Wednesday, December 31, 2008

It Is Your Confession, But It Is My Sin—Part II

Taking the saints advice to heart, and thinking about my own earlier work as a therapist, I think it is when he is confronted with "new" sins (or at least sins new to him), that the character, natural talents and spiritual gifts of the confessor are put to the test. It is because of moments such as these that, I at least, have come to appreciate more and more the sacrifice made by soldiers who train for, and participate in, combat.

The soldier trains for war; he learns how to kill his neighbor efficiently. And he learns his art (ideally at least) with a fairly high degree of dispassion and self-possession, that is he learns to fight and kill without anger because he has fostered in himself the virtue of courage.

All this the soldier does not as an end in itself but on behalf of others, his nation, his family and friends, and for those who he will never met and who will in some cases even resent his sacrifice.

The warrior's sacrifice's his life for his nation. Even if he never goes to war, but certainly if he does, he comes to see himself in new ways, as one able and willing to kill. This carries with it a great, almost unimaginable, moral risk. And it is bearing this moral risk that is the heart of his sacrifice.

As with the warrior trained for battle, likewise with the confessor.

When he encounters in others sins that are unknown to him he most find in himself some understanding, some point of convergence between himself, his own struggles and failures, and the life, struggles and failures of the penitent. And he must do this without himself succumbing to the sin that he has newly come to see as a possibility for him. The attentive, self-aware confessor, like the warrior, is only able to do the task set before him by imagining a horror as a possibility for him.

And again, like the warrior, the confessor in each and every confession must proceed in a dispassionate and courageous fashion to face a temptation that he may never before have imagined as possible.

Speaking to the spiritual father, St Nicodemus summarizes the matter in this way:

Next, you must respond to many dangerous subjects in confession. You will hear so many shameful sins of people and so many disgraces and pollutions on account of their passions. Therefore it is necessary that you are either like an impasible sun, which when passing through filthy places remains unspotted, or like that pure dove of Noah, which when passing over so many grimy bodies of those drowned from the flood did not perch upon any of them, or like a silver or gold wash basin, which washes and cleans the dirtiness of others while none of the dirt sticks to it. (Exomologetarion, p. 74)
It is here that the importance of the confessor's own spiritual life, his own life of daily prayer and frequent communion. And it is here that we begin to see the importance of the confessor's willingness to go and prostrate himself as penitent to the very place where, only a moment before, he stood as a witness to God's mercy.

I tell my own spiritual children and parishioners, that the work of confession—like the work of marriage—is first and foremost a personal encounter. To use the language of the old Latin manuals in sacramental theology, the trust between confessor and penitent is the matter of the sacrament of confession. While trust, to be trust, must be mutual, the weight of that trust is bore by the confessor. It is his obligation not simply to root out sin in his own life, but (having entrusted himself first and foremost to Christ our True God), travel in empathy and compassion with the penitent to those areas of the penitent's life where sin and shame have a hold.

The ascetical struggle of the confessor is, however, not simply to see the depths of human shame—this after all is hardly something unknown to the secular therapist. No the confessor's task, his calling and that which is the teleos of his own ascetical struggles is to point out that it is there, in the darkest place of the penitent's life, that the redeeming, forgiving, and healing Light of Christ is to be found.

The confessor, St John of Krondstat reminds me, is a witness to divine mercy. This requires, as I said above, not only that the confessor root out his own sin but that he recognize that no sin is alien to him since all sin is but itself only a symptom of our common and personal estrangement from God. It is the reality this common estrangement in his own life that the confessor must confront and struggle against again and again each time he hears confession. And it is only in this way, to return to St Nicodemus' advice, that he can hope to heal the penitent's sin.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory
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It Is Your Confession, But It Is My Sin—Part I

As I promised, here is the last installment of my series on Holy Confession. In this section I want to reflect with you on the challenges of the sacrament of confession for the confessor. The more I confessions I've heard, the more I have come to appreciate how each confession is not only about the penitent's sin but also my own.

This all became clear for me when I sat down to read the Exomologetarion: A Manual of Confession, St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain. Toward the beginning of the work the saint has an interesting observation about why a confessor is unable to heal a particular sin. Whether he is too gentle or too harsh, to willing to excuse or to too hold someone accountable, the reason is the same: the confessor has not himself repented of the sin being confessed. Or, as the saint himself says to the spiritual father you

must have the passions healed and conquered, because if you unjustly seek to heal the passions of others before you have healed your own passions, you will hear the words, "Physician, heal thyself" (Lk 4.23), and: "A physician of others, himself full of sores," the reason being, if you truly wish to be an enlightener and perfector of others, you must first be enlightened and perfected yourself, so as to be able to also enlighten and perfect others. In short, you must first have and then afterwards give to others. (p. 73)
Let me say first off, I don't think that the Exomologetarion is a particularly helpful book for lay people looking for spiritual reading. While some of what St Nicodemus has to say, especially his anthropological observations about the inner life, is certainly useful, the text itself is meant more priest confessors and not a lay audience.

That said, as I have thought about St Nicodemus' advice, I see the wisdom of what he says. Certainly I see its importance in my own ministry hearing confessions: I am powerless as a confessor when I am confronted with sin in your life that I have not rooted out in my own heart. At a minimum, I must at least be struggling against the sin the penitent confesses if I am to be of any value. This is not to deny the grace of the sacrament. But the reality is—and again St Nicodemus makes this point—I can undermine your repentance by the lack of my own struggle against the very sin you confess.

What Nicodemus tells me is of unquestionable value not only for my work as a confessor, but also as a preacher and a therapist. Too often, in the case of preachers, a priest or minister will preach about which he has no personal experience. Worse still, it is not uncommon to hear a man preach against a sin that he has neither rooted out from his own heart or is even struggling against. When this happens, the best that can happen is that the sermon falls flat and fails to touch anyone. At worst the preacher uses the truth of the Gospel like a whip and his words wound without healing the hearts of his listeners.

In a counseling relationship as well Nicodemus offers us some insight. The antipsychiatric writer Thomas Szasz argues in his work that diagnostic terminology often serves to marginalize the patient. Taken to the all too common extreme, diagnostic categories facilitate my dehumanizing the patient and allow me to imagine that we do not share a common humanity, a common struggle for happiness.

As I said, there is no question that Nicodemus offers the confessor rich insight into the kind of spiritual life and ascetical struggle that is essential to his ministry as a confessor. But his work leaves me with a problem: What about those sins which I have not committed or toward which I am not attracted?

Unlike St Nicodemus I, as with many Orthodox and Catholic priests especially here in the States, are often called upon to serve communities that are highly diverse. We typically don't have the degree of cultural, social and linguistic homogeneity that Nicodemus seems to take for granted both for himself and his readers. Without going into the details, even coming to the priesthood with some professional experience in community mental health, I have some times heard, how shall I put this discretely, "new information."

The problem then is this: Yes, I know I can only heal sins that I have rooted out or at least am actively struggling against. But what about those sins that are alien to the confessor, what is he, what do I, do with then?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory
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