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Confession: Devotion or Repentance by Father John Lee (May 2000)

Father John Lee

If we are honest in analysing our response to Confession, it is more often an exercise in devotion than in repentance. Most of you will know that, in pre-Vatican II days, the Catholic Church divided sins into those which were mortal and those which were venial. The words are self-explanatory but, to bring it even more sharply into focus, a mortal sin was a serious offence which, if on your soul at the hour of death, condemned you to be lost for all eternity. Venial sins, on the other hand, were less serious and (a) did not need to be confessed and (b) were expiated in this life by prayer, sacrifice and good works, and in the next life by a suitable period in Purgatory.

Perhaps some of you know the story of the little old Scottish woman who lived on an island. The church was on the mainland and the ferry services had been discontinued. She hadn’t been to church for some time and the parish priest, visiting the island, asked her about her absence. She told him that she needed to go to Confession, and went on to explain that she hadn’t availed herself of the new air service because ‘an aeroplane is too expensive for venials and too dangerous for mortals’. So the poor lady was stuck – presumably the good father heard her Confession there and then!

Jesus spoke of forgiveness from the Cross. He said Father, Forgive them for they know not what they do, and again He forgave the thief and said to him: Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise. Scripture is full of instances of Our Lord either speaking about forgiveness or actually doing it. No one can draw any other conclusion than that this was His main work, His reason for coming. It follows there, at least in my mind that Confession, Penance, is the greatest of the Sacraments. Standing at the Confession we are at the heart of the mystery. We are participating in the continuation of Christ’s saving purpose: we are admitting our sins, we are turning from them, we really truly intend to change, and therefore Christ has carried out His work in us. We have been at the apex; everything that follows is almost anticlimactic. Some will say, perhaps slightly shocked: “But how can you call Communion anticlimactic?”

If Holy Communion is seen as a reward for an act of repentance, then it is anticlimactic. Only when Communion is felt as a sign that our friendship with Christ has not been diminished by the betrayal of our sins is it not anticlimactic – Holy Communion must be that act of love that covers the scars of our betrayal and disobedience.

We know that we have the wrong emphasis when we admire the benefits of frequent Communion and totally ignore a similar frequency in the Sacrament of Confession.

To digress now a little, and speak of sin. Sin is not now a politically-correct word. Our society, with great help from the media and the liberal theologians, has made the word conjure visions of naughtiness, largely to do with sex and gratification. People don’t sin any more; they act in response to their childhood, their parents, the stresses in their lives… and on the whole most bad actions are therefore regrettable but not deliberate. We too are more understanding than we used to be, and that’s a good thing. No one, however theologically traditional, would wish to return, for example, to the treatment accorded to un-wed mothers and their babies as meted out in the early years of last century.

But the fact remains that we are, in our normal state, to quote Bishop Kallistos ‘cut off from God, and have passed under the domination of sin and the devil’. The Scripture says: The heart of man is inclined towards evil, and the Psalmist says: my sin is ever before me. With these images, it is difficult to accept completely the idea that there are always justifiable reasons for all our misdeeds.

We spoke briefly – and perhaps too lightly – of the Catholic doctrine of mortal and venial sin. Many Orthodox might say: “Trust the Catholics to tie it up neatly.” But is it as far wrong as it sounds? John Wesley, the great founder of Methodism, made justification by faith the cornerstone of his theology, and we all know what this means through acquaintance with our Evangelical friends, who ask us if we are saved. But later in his life, as his spirituality deepened, he became convinced that there was more. He articulated the doctrine of the second work of grace, ‘sanctification’ he called it, sinless perfection. It is still known among those Protestant Churches referred as ‘Holiness Bodies’ – and their people are told that not only must they experience the first work of grace but that subsequently they must also experience the second, commonly called ‘being sanctified’.

Wesley’s treatise on this second work of grace is fascinating. It is called: A Plain Account of Christian Perfection and it was written in its present form between the years 1739 and 1745. He says that he first began to think along these lines when he preached on New Year’s Day in St Mary’s University Church Oxford, the year being 1733 and the text of the sermon being Deuteronomy 10:16: Circumcise your hearts therefore and do not be a stiff-necked people.

Those who misunderstood his doctrine on sinless perfection insisted that it meant that those who were sanctified could not sin… and yet it was obvious their critics that they did … therefore, since could not was impossible, would not had to be substituted.

One can now draw these seemingly two very different Christian approaches together: the Catholic and the Wesleyan. To the Catholic, a mortal sin must be a grave matter, it must have the full consent of the will and it must be carried out. For the Methodist, those who are truly sanctified would not commit such sin - and, in theory at least, to us Orthodox, the reasoning is very little different, because Jesus said: If ye love Me, ye will keep My commandments. Different as they may appear, they are saying the same thing: they all converge on how much we love, or do not love, the Lord Jesus Christ.

