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

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

You may be wondering why it is important to consider how spiritual fathers minister to different classes of penitents in confession. While it might be useful for clergy, why would lay people care?

The simple answer is this: Confession is an essential part of the spiritual life of the all the faithful—laity and clergy. While we ought not to reduce the spiritual life to our participation as penitents in confession, it is important to keep in mind that confession is one very important part of what we are preparing to do. Confession is in a real sense a goal or teleos of all of the Church evangelistic and educational ministry. We are forming people not simply for various ministry, but for confession. In fact I would argue that as an essential part of the Church's prophetic ministry confession is the ordinary context within which we all of us come to understand ever more fully what the Father in Christ and through the Holy has called us to do.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the angry penitent.

We are accustomed to thinking of anger in terms of affect, of emotion. But in the Church's spiritual anthropology, and I'm thinking here especially of St John Cassian, affect is only one possible manifestation of anger.

Before it is emotion, it is according to Cassian a vice, a habit of thought and action that he describes as a "somber disorder" in the soul. Just as "regret" is the absence of gratitude (and specifically, gratitude to God for one's life), anger (again according to Cassian) is the absence of "discernment of what is for our own good, . . . [ and of] spiritual knowledge." ("Eight Vices," Philokalia, vol I, p. 82)

When gripped by anger we unable to "fulfill our good intentions, nor [can we] participate" in divine life. All of is rooted in a blinded intellect that has become "impervious to the contemplation of the true, divine light." (p. 82)

The angry person then is not only ineffectual in his attempts to do good, he behaves in a manner that is ultimately, and sometimes proximately and even immediately, self-destructive. And all of this because "No matter what provokes it, anger blinds the soul's eyes, preventing it from seeing the Sun of Righteousness." The saint continues,

Leaves, whether of gold or lead, placed over the eyes obstruct the sight equally, for the value of gold does not effects the blindness it produces. . . . [Anger] whether reasonable or unreasonable, obstructs our spiritual vision." (p. 83)
As well as a description of anger, Cassian offers us an understanding of both its developmental roots and consequences. Cassian, as with many of the writers found in the Philokalia, holds to a dynamic understanding of the human person that anticipates in broad strokes the later finds of developmental psychology.

In "Eight Vices," we learn that anger is the rooted in gluttony, unchastity and avarice. Of these three, it is gluttony which is the developmental origin of anger. In a nutshell, what is for the infant a virtue, or at least a necessity is for the adult a vice. And it is from anger that there develops other, increasingly more serious vices: dejection, listlessness, self-esteem (less in the modern sense and more in the sense of autarkic self-aggrandizement of pathological narcissism or even sociopathy), and pride.

But it is anger I think that is the lynchpin between the (relatively) minor sins gluttony, unchastity and avarice and the increasingly more deadly sins which follow. At its core anger arise when the person's desires are frustrated. Anger is the announcement that I have encountered, and rebelled against, the limits of my own life and most now decide either to accept the limits imposed upon me or withdrawn into a life of increasingly deadly and death deal fantasy.

In my next post, I want to reflect with you briefly on how as a confessor I respond to the angry penitent (at least in my better, more grace-filled moments).

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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Thoughts on Praying for the President

Gael, left a comment on my brief post asking God's blessing on President-elect Obama. You can read the comment here.

I'm assuming his comments above are meant to be humorous. Though given the heat of the recently finished presidential election campaign, it is understandable that they are not.

If they are not, I should point out that praying for the President as the servant of God is taken from the Orthodox Christian invocation asking God to bless someone that is used at the end of the Divine Liturgy.

Whether one agrees with his policies or not, whether his policies are compatible with the Gospel or not, Orthodox Christians--indeed Christians of any tradition--are required by God to pray for civil authorities.

And yes, President-elect Obama is God's servant. He may or may not understand himself as such and if he does he may or may not understand rightly, much less act rightly upon, what is required of him--but he is still God's servant as our we all.

That said, some of his policies (I'm thinking particularly about his support of abortion and stem cell research) are evil and within the realm of what I can do I will oppose them. Let me go further, I would hope that all Orthodox Christians--indeed all Christians--would oppose Mr Obama's policies on abortion and stem cell research.

Are there other policies with which I disagree? As a priest, I feel myself obligated by my office to limit my public political comments to only those things about which the Orthodox Church has spoken clearly. This means that in the realm of what is often called prudential matters--economics, or the general range of domestic or foreign policy matters--though I have my own view, but I remain silent about them.

Senator Obama has been elected the 44th President of the United States. Insofar as I or any of us can do so in good conscience and without violating the teaching of the Church, we should support the new administration at the very least with our prayers. Are there policy areas in which Orthodox Christians are bound to oppose the new administration? Yes certainly (particularly in matters of abortion and stem cell research) and again at a minimum with our prayers.

Finally, as for some of the rhetoric used by Mr Obama and his support--yes it often sounds messianic, but then American political rhetoric often does. And why are we suprised? Americans are, fundamentally, a religious people. Our nation was founded on an ideal drawn as much or more from Christianity as from any Enlightenment philosophical speculations.

Where I think the fault line lies in American politics is not between those who use and those who do not use religious rhetoric--but between those whose use of it I agree with and those whose use of it I find objectionable.

Let me go further, I do not object to the use of religious rhetoric by Mr Obama and his supporters--I welcome it as I did when it was used to such good effect by President Reagan. For all that it has become unfashionable, even among Christians, to do so it is important to remember that we are all of us called by God to fulfill certain roles in life. No the objection I have is not to the use of religious rhetoric by either the left or the right. It is rather to our unwillingness as a nation to take seriously the implications of that rhetoric--and again this is a problem I see on both the left and the right.

So God grant His servant President-elect Obama many years and may He also grant him, the wisdom need to govern and through his administration peace and prosperty to the people of the United States so that we may excel in every good work.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory