I'm Sorry !!
I didn't mean to.
I couldn't help it.
I can't stop.
The Sacrament of Penance.
The Confiding Virtue, and The Confidence Trick.
"All can, none must, some ought"
So spake the old Anglican rubric on the Sacrament
Confession comes and goes in favour with church
styles. But nearly all branches of the church admit that there are times
when it must and should be done. As with prayer itself, there's a difference
here between empty repetition and developing good habits. There's a line
between nitpicking, being totally absorbed in yourself, and blithely assuming
that there's nothing very urgent to be dealt with at this present time.
A bit of self awareness and self assessment can make a world of difference
to your niceness to be near (grin) Call it spiritual hygiene if you like.
UNIQUE VOCATION, UNIQUE TEMPTATION
Of course. It is perfectly true that if we were
totally in love with God then we probably wouldn't go too far wrong. I
was very impressed by Thomas Merton's awareness of how much, and how many
simple, good things in themselves were actual distractions from Himself.
Many saintly folk have had a similar experience and been lead to reject
even simple comforts and necessities because they distracted from God.
St Thomas of Canterbury is rumoured to have rushed through his prayers
and even shortened them, to keep his mind from wandering.
But alongside them there are those who, like Brother
Lawrence, are given the gift of Seeing God in all things, in the simple
comforts and delights of being human. Of food, trees and potatoes.
To them nothing is a distraction. So What is a sin and a distraction for
each person will be different.
So - we've each got our own problems, and we deal
with them in our own different ways. Confession is an important part of
every tradition however, whether you are sharing with a good friend in
the parlour, or visiting the Confessional once a week. Whether you begin,
"You know that Your Lord loves you and died for your sins" or Father, it
is six days since my last confession.." or even, "Love, I'm sorry"
It is a sacrament. An outward and visible sign of
an inward and spiritual grace. And it takes two to do this - at least -
even if those two are you in the secrecy of your own room alone with your
LOOKING FROM OUTSIDE
Over the years, even when I was a child, I heard
people sneer at others for the 'habit of confession'. Heard them say that
others went to confession were forgiven and felt free to walk out and do
it again. Heard the opposite. That people, knowing that it was impossible
for them not to have sinned but unable to find out in which particle their
error had occurred, made sins up. Heard arguments about whether saying
the words in church on a sunday was sufficient, or whether church was the
place for the church to confess her own arrogance and communal failings.
Or whether in this case the Church was repenting for human beings, standing
for people before God.
Well, it wasn't meant to be like that.
I tell myself a story. That the early followers
of Jesus had a vision of a new society.
That when we admit a sin, an error, confide an
overriding difficulty, we are looking for help. Help to grow. Help to be
more loving and more centred. More aware of ourselves and less uncentred.
DEALING WITH FRAILTY
It ought to be possible, with the special graces
of the Spirit to be able to go to the butcher and tell him that you've
stolen his chops. And for him to help you overcome this stealing habit.
Perhaps by having you work, as he does, for them - perhaps by a little
gentle, teasing, putting them out of the way and joking with you about
People being people of course, 'the butcher' is
far more likely to prosecute you and tell the world that you oughtn't to
be let loose in a shop. These days, the butcher is probably a corporation
anyway. Nowadays we're so scared to admit a weakness, that we are always
looking round for someone else to take responsibility or pretending that
there is no problem there at all. We don't realize that if we pretend there's
no problem it not only will not go away, but it will grow. One rotten board
will end up with there being no floor at all.
OTHER PEOPLE'S SINS
Neither is it possible to do anything about someone
else's sins. They may well be easier to see than one's own. But until one
is actually engaging in the struggle with the beam in one's own eye, one
will never see the difficulty of removing the splinter in someone else's.
If it is someone else's fault, deal with it by forgiving
them, with whatever struggle that might cause you, and with hoping that
no one ever finds out the wrong that they have done, unless it will cause
someone else actual harm. Then do the discrete thing, talk it through,
with them. Follow the dictates of St James in the New Testament. But remember
to halve the sin. If it isn't your fault why are you confessing it? If
it is troubling you, ask yourself why ?
NEED OF A SOUL FRIEND
There are times when we all need someone to confide
The first step is to notice that something is wrong.
To admit it. To see in what way it is your business. What you can do about
The more practical solution is to choose one person
to talk with. Some wise, understanding person who is unlikely to say "My
God! That's terrible ! How can you live with yourself?' - some person who
may perhaps be able to listen to the whys the wherefores the confusions
and help you sort them through.
Now - it is perfectly possible to close your eyes
and just simply talk it through with Jesus. You have something burdening
you, is assumed, and though he knows full well what it looks like, you
But in many many ways it is easier to speak with
a person with skin on. Even if they say nothing, one comes clearer in oneself
simply by seeing the situation in the eyes of another. Excuses are more
easily discerned, so are reasons.
We know, God knows, that we do the best we can with
what we've got. With our understanding at the time. So our understanding
may be expanded by this talk.
HOW SORRY IS 'SORRY'
You know what you've done and you know that you
How sorry ?
Well. If you're going this 'alone', ask yourself
MAKING IT ALL BETTER
What can I do to make amends ?
Sometimes it's simple enough. Give it back. Make
it better. Apologize.
Sometimes that would hurt the person you've done
harm to even more.
Make the amends anonymous.
Or pass them on.
An act of generosity to a stranger, to replace
an act of meanness to a person well loved.
An act of praise to replace an act of denigration.
A kind word instead of a cruel lie.
A gentle word to replace a destroying tirade.
And because wrong things seem to be more vivid
and powerful than right ones, make your amends lots of little ones.
and the occasional spectacular one.
