12 June 2007

Let Go and Let God

Personal and Pastoral Reflections on the Mystery of Reconciliation
One morning, upon awaking, I was particularly troubled by some sins that were plaguing me. These were sins that I had been aware of, that I had taken to God the previous night, but that I was never able to get over. They were repeated sins, ones that I knew darned well I needed to stop, but that were so simple to fall into that I almost gave them no second thought. As I was trying to pray that morning, I decided that I needed to go to Confession. This was nothing new for me, as I have been going to Confession since I was baptized in the mid-80's. However, I had been in a slump, and for quite some time had avoided the mercies of the Rite of Reconciliation. Why had I done such a thing? Simple pride. As a Presbyter, I did not want to go and look another Presbyter in the face and have him think badly of me.

Seems like an irrational fear, given the fact that in the nearly six years of my presbyterial ministry, I have never once looked down upon anyone who has come to me to make a confession of sin. Yet, when the shoe is on the other foot, it seems so very, very difficult to approach the graces of Absolution through the confession of one's sins. Even as a Presbyter, when I walk into a confessional, I think to myself that I must know how Pharaoh and his horsemen felt when they saw the wall of water starting to crash back down on them. There is a reason for this feeling, and the best explanation I have found for it comes from a surprising place - a twelve-step program called "Emotions Anonymous".

The twelve-steps form a very powerful way to understand the Rite of Reconciliation, and to prepare our hearts and minds for the worthy reception of the graces of Holy Absolution. In the pages that follow, I will be paraphrasing some of the material found in the "Emotions Anonymous" twelve-step program. I will be applying the concepts of sin to them, so what you see here will be somewhat different than the material you would find in an "EA" source.

The first basic concept that we must grasp about our faith life after sin is this: We must admit that we are powerless to overcome our sins, and that our sinfulness has become unmanageable. This is a very stirring, shaking, and fearful realization for anyone who has come to it. In spite of the fear, however, we must admit that we have no power to help ourselves. Coming to that realization - the realization that our sinfulness is overwhelming when we try to stand alone - begins a long path that leads us to the need for reconciliation.

The second concept that follows immediately upon the fearful awareness of the first is that there is someone greater than we are who can deal with our sins. As a result, we must stop trying to fix everything ourselves. We cannot atone for our own sins, failings, and shortcomings. We must realize that only God can aid us in overcoming our despair and pain - the emotions that sin causes in the soul.

Following the realization that God has to intervene, we must proceed at once to turn our mind, body, and spirit over to the will of God. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (a Roman Catholic religious order, better known by their more common name, the Jesuits) had a total grasp of this concept, and in Spiritual Exercises, he prays:

"Take, Lord, receive: all my liberty, my memory, understanding, my entire will. Give me only your love and your grace: that is enough for me. Take, Lord, receive all I have and possess. You have given all to me, now I return it."

To be able to change our lives, to be able to overcome our sinfulness, we must stop trying to overcome on our own, and we must give to God the reins of our heart. We cannot try to make meaningful changes, to avoid sin, the convert our spirits to follow the calling of God, if we ourselves cannot die daily to ourselves, and live daily unto Christ Jesus.

Once we have come to a point where we are ready to turn the wheel over to God, we have to do something about our own will. Yes, our own ornery companion for the journey, our will, left to its own devices, will soon find a way to leave in the dust all the progress that one had made up to now. Our will often finds ways to sabotage the next step - one of the very important steps in the process of overcoming sin: we must search our lives, our hearts, our minds, our desires, leaving no stone - or sin - unturned. We must make a total and complete inventory of our sinfulness and come to the realization of just how full of sin and corruption we have become. This is, of course, easier said than done.

Our own will is not all that likely to submit to the discipline of admitting our failings. Thus, when the time comes to prepare for confession, I advise penitents to write down their sins, and to use some guide - such as the Decalogue - to assist them in making an examination of their lives. By praying the prayer of Ignatius, and making a serious examination of our lives, we can effectively tackle the next step in reclaiming our lives from the stranglehold of sin.

It is now time to admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our sins. For most, this is when the terror begins. I have heard virtually every possible excuse for avoiding this step. In fact, I have used some of them myself. The root reason that we wish to strongly to avoid this part of the step is the fact that mankind is, in our day and age, supremely prideful. Our egos are so fragile that even the slightest bruise seems impossible to recover from. And yet, it is not until we have confessed our faults that we can claim the victory that God gives us in Christ.

The most common complaint I hear when talking to someone about this step in the process is that the sinner does not want to take the sins to another person. Often one will hear it said, "I don't believe in telling a minister my sins. It's none of his business." Sadly, such thinking is flawed. While the intention of this message is not to give you a full, mechanical understanding of the Rite of Reconciliation, it is necessary to understand why the Rite exists so that we might properly consider the great mercy that flows from the heart of Christ.

If we are to live by the biblical standards for Christian living, we must tell someone else of our sins, for as the Letter of James tells us:

". . . confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed." (James 5: 16a)
We have no choice! We must confess our sins to someone else. If we do not do so, we are disobeying the inspired Word of God. As a result, we must ask ourselves the question, "Whom, logically, should we confess to?" In the ancient Church, the matter was simple. One went before the Church, confessed their sins in public, and made amends during the season we now call Lent. At the first Easter Eucharist, they would be readmitted to the fellowship of Christ's Church through the Eucharistic banquet. As a result, the words of Christ were literally fulfilled:

"Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops." (Luke 12: 2-3)

Everyone knew what you had done, but that wasn't so bad because you knew about everyone else's faults and failings. Over time, however, as mass conversions to the faith occurred, the ability to demand accountability to an entire fellowship of believers began to disappear. Views on Luke 12 suddenly became very detached from any notion of application to the daily life of the Christian. Luke 12 quickly became a prediction of what the last judgment would entail: everyone's sins would be revealed. As a result, something had to be done.

