One consequence of spending almost three weeks of the month of June in retreat houses – first directing at OshKosh and then doing my own retreat at San Alphonso – was a lot of sacraments (in the capital “S” Catholic meaning of the term). In addition to daily Mass, in the month of June I’ve had three anointings (one at OshKosh and one at each of the two group retreats that went on at San Alphonso during my week of private retreat) and received the sacrament of reconciliation twice.
You would think that spending so many days in a retreat house would mean little occasion for sin, but I found myself at San Alphonso lining up for confession for the second time in two weeks.
My arrival at San Alphonso coincided with a women’s retreat weekend that included about 120 women. Because I was doing private retreat, I was fortunately given a room far removed from the rooms occupied by any of the women – “fortunately” because the women almost never maintained any silence. They chatted seemingly incessantly, even in the chapel and some, even during Adoration.
One of the things I confessed to the priest was my judgment of the women and their failure to keep silence. I added that I tried to be charitable, that I did realize it was a blessing that some of them were on retreat at all and many were perhaps doing the best they could. But I could feel the judgment. (Having the previous day heard about the resignation of the Archbishop of the Twin Cities, I also confessed that I had not always been charitable in my views toward him, but that I had been trying that day to keep him in my prayers.)
What the priest said in reply was perhaps the single most useful thing a confessor has said to me in a long time. He began by observing that we have been given brains and we will make judgments. The problem is not the judgment arising, it is not moving past the judgment to prayer (as I had done in the case of the Archbishop) or some other positive response.
Brilliant in its simplicity and so clearly right. And I know this from my prior years of Buddhist (particularly vipassana) meditation. We can’t stop or prevent feelings or thoughts from arising – they will rise of their own accord. What we can control is how we deal with them. Do we hand onto negative judgments (or e.g. feelings of jealousy or envy, etc.), follow their story line, and allow them to grow in strength until they drive out any space for wisdom. Or do we move past them. Any potential “sin” lies not in the judgment, but in what we do with it.
So perhaps the priest said nothing I didn’t already “know” at some level, but what he said had an enormous impact on me.
Yesterday, Mark Olser and I engaged in another of our “Mid-Dialogues,” lunchtime programs where we take some issue as to which Catholics and Protestants have varying thoughts and talk about them. Our subject for yesterday was Confession.
“Confession is good for the soul,” says a Scottish proverb from the mid-1600s. Most religions would agree. Verses from the Torah, the Bible and the Quran speak of the importance of confessing our sins and receiving forgiveness from a God who is merciful. But there are differences among different faith traditions in what that means. Does it require confession to a priest? Do all sins have to be confessed? Does it have to be done publicly? What happens if you don’t confess?
I opened the program by talking about the Catholic sacrament of Reconciliation and why I believe there is value to the practice of individual confession to a priest. Mark then talked about confession in the Protestant tradition and about the humbling aspect of confession. After our two presentations, we opened it up for lively discussion with the participants. As is always the case, Mark and I found much we agree on, but enough difference in how we think about things to encourage each of us to further reflection on the subject.
You can access a recording of Mark and my presentations here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 40:25. (As I usually do, I recorded only our comments, not the dialogue with participants that followed.)
I managed to get through the entirety of the day yesterday without remembering that it was the memorial of St. Monica. Today, we celebrate the memorial of her son, St. Augustine, bishop and doctor of the Church. Or, in the words of one commentator, the “sinner turned saint.”
I’ve shared before how important Augustine’s Confessions was to me at the time of my conversion from Buddhism back to Christianity. Indeed, I’ve often thought that it would have been a great help for me if someone has suggested that I read that work when I was 17 and engaged in the struggle that resulted in my abandonment of Catholicism for over twenty years. Augustine’s humanness and his brokenness are evident in that work, as was his intense sorrow for his sins and his equally intense longing for God. At a time when I was having great difficulty finding my way, the book was a great help to me.
I deeply relate to Augustine’s words to God,
You were with me, but I was not with you. Things held me far from you- things which, if they were not in you, were not at all. You called, and shouted, and burst my deafness. You flashed and shone, and scattered my blindness. You breathed odors and I drew in breath – and I pant for you. I tasted, and I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
After writing his Confressions (and I’ve shared this before), Augustine asked himself whether it was good that he had done so. He wondered: If I’ve come to regret my sinful past and if I believe God has forgiven me, why not simply put my past behind me. Why bother putting all this bad stuff from my past down on paper? His answer to that question was that it was the recognition of his own sinfulness that had led him to recognize the love of God. It was only when he realized the depth and extent of the presence of sin in his life that he was able to see who God is and how God worked in his life. Thus, for Augustine, recalling his sinfulness was a necessary part of his praise of God.
