— St. John of Kronstadt
–St. John Chrysostom
Cry out, o sinner, with all your might, and spare not your throat; for your Lord is merciful and loves those who repent. As soon as you return, your Father will come out aforehand to meet you, and rejoice in you.
–St. Ephraim the Syrian
Maggie’s Farm posted an article about the decline of psychotherapy, to which I replied:
Call me old-fashioned, but I have a father confessor. We get together about once a week. It works for me.
Meanwhile, Fr Z — like Maggie’s Farm, one of my favorite reads in the blogosphere — again calls for more emphasis on the Sacrament of Penance. So after some thought, I decided to write about my experience with the Sacrament.
I am going to focus on the secular, because others could do a far better job of discussing the theological benefits, and because I don’t want to scare the Protestants, who distrust the Sacrament. And yes, Virginia, there really are such benefits.
I don’t merely go to confession. Many do, I realize, and that’s better than not going at all, but it seems that they miss an opportunity to get the maximum benefit.
I meet with my confessor regularly. Sometimes, we meet at the parish. Other times, we meet at a restaurant. When we do, sometimes we don’t get to the Sacrament that day. Because, you see, the Sacrament can be so much more than purging your soul.
It seems to me, anyway, that whether you are Orthodox, Catholic, Congregationalist, LDS, or Baptist, that it’s beneficial to develop a close relationship with your clergyman. He is many things: Spiritual guide, authority figure, counselor, and friend, but only if you take the time to sit down with him and talk.
As you get to know your clergyman, he gets to know you. You build trust, and as you built that trust, you drop barriers. You find yourself telling him things you perhaps have never told anyone, relieving yourself of burdens for the first time, and the healing can begin.
As I implied at Maggie’s Farm, I see the Sacrament, or to be specific, not the Sacrament itself, but meeting and talking with my confessor, the process which ultimately leads to the Sacrament, to be therapeutic. I’m not saying that somebody with serious mental problems should ditch seeing his psychiatrist and see a clergyman instead; I am saying that in this era when nearly everybody seems to be shelling out exorbitant sums of money to see a therapist, perhaps they should think of saving some money and speaking to a clergyman instead.
Find a clergyman you like. Ask to speak with him. Meet for lunch. Forget the Sacrament for the moment. Reach out and start the relationship. Once you’ve begun, if you belong to a church that recognizes the Sacrament, go to Confession after you’ve spoken. You’ll find that your conception of the Sacrament will gradually change. We all had that image of the anonymous meeting in a dreaded confessional then kneeling for hours praying afterward, but the Sacrament should be personal, not anonymous, and certainly not dreaded. We should never fear the Sacraments, but welcome them as God’s immeasurable love, His boundless mercy, and His healing grace.
For me, the priest is there to help and guide me. He helps me see my weaknesses, and guides me toward my strengths. I can go to him with anything because I trust him, not only as a representative of the Church, but as a friend who is concerned about my spiritual health. But he is much more than that. He is also an authority figure.
Penance is an integral part of the process. Without penance, there is no healing. He assigns penance for a reason: To nudge me back toward living a more Christian life, and to focus me more on God and less on myself.
And I do view Confession as a process, a process which culminates in the actual Sacrament of Confession. When we talk, my priest will make suggestions, and these suggestions are penance. This is true even if you are a Baptist and have similar conversations with your pastor (although you may prefer to call it something other than penance). Why talk with him, if you are not going to take his suggestions seriously? If you believe you are as equipped as he to guide yourself toward salvation, why do you have a clergyman?
I should say that this transformation in how I experience the Sacrament happened only gradually, and was unintentional. Once I began talking with my priest, those talks became more frequent. The more frequent they became, the more I trusted him and let down my guard, and the more beneficial those talks became. It was only after some time that I started seeing those talks as part of the process leading to the Sacrament, and that’s when I saw Confession in an entirely different way.
I’m not saying we should adopt some sort of squishy guilt-free confession. At least for me, the process is far from guiltless. They are an exercise in repentance and forgiveness. I am saying, however, that it can be so much more than alleviating our guilt. The Sacrament can be freeing so we can become better Christians.
If you don’t believe me, try it. Meet with your clergyman for an hour or two at a time, and talk. Develop trust. Tell him you want his help to become a better Christian. No matter what your particular church, your clergyman is there to do much more than just offer services on Sunday mornings.
Then talk. And listen. And grow.