While the congregation heard a penitent's sins, they did not pronounce the absolution of the sins. This was restricted to the successors of the Apostles, the Bishops (and later the Presbyters) of the Church. The reason derives from Jesus' first appearance to his disciples after the Resurrection in the Gospel of John:

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld." (John 20: 19-23)

Only a successor to the Apostles could forgive or withhold forgiveness, and there was indeed a strong awareness of the need for continuity in the Apostolic ministry, as the first chapter of Acts teaches us:

In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, "Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry... For it is written in the Book of Psalms, 'May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it'; and 'Let another take his office.'" (see Acts 1: 15-20)

Just as a nurse would discuss continuity of care in a hospital, the Apostles were discussing the continuation of the apostolic ministry by filling a vacant position. For this reason, the historic episcopate is often called "Apostolic Succession". Therefore, the charism of the apostolic office was, by the power of the Holy Spirit, conferred upon Matthias, and he became a part of the "Apostolic College".

Thus, the Bishops (and, by extension, the Presbyters) of the Church today have the authority to declare the absolution and forgiveness of sins, because the Scripture records the transmittal of that authority by Christ himself.

Not wanting to experience public humiliation, men and women throughout the Christian world began to flock to their clergy in private so that their confessions might be heard and absolution granted.

There are, of course, benefits to making a confession to a person instead of directly to God in your prayers. Your prayers do not hold you accountable, do not confront you with the filth of your sins as does another individual. When we pray privately, we tend to have a way of sanitizing our sins, making them seem more palatable. As a result, nothing ever gets done about them. Additionally, our own quite prayer does not supply us with advice, with a remedy to our sins. This is not to say that every piece of advice that a confessor gives to a penitent is going to be so perfect that it helps the individual avoid every sin for the rest of his or her life, but it is much more helpful than simply trying to thumb through the Bible and find one's own answers. Just as a man who proclaims himself to be a surgeon of the body cannot function without the proper education, we cannot work on our spiritual lives by declaring ourselves to be qualified to fix our own problems. We must have outside assistance, or we will surely find ourselves repeating the same sins over and over again.

The next thing we must do is to simply trust in God's mercy. We must believe that, according to his promise, he puts our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. Our sins are removed, wiped clean, deleted - all for the sake of the Precious Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

After we have confessed and have received counsel, we must attempt to make things right with those we have injured. Perhaps it's the restoration of property, the mending of a broken relationship, or even a little self-mortification, when we find ourselves in a situation where we can no longer make amends to someone we have wronged.

In a similar vein, we must also be ready to sever ties to those things that have caused us to sin. Perhaps we need to cancel magazine subscriptions, spend less time watching television or surfing the Internet. Perhaps it means being careful about the new friends we make, and whom we associate with. Sometimes it will mean ending a friendship that is causing sin and pain to well up within us. No matter what the sacrifice we will be called to make to avoid sin, it will be something we can do, if we only turn our efforts over to the Holy Spirit to guide and to confirm.

And yet just as it would seem to be over, there is still more that must be done to reinforce the grace that we receive through the Rite of Reconciliation. We must constantly attempt to see ourselves as God would see us, and when we find ourselves slipping into sin and disorder, we must rush back to God and to our confessor, make our sins known, receive absolution, and so continue the cycle of growth and strengthening. We must reinforce our confession with frequent prayer, and we must center our prayer - especially in times of great temptation - on our attempts to avoid sin and to master our flesh by the power of the Spirit. We must also encourage others to do the same.

After reading all these long-winded, high-sounding comments, many people will probably point out that the days of frequent confession, and its practice by many, is long past. Perhaps this is true. If it is, it is a great sorrow, for the grace that is inherently present in the pronouncement of Holy Absolution is beyond all telling.

It is terribly presumptuous of us, who now live over nineteen hundred years separated from Christ and the Apostles, to change the process laid down in his Word concerning the remittance of our sinfulness. Social conventions, personal fears, and egotistical pride prevent us from approaching the wellspring of grace present in Confession. Many will say, "I make my confession at the Divine Liturgy, and there I do receive Absolution." Indeed, that is true, but such an approach is minimalist at best. One usually makes the confession because it is printed in the service book, not out of any personal need or desire to do so.

It has been suggested that the Penitential Rite should be removed from the public liturgy of the Church. I totally agree. Why? Because I believe that everyone should be coming to Confession at least weekly, if not daily. In an ideal world, the Presbyter would be sitting inside the Communion rail, or in a confessional, and as you entered the Church for the service, you would walk forward, kneel, make your confession and receive counsel and absolution, and then go to your seat and give quiet thanksgiving until the Liturgy began. This is the custom in the Eastern Church, and our Eastern brethren have no confession of sin in their Liturgy.

Let us pray for the day when we are willing to be held accountable for our sins, to make changes in our lives to avoid sin, and to make confession more routine and less fearful, so that many will avail themselves of the great power of the Keys, present to us by the grace of the Holy Spirit, in the Sacramental Rite of Reconciliation.
All Scripture Quotations in the Preceeding Article are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, (C) 2001 Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved. Used with permission.


All original material (C) 2007-2010 by Father Robert Lyons.

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