Friday, November 07, 2008

Confession & the Evangelism of the Faithful: Confessing the Angry Penitent

The confessor, I think, has to bear in mind that anger is not simply rooted developmentally in earlier vices but in a profound shift in the penitent's self-understanding. To put the matter simply, the penitent had a relatively narrow, but functional, vision of himself that has now proven to be false. This sudden shift in awareness is frightening and in evokes in the person a profound and radically unsettling sense of betrayal. "The person I always thought I was," so a more self-aware penitent might say, "has now proven itself to be false. I am not who I thought I was. I don't know who I am. All I know is that I have been lying to myself about who I am. My life is a lie."

We ought not to underestimate the terror that the person feels as his accustomed frame of reference for himself as well as the world of persons, events and things, is shattered by a confrontation with the Gospel. It is a psychologically and spiritually simplistic of us not to hear the real sense of existential disruption embodied in St Paul's words in Ephesians:

This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness. (4:17-24)

The change that Paul alludes to here is not like learning how to operate a new camera or trying to comprehend a difficult idea. No, Paul's words point to a radical transformation of how I view not only myself, but also God, my neighbor and creation. I am no longer in control, the world of persons, events and things are revealed as radically NOT at my disposal and NOT subjected to my own self-centered desires.

Or, to put it more simply, anger is my response to the realization that I am not God.

It is precisely this conflict that the proclamation of the Gospel provokes. And it is this conflict that the spiritual father must respond to in confession. How might he do this?

Again, Paul offers us an idea.

Therefore, putting away lying, "Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor," for we are members of one another. "Be angry, and do not sin": do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil. Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need. Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. (4:25-32)

The confessor, as he does with the regretful penitent, needs to attend to the traces of grace in the penitent's life. With the angry penitent, however, this means (1) pointing out as Paul does the comforting presence of God in the person's life and (2) being willing in word and deed to model with the penitent God's comforting response to his fear.

It is tempting simply to respond to penitent's anger and overlook the concrete fears that inspire the anger. But this, I think, is a mistake. Confessors have a unique opportunity to help people give voice to their fears. More than that though, we have the great calling of giving voice to God's comforting presence in life of the fearful person not only though sentimental sermonizing, but by embodying in word and deed a kind and gentle presence at that moment in a person's life when he least believes kindness and gentleness are possible for him.

In my next post, I want to reflect with you on what is for me the most challenging person to minister to, the indifferent penitent.

For now, and as always, your comments, questions and criticism are not only welcome, but actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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