Wednesday, December 31, 2008

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
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Print this post