You know the parable of the feast which was given
to those who couldn't afford to throw a return party?
This is a good place to think about those who cannot
possibly afford to repay you. A good place to be anonymous.
Of course, if you can, possibly, talk it through
with the person you've hurt, that is best of all. Ask them what they want
of you. But even if you can't, close your eyes, and visualize them. Tell
them what you've done, and what they've done. Forgive them and ask them
to forgive you. And sit with that as long as it feels unfinished. In real
life it is possible that no such forgiveness would follow.
Forgive them? I hear you say ? But I hurt them.
Well dear one. If you think about it, you'll realize
that somewhere inside we do secretly blame those whom we have hurt. I'm
not sure why. Perhaps it is because through them we see ourselves as less
than perfect. As vulnerable. As cruel or haughty or unkind. Perhaps because
they have more than us.. who knows ?
Jesus knows. And it may be well to ask him.
Your forgiveness doesn't depend on your making
amends. But your understanding does. The amends has already been made.
Done for. Washed away.
But your understanding hasn't yet grown into the
fulness. We don't really fully understand the nature of the damage we've
done till we try to put it right. How do we unmake a lie and it's effects?
Trying to put the feathers back on a plucked chicken, the Buddha described
it as. We have to be inventive to put it right.
TRUST AND FEAR
And then too, nearly all sin is a lack of trust.
I steal because I don't trust God or my neighbour to help or understand.
Or because I do not trust myself to be able to earn it.. or because I simply
want it, more than I care for someone else's need or working for it.
or whatever. I don't trust myself to do without it, to survive. Now that
lack of trust may itself be justifiable. If I am regularly beaten, or punished
unduly - I will avoid by lying as long as I can. This is a very different
matter, and if in your consideration of this you find that you are in a
state of fear, then please find someone real to talk with and some material
Sometimes penitence comes late. We may know quite
well that a certain habit of mind, a certain piece of behaviour is wrong,
and we may make amends even without particularly feeling anything about
it. Penitence is sometimes a four o'clock in the morning job. Sometimes
too it isn't grief for something that would find it's way into the rubric.
Just a howling "How could I be so gross!" Why did I say it ? O dear lord,
why do I think it, over and over again..
Sometimes it is not till the beauty of forgiveness
itself washes over you that you understand the pain of the original misdemeanour.
This is not the awful bondage of scrupulosity, but the extraordinary release
from it. Once penitence has stuck we are well on the way to overcoming
the last hurdle. The biggie and baddie.
AMENDMENT OF LIFE
Yes indeed. Not doing it again.
Now sometimes once is enough. Once we have seen
the nature of the trouble, confided it to someone else, faced it in ourselves,
discovered the release of being truly and heartily sorry and bawled our
eyes out, we no longer have the slightest inclination to venture that way
again. Would that it were always so. But I'm afraid that my experience
is that I am reminded again and again of particular and habitual faults.
I become weary and disconsolate and unmindful and worn out and depressed,
because 'whoops' here we go again.
Your wise friend will give you advice.
And it may be that the advice will make sense to
you. Maybe, to bring you to awareness, that every time you do it again
you make a little mark on your arm with a biro. Or have a companion whisper,
'you're doing it again', or something of that kind.
And then do something good for every mark on your
Or perhaps the advice will be to take your mind
off this thing completely and put it somewhere else that is more healthy.
Play sport, design a dinner - paint a picture - write a prayer.
Whatever. You will have engaged yourself in the
battle to replace the sin with a virtue and life will be difficult, for
if you are planting - say - the virtue of patience - then expect
patience to be tested. There really is no point in having a sunny peaceful
disposition if everything in the garden is lovely. Well, there is, but
it's not all that virtuous. There are, of course there are, times when
the Lord simply stretches out his arm and says to the sin "Get out, you're
not wanted". In which case you will never have to think of it again.
But there are equally times when it does return, or raises it's head in
a different guise. - Looks like you may be in line for a Course in one
of the Great Virtues, as your awareness increases and your self knowledge
grows and the Lord grants you the grace of self discipline.
So. Your friend has told you to read a psalm, perhaps
Psalm 51 and say the Lord's Prayer, and what good is that you ask yourself?
What use is that penance ?
Read the psalm again. You are no longer in the context
of your own sin, bringing it to mind and temptation again. You are reading
the words of another soul who was like you, struggling with something.
You are in solidarity with another poet, someone else who is grieving.
Read it again. You are in the context of God himself.
In the presence of the wisest friend of all.
Say the Lord's Prayer. Live in it. You are alive
and God is Your Father. In that context what power have these trials against
us? While you are praying the Lord's prayer you are changing - inside and
out. His kingdom, his will, his forgiveness..
And while you are meditating, contemplating, praying,
you are changing. You have begun weeding the garden, now plant herbs where
the weeds have been.
You may even discover that the sin itself was a
merely misplaced virtue. That you've been pruned rather than punished,
and that cuttings have been made.
And in the meantime, don't be afraid, or ashamed
to face up to a repeated sin.
'O Lord, I've done it again!' is something any
human, caring person with a bit of self knowledge will understand only
too well. Of course it may look to outsiders as if you are a raving
hypocrite. Well, that isn't your problem. There's all the difference in
the world between trying to look good without changing a thing, and engaging
in a real struggle - not so as to earn perfection and heaven - those things
are already achieved, but in order to fit in with, grow into and nurture
the New Society, the New Kingdom. To be a bit better suited for a kingdom
of heaven that is enjoyable to live in for both you and others.
Go in peace
The Lord has put away your sin.
Pray also for me
THE THEME OF FORGIVENESS IN SANCTUARY