Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Even More on Reconciliation: Confession as Healing Todd has wisely directed us to the topic of reconciliation. I have learned a great deal from a lecture by the Orthodox Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia, delivered at a retreat in Vézelay in 1999. He gives us three reasons for going to confession. First, the person making the confession externalizes what had been internal, bringing something hidden within him or herself out into the open, so that it now has an objective presence and can be dealt with. As Bishop Kallistos writes, “Yes, I can confess my sins alone in my evening prayer, but there is great power in the uttered word.” Second, the priest is present at confession as a representative of the church community – through him, we see a concrete reminder that there are no “private” sins and that we must seek forgiveness from our brothers and sisters. Third, Christ is active when we confess our sins: the priest’s exhortation at the beginning of the Russian rite of confession is, “Christ stands invisibly before us, I am only a witness, bearing testimony before Him of all the things you have to say to me.” Bishop Kallistos recommends that we envision (or re-envision) going to confession as a sacrament of healing. After all, the Epistle of James tells us, “Confess your sins one to another and pray for one another so that you may be healed” (James 5:16). But, of course, any process of envisioning (or re-envisioning) must first listen to the past, and the bishop takes us to the two historical origins of our rite of reconciliation. The first of these origins has its beginnings in Jesus’ granting of juridical power to the apostles: “Whosoever sins you forgive, they are forgiven; whosoever sins you retain, they are retained” (John 20:23). The exercise of this juridical power was at first public, exceptional, and frighteningly severe. For fornication, St Gregory of Nyssa assigned a penance of nine years without communion. St Basil, Bishop Kallistos notes, was more merciful. For him, seven years was enough. Repeated falls led to lifelong excommunication: the second century Shepherd of Hermas had told early Christians that sinners would only receive a second chance. Needless to say, penance was not meant to be part of the rhythm of everyday life. There is a second source for the sacrament of confession – and, in contrast to public penance, this was a practice that had to be regular (even daily), not exceptional. Monks in the desert would visit their spiritual elders to disclose their thoughts. And the spiritual elder would then give counsel. One might imagine this to be preventative medicine. This spiritual elder did not have to be a priest (or, for that matter, male). Bishop Kallistos describes the principle behind the disclosure of thoughts by pointing us to the Gerontikon: If impure thoughts trouble you, do not hide them, but tell them at once to your spiritual father and condemn them. The more a person conceals his thoughts, the more they multiply and gain strength. But an evil thought, when revealed, is immediately destroyed. If you hide things, they have great power over you, but if you could only speak of them before God, in the presence of another, then they will often wither away, and lose their power. This is the power of the uttered word. Regarding our two models, Bishop Kallistos writes, “Confession as we know it today represents a growing together of these two tendencies.” After all, public penance would be destructive in very large and impersonal Christian communities, even if might still make sense within the intimacy of a monastery. So, by the fourth century, the power to bind and loose sins would be exercised in a personal and secret meeting between the sinner and bishop, and, then, between the sinner and the bishop’s delegate (an appointed priest). With such a private confession, aspects of monastic spiritual counseling could be grafted onto the sacrament: it would natural for the priest to offer guidance after imposing a penance. Of course, there was never a complete merger between the binding and loosing of sins and the practice of spiritual counseling. As far as I know, despite an earlier practice of ordaining so-called simplex priests (the most famous example is Solanus Casey), all Roman Catholic priests can administer the sacrament of reconciliation, even if they are poor counselors. Unlike the Greek Church, the Roman Catholic Church has no special recognition and appointment of priests who are to hear confessions and give spiritual counsel. And you do not have to go to a priest for spiritual counseling – you can visit a monk, nun, or layperson, who, despite their gifts, cannot grant absolution. So are we torn between two approaches? Bishop Kallistos asks the relevant questions, “Do we emphasize mainly binding and loosing – or healing? Is coming to confession like going to a law court, or like going to a hospital?” Obviously, as he concludes, there is truth in both possible answers. And our emphasis will vary on our personality, or even, perhaps, on the nature of our sin. There is no need for exclusivity. But Bishop Kallistos prefers the image of healing. And so do I. Many Catholics, as Todd has mentioned, need to separate a sense of guilt for situations in which they might not be culpable from a sense of sin. We are also deeply aware of our potential for insincerity, manipulation, and making empty gestures. There is always the possibility of the confessional turning into an “assembly line” – and this image is not completely grotesque, for, as the historian James O’Toole has written about pre-conciliar days, “All the statistical data I have seen, supported by anecdotal evidence, shows that the average confession took two minutes or less.” All of this means, I think, that, while we should not abandon the metaphor of the “law court,” we might want to generally consider confession as a longer, difficult process of healing that closely resembles spiritual counseling. Bishop Kallistos writes: If you stress the element of healing, confession is less abhorrent. It’s a time for a true opening of hearts. What we bring to Christ is not a laundry list of sins, but we bring ourselves. We bring not just our sins, but our sinfulness, because often there is a sinfulness that is far deeper than the specific acts we mention. But again, we do not isolate our sinfulness from our total personhood. What we bring to Christ in confession is ourselves, and we may need time to do that. If we think of confession in terms of healing, we also have to remember that healing takes time. Normally it doesn’t happen suddenly. We shouldn’t think of each confession in an isolated way, separately from all the others. We should recognize that confession is a process as well as an event. In going to a series of confessions, if possible to the same priest, gradually we change, even though we may feel that nothing very remarkable happened at any specific confession. Yet over time we realize, yes, we have been healed. How many of Christ’s parable in the Gospels speak of slow, gently, secret growth, unseen by us but seen by God? Think, for example, of Mark 4:26-29. That’s one of the very few passages which is only in Mark, and not in any of the other Gospels. And Mark, speaking there of the harvest, says that you were first the blade, the tender stalk, then you have the ear, or head. And then gradually the full corn in the ear, the head full of grain, but it happens very slowly, and we don’t see it happening though after time we notice the difference. Is not that true, very often, of our own spiritual lives? Certainly it was true of Mark himself, who got off to a rather shaky start. Paul was displeased with him and wouldn’t have him on his second missionary journey. But at the end of his life, Paul tells us that “only Mark is with me,” so evidently Mark made progress.