Advent is here, and as one of the two penitential seasons of the church, now would be a good time to begin our preparations before the “Holiday Rush” overtakes us.
I came across some great insights on penitence in a book I have been reading by Susan Pitchford titled Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone and I would like to share them with you. Pitchford, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology (University of Washington), writes:
I’ve realized . . . that like most people who’ve made it to middle age, I’m covered with wounds – many of my own making . . . and some inflicted by others.
There’s the suffering I bring on myself, by my own sins. These aren’t the heroic wounds of martyrdom, or scars from courageously taking on the sufferings of others. They aren’t even the inevitable bumps and bruises we all get from participating in the life of a fallen race. These are cowardly, self-inflicted wounds, the ones we acquired trying to flee whatever battle we were called to fight: the addictions we used to escape problems we were supposed to deal with, the lies and half-truths that left their mark on our conscience, the broken relationships that broke us a little as well. Our first impulse is to keep these wounds well bandaged and out of sight: we don’t want to discuss them, see them, or think about them. But one thing I know . . . is that a lot of wounds heal best, when exposed to air and light.
The Church knows this too, which is why it provides us with the tools for healing our wounds and being reconciled to God. We’re expected to make a daily examination of conscience, and a daily confession of sin (the Daily Office includes this, and so does the Eucharist). We’re also required at least twice a year to make sacramental confession (Advent and Lent) – to confess our sins to God in the presence of a priest, who can offer the assurance of absolution . . . Both those who see themselves as sewers of iniquity and those who think they’re pretty good people can be equally horrified at the thought of confessing their sins in front of another person. (I think Roman Catholics have the edge here, because they get used to it at an early age). For Anglicans, the sacrament is offered but not required, and while I have no data to prove it, I’d bet that ninety-nine percent of all Anglicans have never seriously considered it.
Given that most Americans fear public speaking more than death, it seems likely that speaking – even to an audience of one – on the subject of one’s sins isn’t a prospect most of us would relish.
Which is a real pity, because the Sacrament of Reconciliation is such a gift. It’s not about excoriating ourselves for out failures. Instead, it is the means “through which the burden of past sin and failure is lifted and peace and hope restored.” It is, just as the name implies, about reconciliation.
The psalmist begs God, “Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:2, KJV). There’s nothing like the feeling of cleanness and restoration to wholeness that you experience after confession.
Now that confession is part of my religious routine, it’s sort of like getting an annual physical exam: not without its discomforts, but it’s great to walk away knowing there’s nothing deadly lurking in there. And one of the best things I’ve found in this discipline is how helpful it is to get some perspective on my faults, from someone whose opinion carries great authority . . . it’s tremendously liberating to have someone hear the worst I have to offer, and not actually collapse in horror.
Likewise, our wounds – even the scary, shameful, self-inflicted ones – shouldn’t become occasions for doing ourselves further violence. They’re to be occasions of mercy, of reconciliation, of peace.
When we come to grief over our sins, both in the sense of ending in failure and ending in mourning, they can be an effective way of bringing down our defenses against God. We can bar the doors to God by insisting that we’re beyond forgiveness, and some of us do that. But surely one of the more impenetrable defenses we raise against God is the belief that we’re good people who don’t need him. Not only are we usually wrong about how “good” we are, but this attitude so completely misses the point. No parents in this world would be satisfied with raising children who lived “good” lives but never wanted anything to do with them. So why should God be content with children who are upstanding and respectable but alienated and estranged from him?
So anything, especially the Sacrament of Reconciliation, that can bring down the illusion of our self-sufficiency, cause our defenses to crumble, and bring us, between mouthfuls of dust, to admit our need for God is a healthy thing. And perhaps a mouth that is open in confession, is yet another entry port, through which God can break through to us.
I pray that you will take advantage of the sacrament of confession this Advent so that your Christmas can be more enjoyable and that you will include it as a regular part of your prayer life!
Clergy are available in the Chapel Saturdays, from 4:00 – 5:00 pm, during the Advent and Lenten seasons.
This article was written by parishioner Russ Hollingsworth. Excerpts were taken from the book “Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone” written by Susan Pitchford.