When we have sinned greatly or gravely, repentance is easy. We are shocked at what we have done, afraid of the darkness within us that has been revealed, amazed that we could have succumbed to such lust, such cruelty, such greed – and so going to the confessional icon is quickly sought and our relief is great. We promise to Christ, the confessor and ourselves that we will never do this again, and make a real effort to keep that promise. The caution in this kind of confession is what priority and how best to make restitution if required… for example, it seems to me that it is useless to confess that you have deliberately lied about and ruined a colleague’s reputation unless you intend to go to the people in the office and say: Look, I was wrong about So-and-so. Exact restitution cannot be made in every case, but it is Implicit in the confession that you will try to undo the harm that was done. You may be forgiven the sin but, so long as you remain silent, the injustice and therefore in fact the sin lives on.

One more thing to be said, and it is important, about confessions of real repentance is that we are usually shaken at the time and therefore, if you like, a crack in our everyday armour is open to God. It can be a moment of great grace, transfiguration even, when God can get through to us; a moment if intimacy with Him for which we long. This explains in part the existence of such cults as the Khlysty in Russia and elsewhere… that great sinning produces great repentance.

The more difficult kind of Confession is the one most of us have been making for years: the Confession of devotion. Some may ask why on earth I am calling it by that name. All Confessions have to be confessions of repentance, otherwise they aren’t really confessions. Technically this is, of course, true. But the reality simply isn’t so. If I may be personal for a moment -.

I began going to Confession in the third grade at the age of eight. The whole class trotted across to the church every Friday morning and, with a great deal of noise and shuffling and whispering, filled the back pews. One by one, we went into the box and rattled off our sins, came out, said our penance and, when the Sister was sure we had all been, we went back to school. It was simply something you did and didn’t think about. With the teenage years, Confession became a bit more embarrassing – words like ‘occasions of sin’ came up, and I do remember peers saying that they didn’t do this or that because they didn’t want to tell Father So-and-so about it in Confession – so perhaps a mild deterrent but still not a lot of real thought.

It was something of a surprise, therefore, to get to the Seminary and discover that a lot of un-learning had to take place with regard to Confession. For young men who were supposed to be learning to be alter Christus (other Christs) the rapid catalogue of petty sins wouldn’t do, and there followed whole new trains of thought: What is love? What is humility? What is submitting to God’s will – these became the new basis of examination of conscience and of Confession… in short, a development of the one-to-one relationship with God: perhaps the best thing produced by the Catholic West between roughly 1600 and 1960! Witness the great mystics: The Theresas, Saint John of the Cross, John Vianney the Curé d’Ars and others.

But to quote an Orthodox-approved saint, Saint Maximos: ‘God and those who are worthy of God have one and the same every’, and Bishop Kallistos says that ‘Maximos did not mean that the saints lose their free will but that, when deified, they voluntarily and in love confirm to the will of God’.

The two periods I’ve described: youth and Seminary, were periods of devotional Confession. In the first instance, I was too young to commit great sin and, in the second, the hot-house medium of a pre-Vatican II Seminary,

The principal effect of the Sacrament of Penance takes place in the soul – it is an inflowing of the grace of God. I often think it’s not unlike these Star Wars-type things you see on TV – a small speck of light appears and slowly begins to grow and swell, and suddenly we see what it is meant to be. There is then a state of recognition and acceptance – and it must be the same with Confession. Of course, there is healing in the mere telling but there must be more. The confessor must be a man of prayer and open to the Holy Spirit, prepared to share, not to judge – and then, together, confessor and penitent experience a state of tranquility and they both know that Christ is present.

But oftentimes you know and I know that it isn’t like that, and after some years we no longer expect it to be so – and so we more or less give upgoing to Confession. We have no quarrel with the doctrine or the principle; we do not blame God or the priest – we blame ourselves mainly.

If I may again be personal – in about the tenth year of being a priest I suffered crisis with regard to Confession. I suppose that it had been coming on, but it came to a head one Saturday evening after the Vigil when I went out to hear confessions. I was very tired and had a headache and a sore throat and, after the first four confessions I thought of home and sitting down, and I turned to see how many more penitents there were. I can’t recall how many, but I remember recognising the person who was to come next and I thought: ‘I know everything he is going to say and, what is worse, he probably knows everything I am going to say; he hasn’t changed in ten years and neither have I. Really, is there any point in this?’

When I realised what I had been thinking, I was profoundly shocked and rightly came to the conclusion that I couldn’t be a priest with such a frame of mind – I would be unhappy and so would everyone else -so I sought the counsel of Bishop Anthony. He said: Two things: first, be faithful and, secondly, you may have to look for help from among the spiritual strategies you learned in your youth.

I understood the first well enough, but the second took a bit longer. One day not long after this, I was standing before the big crucifix at the side of the Cathedral – and it hit me. To hear Confessions, one must imitate Christ crucified. You must stay fixed to the spot for however long it takes and, like Christ, you must make a conscious effort to empty yourself – completely – for whoever is standing there.

It was a great joy to be given another chance.

The analogy works both ways; for the confessor, of course, but for the penitent too. There is no better frame of mind for the penitent than to place him- or herself at the foot of the Cross, and this is true for a confession either of repentance or devotion.

To be continued

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