I’ve been thinking a bit about confession and penance lately. Not just because it’s coming up to Lent, but more to do with how we begin to re-order our lives after repentance of sin, in order to create new habits and patterns – amendment of life, as the liturgy refers to it.
I’m from a background that wouldn’t recognise a need for confession to another human, or even less that a human could absolve you of your sins or faults. That would be reserved for God directly. And I still hold to that to some extent. However what I have learned since being in the CofE is that as humans, it’s good to have supportive habits and patterns, rhythms of life, that acknowledge our human weakness and need for support in changing and growing in formation as a follower of Jesus.
In that spirit, I went to formal ‘confession’ (or the sacrament of reconciliation as the Anglicans call it) at Canterbury Cathedral before I was ordained deacon. I wanted to experience it, and to commit to faithfully exploring and understanding the historic spiritual practices of the denomination I was about to commit to as an ordained person. I found it really helpful and experienced a sense of freedom in it. The retired canon who heard my confession was very kind and understanding, very helpful and thoughtful. The Bible tells us to confess our faults, one to another, but it seems few of us are brave enough to do this anymore:
James 5:16-17 The Message (MSG)
16-17 Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed. The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with.
For me, two things come to mind as needing further discussion and acknowledgement. The first is that we all need to confess, to ‘keep short accounts with God’ and others, in order to keep our ego in check, to become more self aware about our habitual patterns of behaviour that hurt us, others and the planet, and to learn to bring our whole self before God on a regular basis, dark side and all. These are disciplines that are necessary if we are to play any kind of role in reconciliation, between people, nations, and the creation. Reconciliation is one of Archbishop Juston Welby’s priorities for the whole church and his advisor for this, Canon Sarah Snyder, writes in the Jan/Feb 18 edition of the Mothers Union magazine that this means restoring all relationships that are broken, and is “also an act of mission.” ++Justin writes more about it here:
So once you’ve confessed – then what? The Roman Catholic tradition would ask penitents to offer ‘Hail Mary’s’ and ‘Our Father’s’ – ie ritual prayers, as their penance. (It’s always hard for me to think of this without invoking Elvis Costello’s irreverent take: ’10 Bloody Mary’s and 10 How’s Your Father’s’)
For me, that’s not visceral enough – penance has to be connected to the thing I did that I’m acknowledging was wrong, in a way that helps me re-create new and better habits / patterns / thoughts / actions. It has to have meaning and help me re-programme my neural pathways. I’ve been thinking hard about it, so that the ‘punishment fits the crime’ in a restorative justice model. So for example, (here comes the confession) I changed my car last year and bought a bigger car with a bigger engine as I do a lot of mileage and live in a rural area where public transport is poor. In the course of the year, I’ve clocked up a lot of penalty points and a speed awareness course. I clearly needed to change my behaviour, for the sake of other road users and the environment. I tried just slowing down, having my satnav beep at me etc but none of these worked.
So I repented and as my act of penance I sold my big fast car, and I am driving my daughter’s tiny motor for six months in order to re-train my brain and body to drive more slowly and safely. I have confessed publicly to my community at the Upper Room why I’m doing it and everyone is keenly holding me to account whenever we go out anywhere in the tiny car – which frankly is cramping everyone’s style! It has shown me my behaviours that lead to fast driving – not allowing enough time to get to the next place, so relying on driving too fast to make up the time I needed. So now, I’m learning to plan better to make sure I have enough time to drive safely to the next place. This feels like a monastic or spiritual discipline for me – a Benedictine way of ordering my day so there is enough time to move sanely through the things that need to be done. To consider why I try to shoehorn too many things in – whose agenda am I working too / to whom am I showing off about my competence / how do I value the tasks of the day? Even after a week, I feel calmer already!
As Lent approaches and we think about what it means to turn from our sin / faults / destructive habits, this feels a useful and truthful activity to consider.