sentences. It seems the Father cuts him off as he turns to his servants to say, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” In fact, right before that, the Father intercepted the son in his repentance: “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”
Assuming the repentant prodigal son stayed for a long time in the house of his Father, did he think more often of his sins than the Father’s goodness? Of course not, but penance continued past the feast because penance is a perpetual return to God. This is because there is a “built-in” penance for every sin committed in a “far away” country if one actually loves God post-conversion. If we are living repentance, there is a “re-wiring” of our habits that takes time and even pain. Also, any prodigal son may be overwhelmed at his own past sins in light of the goodness of the Father.
Satan causes shame but God causes guilt. What I mean by that is that our objective state of sin before God makes us guilty. But if we have confessed those sins, then only satan drums up unnecessary shame. And that type of shame should obviously be rejected. It can lead to scrupulosity and ultimately a despair of God’s mercy. So, while it’s never good to “feel unforgiven” for past sins that have been confessed in the sacrament of confession, it’s a good thing to keep before one’s eyes what one is capable of outside of grace and to live a lifetime of penance.
For someone just coming back to the Catholic faith who is making a lifetime (general) confession, it’s probably best if he not recall past sins after making that general confession. This is especially true if one be in danger of falling into despair or scrupulosity. Also, remembering past sins might recall too many sexual temptations. You don’t want to re-confess sins that you have already confessed. One exception to this is that Catholics traditionally ended every confession with: “I’m sorry for the sins of my whole life, especially those against the 2nd commandment” (or sixth commandment, or whatever.) The other exception to this is to perhaps make a general confession every decade.
But once someone has moved past an immature shame, it is important to see how the Desert Fathers understood repentance: A lifetime return to God. You see, we Christians today (probably because of the influence of Protestant altar calls) see the word “repentance” as a one-time event. But the orthodox Catholic Christians of the First Millennium (before there were any Protestants at all) saw repentance as a lifestyle. The Desert Fathers (who often left sordid lives behind before beginning their life as a monk) did in fact keep their past sins always before their eyes. But it was not out of despair. It was primarily for the sake of humility, to keep away presumption of God’s mercy. Perhaps it was also because the early Fathers understood repentance to be not a one-stop sacramental-shop but a long pilgrimage in return to the bliss of heaven—our only true home.
Here’s some examples revealing a lifetime of penance in converted-saints as seen in the book The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks. These examples come from the chapter titled Compunction:
4. Elias said, ‘I fear three things: the first, the time before my soul leaves my body: the second, the time before I meet God face to face: the third, the time before he pronounces his sentence upon me.’
10. “In Egypt once when Poemen was going somewhere he saw a woman sitting by a grave and weeping bitterly. He said, ‘If all the delights of this world should come to her, they would not bring her out of sorrow. Just so should the monk always be weeping in his heart.'”
11. “Another time, he went with Anub to the country of Diolcos. Walking past the tombs they saw a woman beating her breast and weeping bitterly. They paused to see her. When they had gone a little further, they met a man and Poemen asked him, ‘What is the matter with the woman over there, that she weeps so bitterly?’ He said, ‘Her husband is dead, and her son, and her brother.’ Poemen said to Anub, ‘I tell you that unless a man mortifies all his self-will and has this kind of grief, he cannot be a monk. The whole life and attention of that woman is wrapped up in grief.’”
21. “A hermit said, ‘If it were possible to die of fear, all the world would perish with terror remembering the coming of God after the resurrection. What will it be like, to see the heavens opened, and God revealed in wrath and fury, and innumerable companies of angels gazing on the whole human race gathered together? Therefore we ought to live our lives as those who must give account of each action to God.’”
27. “A brother asked a hermit, ‘I hear the hermits weeping, and my soul longs for tears, but they do not come, and I am worried about it.’ He replied, ‘The children of Israel entered the promised land after forty years in the wilderness. Tears are the promised land. When you reach them you will no longer be afraid of the conflict. For it is the will of God that we should be afflicted, so we may always be longing to enter that country.’”