That seems to me to be a useful perspective for all of us to keep in mind. But it may be especially useful for those people who have difficulty with the idea of Reconciliation and the idea of confessing their sins. What Augustine understood, in the words of theologian Michael Himes, was that confession “is not about how wicked I have been but rather about how good God is. Like all sacraments, reconciliation is not primarily about my action, whether good or bad, but about God’s action.” There is something incredibly powerful about our own articulation of our sins and our hearing the words of absolution.
I had a conversation yesterday afternoon with my friend Lynn about the value of the Catholic sacrament of Reconciliation and about confession in general.
As important as the sacrament of Reconciliation is (and I’ve written on that subject before), there is a role for confession outside of the sacrament as well as within. We not only need to confess our sins to God, but to each other. (I’ll be talking more about the relationship between these two in several weeks at one of our Weekly Manna sessions.)
As I was thinking about the subject last night, I opened up Shane Claiborne’s A Common Prayer. And, lo and behold, the note following the prayer for yesterday was on the subject of confession. He writes
Confessional prayer assumes that our worship takes place in a deeply flawed community. The church hs always been a worrisome and dysfunctional place. But by grace we can take small step to restore trust. Maybe it is writing a note to someone we have offended or calling up someone we have murmured to (or about) and asking for their forgiveness. Maybe it means each week choosing to do something nice for someone its hard for you to like. Sometimes we call this “doing penance.” It’s not that we have to do an act of penance to earn God’s grace; it’s the opposite – because we have experienced Gods grace, we can’t help but do some act of grace toward another person.
The note reminds us how important our experience of God’s forgiveness is. We can’t move forward in our relationship to ourself or our relationships with others without the experience. And if we really do experience it, it “cant’ help but” affect our actions toward each other.
Yesterday morning I attended mass at St. John’s Episcopal Church with my friends Richard and Russell. As those who have attended an Episcopal mass know, it bears a striking resemblance to a Catholic mass, except that the order of the mass parts is not quite the same.
The change in sequence that had an impact on me this morning was the placement of the Penitential Rite near the end of the Liturgy of the Word and before commencement of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, rather than at the beginning of the service, as at a Catholic mass.
For me, that had the effect of making the Penitential Rite more meaningful. That is to say, the process of listening to the preaching of the Gospel and reflecting on the words of the sermon (which was really a quite good message about the salt and light gospel), prompted me to think of particular things I wanted to bring to God during that prayer of confession. Coming to it after the hearing and reflecting on God’s word, my participation in the Rite seemed much more intentional and mindful than it often otherwise is and, thus, I found it a much more powerful experience.
I am obviously not suggesting that the order of the Catholic mass ought to change because I had an experience like this at an Episcopal Mass. But my experience does make me think it is worthwhile to think about how to bring that same intentionality and reflectiveness to the Penitential Rite every time I go to mass.
Even many people who do not regularly avail themselves of the sacrament of Reconciliation do go to confession during Lent. Indeed, although we don’t anymore often hear the phrase “Easter Duty,” Catholics are required to receive go to confession (and to receive Holy Eucharist) at least once in the period between the First Sunday in Lent and Trinity Sunday.
It is common to engage in an examination of conscience in preparation of receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation. There are many forms that examination can take and one can find numerous lists of questions in books and online for prayerfully examaining our actions of body, speech and mind.
In going through some material in my study at home (cleaning out files in my study being a seemingly never ending process), I came across an examination of conscience that I received during an Ash Wednesday Day fo Reflection some years ago. I share it here because it is different from many I’ve seen and because it seems to me useful both for preparation for Reconciliation and for individual reflection during this Lenten season, and, indeed, at any other time. I hope you find it a fruitful source of reflection.
1. Do I fully believe that I am loved infinitely and forever by God?
If I do not believe this enough, do I pray fervently: “I believe, O God, help my unbelief?”
2. Do I live my live as though I believe that I am loved infinitely and forever by God?
a) Do I treasure myself as God’s “beloved”? Do I thank God continuously for all the wonderful gifts that I have received as signs of love? Do I develop gently, confidently, persistently all those gifts? Am I joyous about my opportunities to grow in God’s love for me?
b) Do I celebrate the people in my life who are sacraments (i.e., effective symbols) of God’s love for me?
3. Do I treat all other people as though they are loved infinitely and forever by God?
4. Am I anxious to share my gifts with others and to receive a share in their gifts so that the Body of Christ may grow more fully in Jesus’ image?
Am I concerned for the disadvantaged and do I seek personally, economically, and politically to have all people have the opportunity for the fullness of life?