Thursday, November 20, 2008

Confession and Evangelism: The Indifferent Penitent

Now that the All-American Council is behind me and before I need to focus on the Called & Gifted Workshop my parish is hosting the Friday and Saturday, let me return to my thoughts on the role of Holy Confession and the evangelism of the faithful.

Though not without their own challenges, I find ministering to the regretful penitent and the angry penitent easier—and frankly less frustrating—than the indifferent penitent. That said, let me put aside my own personal struggles and ask you to reflect with me on the experience of being indifferent.

A bit of cliché (often heard in youth and young adult ministry) though it is, it is true I think that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. To nurture indifference for someone is not to hate them, but rather to invalidate them. We are mistaken if we imagine indifference—either in others or in ourselves—as neutrality or passivity. Indifference is rather an active refusal to see the good, the true, or the beautiful in something or someone. Remember, simply because something is, it is good and so calls me to transcend my plans and preoccupations.

An indifferent response to the Gospel is certainly related to indifference in the general sense. Especially in confession though there is an added quality that the priest ought not to overlook in either the penitent or himself. Specifically, indifference embodies a rupture in the delicate, and dynamic, relationship between the subjective and objective dimensions of life.

Culture, tradition, language, are the tools that help me to first discover and then express myself. Self-knowledge and self-expression, in other words, are always both personal and social. Or, as one of my altar boys told me one Sunday when I asked him why he dyed his hair jet black, "I wanted to be an individual like all my friends."

In my experience, the indifferent penitent does not see the Gospel or the Tradition of the Church as being in the service of their own self-discovery and self-expression. Not only that, they often see these as in opposition to their own self-discovery and expression.

The confessor must help the person find the natural place of conversion between the person and the Gospel. To paraphrase James Fowler (a psychologists who studies faith development), the confessor must help the indifferent penitent find his own personal story in the larger Christian story AND find that larger Christian story as it is written in the smaller story of his own life.

Let me explain.

It is hard for me to read the Psalms, which I do most mornings and evenings, without recognizing myself, my own experiences and struggles, in the words of King David. Reading the Psalms I discover the story of my life in words that Jews and Christians have been praying for centuries. This means that Psalms are not foreign to me. Yes, they are David's story. And yes as in traditional Orthodox biblical hermeneutics, the Psalms I can see in them the prayers of Christ, it is He Who referred to in Psalm 1 for example, as the "blessed" Man Who follows not the counsel of the wicked. But they are also my story, the express my feelings, my thoughts in times of sorrow and persecution and joy.

Not only that though. In time I come to see the Psalms in me. The Psalms are also a part of me—I realize that the great struggles of David and Jesus are also played out in my life.

Through his questions and observations this is what the confessor needs to help the indifferent penitent come to see. This is not telling the person that that he must conform to the Gospel (which is unlikely to be received well if the penitent see the Gospel as foreign to his experience) as to some external norm. Rather, the confessor must listen carefully to the themes in the person's confession (scant though information might be) until he (the confessor) can hear the points of convergence between the penitent and the Gospel.

Clearly this requires more than a little skill and insight on the part of the confessor. Next week, after my parish's Called and Gifted Workshop this weekend, I will conclude this series by offering some thoughts about what qualities and skills the priest might bring to the prophetic ministry of Holy Confession.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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