Monday, 17 August 2015

52 Ordinary Words: Confession

When I first went to Confession at the age of eleven I had to invent a sin. I couldn't come up with anything. It wasn't that I lacked the imagination: I said I'd stolen my sister's pencil case!

I didn't appreciate a lot of things about the sacrament of Confession for a long time. But when I did, I came to know that it is about much more than admitting to someone else what you've done - or, for that matter, failed to do - and for which you are truly sorry.

I'm entirely with David Whyte when he says, in his book, Consolations, that a confession's a profession of allegiance: a first step on the road leading home. I like his description of confession as the shearing away of a former identity (a working delusion) to reveal an honest self dedicated "to something beyond the mere threat of ... punishment."

But no confession is without consequences. Saying, 'sorry' is not a cure-all; we still have to live with what we've done, and so do other people. And I would also hold that, sometimes, we can consider confessing a luxury; particularly when the only positive consequence is to salve our own conscience - to dump a burden, so we feel better. In some cases confessing a truth will only cause a great deal of unnecessary pain.

The alternative - to live with the burden of our silence - may be the kinder alternative. A man confessing a very old sin of adultery, for which he's truly sorry, could well be left to carry on his "journey newly alone, unaccompanied by the familiar company [he] has kept until now," were he to confess his sin, but so could his wife, who has, hitherto been happy in a stable, if duplicitous, marriage. A matter of the greater evil?

If we risk confession and the loss of "our old fearful identity" - which preservation will doubtless have taken an inordinate amount of effort and willpower - we come to appreciate that our old sense of fixed personhood was only ever temporary and provisional. We become liberated to commit to a new life, "shaped around a different life that calls for a deeper discipline." We come out of hiding, no longer living on the defensive, but true to ourselves and others, "integrating the offending with the offended, inside and out."

Over the years I have come to appreciate that confession is a continuous process of dedication and not a static product: it's a way of life. It's living according to a manifesto. It's living courageously and honourably, whereby we declare our commitment to others - and to ourselves - by bearing witness, in words and deeds, to the highest good.

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