Almost ten years ago, I, at the time a seminary student preparing for ministry in the Presbyterian church, confessed my sins to a Catholic priest and received the sacrament of reconciliation: I cried tears of repentance, received absolution for my sin and was then challenged to go do one good work as “penance.” I walked away having experienced in a new and profound way the regenerative grace of what Catholics describe as the “sacrament” of confession. And I was grateful for it, even if I had been obliged to find it in another denomination. That’s because somewhere between the sixteenth century Reformer Martin Luther, who would have retained confession as a sacrament, and subsequent reforms, we Protestants (most of us at least), managed to throw the baby out with the bath water: the sacramental act of confession, as the honest, laying out of all the places where we have missed the mark and a priest’s ensuing absolution, came to a halt in our churches.
I regret to think this was probably for the worse. Sure, in the vein of John Calvin, we Presbyterians typically open our worship services with a corporate act of confession and reconciliation, as a way of remembering that our worship depends on the fact that God first loved us when we were “still enemies” in our sin. But this once-weekly, corporate act doesn’t go far enough in saturating our minds and hearts with the reality of God’s forgiveness, apart from which we (or at least I) would be hopeless. Something is lost when we fail to honor our need as human beings to confess our sin in confidence to a trusted minister or prayer partner. We deprive ourselves of a deep, mutual accountability and communion with one another in the community of faith, and I suspect we need this grounding today more than ever, in a time when the ground beneath our feet is so often shifting.
Of course there are dangers in opening ourselves up to another human being within the community of faith. In unhealthy congregations, one person’s confession can soon become the latest source of gossip- it might even be written up to our great horror in the church newsletter. But when there are healthy safeguards in place that honor confidentiality and mutuality in sharing, confession, I believe, is fundamental to our life together as those called and sustained by God’s Love.
There is something enormously freeing about being known, the clay jars that we are, and being loved just as we are. Unfortunately, many of us these days find that we must look elsewhere, outside the walls of our church communities, for this kind of unconditional love- and many of us find it there. I recently spoke with a friend, an artist, who said he experiences this sort of “unconditional love” every year at “The Burning Man” festival, and there are many like him. Sadly, too many of us have been hurt by the church, or have found that a veneer of “holier-than-thou” God talk there keeps us from opening up about our deepest wounds (those places where we fall short of God’s best for us and our neighbor).
My resolution this New Year is to be more truthful with those closest to me about my struggles- and this is a scary thing for me. But when we learn to tell the truth about who we are and where we have come from, we free ourselves from the power of our secrets. In his memoir, Telling Secrets, Frederick Buechner writes, “I not only have my secrets. I am my secrets. And you are your secrets….Our trusting each other enough to share them with each other has much to do with the secret of what it is to be human.”
If you have read Dostoevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment, which is one of my favorites, then you may recall that poignant scene in which Raskolnikov, having committed murder, confesses his crime to his love interest, Sonia, and asks her what he should do. She replies, “Go at once, this very minute, stand at the crossroads, bow down, first kiss the earth which you have defiled and then bow down to all the world and say to all men aloud, ‘I am a murderer!’ Then God will send you life again.”
Most of us, saints and sinners alike, haven’t killed anyone- at least literally. But the turbulence and even violence in our own hearts can hurt those around us, manifesting itself in unhealthy ways of relating to those closest to us. (To paraphrase the writer, Solzhenitsyn, the line between good and evil goes right down the center of the human heart.) And we can let these wounds fester, keeping them to ourselves in the dark nooks and crannies of our hearts, out of shame, spiritual pride or despair over our brokenness.
But Sonia’s challenge to Raskolnikov- to tell the truth about who he is and who he has been- is not a self-destructive death wish. It is the very pathway to new life that Raskolnikov so desperately needs. It is a surrendering to God’s love- the very thing that makes the world go round despite our efforts, knowingly or unknowingly, to get in its way. When we, like Rasknolnikov, surrender, we make way for new life to break in on our darkness.
The secret, I am learning, is that we don’t do this kind of surrendering just once. We do it over and over. Often we have to do it about the very same things. And this surrendering hurts, precisely because it involves the suffering of having to change. Wendy Farley, in The Wounding and Healing of Desire, likens this process to the way in which our physical bodies heal: in the same way that a broken bone needs to be re-set, or a fever “awakens the body to the need to drive our disease,” or our healing requires “painful measures like surgery, bad-tasting medicine, or diet and exercise,” our being reconciled with God and one another requires sometimes painful but therapeutic measures, the practice of confession being one of these.
Fortunately, it is precisely in these places that God’s grace meets us. My new favorite band these days is Mumford and Sons. They sing a song called “Roll Away Your Stone,” which might just as well be talking about what we Christians call “confession”:
Darkness is a harsh term don’t you think
And yet it dominates the things I see
It seems that all my bridges have been burnt
But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart
But the welcome I receive with the restart.
Confession is just this: it’s not the long walk home but the “welcome we receive with the restart;” it’s telling our secrets so that we no longer have to live in the dark; and it’s doing this over and over again with the right, trusted people, that keeps our souls alive to God’s love.