Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Confession & the Evangelism of the Faithful: the Regretful Penitent

My last post spoke about the place of education in the evangelism of the faithful. I argued that in the pastoral life of the Church education is not merely intellectual, but at the service of helping people see the outlines of the Gospel in their own hearts. This in turn can lead to a moment of crisis that typically leads in turn to in one of three ways: regret (a global sorrow for one's life), anger (a spiritual blindness or some other negative emotion often directed at the spiritual father, and ultimately God), and indifference (in which the person ignores or minimizes what is heard). I also said that these three responses are, or at least can be, grist for the mill in Holy Confession. In this and the following two posts, I want to look briefly at how I handle each response as a confessor.

Again, just remind people, my response will not involve what people have told me in confession. And again as I said last time, I do not think that the information I will offer is only for priests. People are often better able to approach confession with a open heart, more trust and less anxiety if they have some sense of what is, and is not, expected of them. Especially when people first come to me for confession I will tell them what is going to happen and the "ground rules." Chief among these ground rules is that they are free not to answer any question I ask them and not act on any advice I might may offer. I respect the freedom of the penitent to reveal as much, or a little, of his or her struggle as they wish. But I address the character of the confessor in a later post.

Now, to regret…

The regretful penitent comes to confession lamenting his or her past. Note that what I said here was "past" and not simply "sins." Merely looking back on one's life with sorrow is not the same as repentance though it is certainly may be a part of repentance. But a global regret for one's past is (I think) fundamentally unhealthy.

In both the East and the West the final morning service is the Office of Lauds—of the praise of God. The Church's liturgical tradition embodies what is I think a rather wise point of spiritual psychology. Repentance, as distinct from simple regret, bears fruit in the praise of God. The ability and willingness to praise and thank God sincerely is one of the key signs that the penitent has repented from his or her sins.

The fruit of repentance is gratitude, joy, and a lively awareness of God grace and mercy even in the darkest moments of one's life.

Likewise, the absence of gratitude toward God and an unwillingness, or even hostility, to considering the hidden mercy of God in the midst of one's sinfulness is a sign that the penitent has come to confession not with repentance for healing but mere regret.

My understanding and subsequent response to the regretful individual—and make no mistake, regret is always part of living as an individual, living not in communion with God and neighbor but within a world of one's own making—is guided by something I read by St John of Kronstadt.

The saint reminds the priest, that when hearing confessions he is not a judge but a witness to God's mercy. This means that both in word and deed, the priest most first remind the person, as St John writes in his own preparation for confession, of "the abundance of the Mercy of God." The harshness, the lack of gratitude (and the fear that typically accompanies it) reflects a more fundamental lack of an awareness of God's mercy. It is this lack that the confessor is called to respond to by his own gentleness.

But why is this gentle witness necessary?

For better or worse, people draw their view of God from their experience of the priest. For person whose self-image is framed by regret, the priest, by his kindness and acknowledgement of the goodness of the person, offers to the penitent the possibility of a new way of understand not only God, but also self and others. The confessor is called to model in confession what it means to love God and neighbor with one's whole heart and mind.

Even when correction is necessary it is important that it be given gently and with a clear and sincere indication on the part of the confessor that what is offered is offered not to shame the person but to comfort and heal. It is important as well that the priest makes clear that the penitent is free to act or not on the advice. Advice, like an epitimia (penance), is best offered rather than imposed.

But the witness to mercy must be more.

Any witness in the Church is necessarily prophetic. It is here where I think that confession becomes most challenge for confessor and penitent. As a witness of mercy the confessor is called by God is called to discern the presence of divine mercy in the life of the penitent. Building on what I said a moment ago, this means going beyond merely reminding the person that God is merciful. Bearing witness to God's mercy builds on, but necessarily transcends, the confessor being kind and gentle.

With the regretful penitent, I listen carefully to the life story that is told in confession. What I am listening for are those moments in the person's life where they may have overlooked the mercy of God for them. (As an aside, and without prejudice to "divine grace, which always heals that which is infirm and completes that which is lacking," I think my own training in the theory and practice of psychoanalysis has been a great help. After all, what is the unconscious but all that which is in our experience and yet, paradoxically, unknown to us?)

Bearing witness to the hidden presence of God and His mercy in the life of the penitent not only helps the person move from regret to repentance, it is also I think (to return to our more general topic) essential for the evangelism of the faithful. While education, or rather the lack of education, is a problem in the pastoral life of the Church, as I argued yesterday this is much more than simply an absence of information about God. The regretful penitent makes it clear to me that I (and all of us) suffer from is the lack of awareness of the mercy of God for me (God pro me, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer has it) in the concrete circumstance of my life.

In and through confession the discerning confessor, leaning as he does on the grace of ordination and his own personal talents and gifts, is called to give voice to the presence of mercy. Failure to do so in any confession, but especially in the case of the merely regretful penitent, leaves the penitent just outside the gates to the Kingdom of God.

It also robs the confessor of what I have found to be one of the great joys of priestly ministry—the transformation of mere regret into repentance (metanoia or a Godly sorrow) in which regret becomes thanksgiving for the gift of life and this not only in the penitent's heart but also my own.

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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