In his book on the Sabbath, Wayne Muller brilliantly juxtaposes two descriptions:
“Jules and Olivia are in their fifties, and even though their children are grown, they love to celebrate Shabbos. Every Friday night before the Sabbath meal, they draw a warm bath and, together, take off their clothes and bathe. This is their ritual cleansing, part of their marriage covenant, preparation to receive the Sabbath bride. But more than this, it is also a time for intimacies, and confession.
Each unclothed and open to receive the other, they each put a hand to the other’s heart, and ask if there is anything they need to say, any confession, something lingering in the heart that, left unsaid, would hinder a full and joyful Sabbath. On some nights, there is little to say. On other nights, words must be spoken aloud that have lived in secret. Who can imagine what lovers must share, when seeking a pure heart and an honest Sabbath? For thirty years, such honesty comes to this: two beings, warm and close, bathed in love.”
“Confession – it is said – is good for the soul. Before mass, Catholics practice confession, a ritual cleansing before receiving the gift of communion. Not to receive punishment or even absolution, but rather to speak what must be brought out from darkness, if we are to receive the light.” (Wayne Muller, Sabbath, Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy, N.Y., Bantam Books, 1999, p.198)
Roman Catholics are familiar with confession, the sacrament of reconciliation. However, in recent years, the practice of confession has suffered, and pretty massively, from neglect. Less and less people are going to confession and, those who do, are going less frequently. Many people aren’t going to confession at all and those who are going are, by and large, going only twice a year, at penitential services just before Christmas and Easter. This is a far cry from a time when most Catholics would go to confession at least once a month or even once a week.
There’s a sad irony in this: People are beginning to neglect the practice of confession just when, for the first time, we are learning from the experience of the therapeutic community that, for some things, there is no help, and there can be no help, outside of a searingly honest and detailed telling of our sins, addictions, fantasies, and foibles to another human being.
An honest confession is a non-negotiable step in any healing process. What healing programs have discovered – just when so many of us inside church circles are forgetting it – is that, good as it is, it’s not enough just to be contrite silently in our hearts. Full healing can only take place when we express that contrition not just to God in the secret recesses of the soul, but when we also speak it out, and in detail, to another human being.
What’s at issue, as Muller’s brilliant juxtaposition highlights, isn’t, radically, forgiveness itself, or even absolution. Sincerity of heart and touching the Body of Christ inside of family and community, particularly Eucharistic community, as the gospels show us, leads to the forgiveness of our sins. But that alone doesn’t enable us to come to the family table, the Eucharistic table, to our circle of friends, to our communities, and to our marriage beds with hearts that aren’t carrying things that block deeper intimacy and deeper joy.
As well, there is a certain grace, a key one needed to come to grips with our addictions and bad habits, that can, as anyone who has ever been addicted to anything knows, only be entered into when we openly and honestly bring into the light what, until then, has lain hidden in the dark, however sincere our contrition about it. We cannot transform our lives by willpower alone, we also need grace and community and both of these, at a point, depend upon the type of transparency that can only come about by honest confession.
D.H. Lawrence once wrote a poem he entitled, Healing, that goes this way:
I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections.
And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.
I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self
and wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance,
long, difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake
which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.
One of the mistakes that too many of us have chosen to sanctity is the misguided belief that there are things that we do in the dark that need never be brought to the light, that private sincerity alone is enough, and that we can continue to grow in intimacy with our loved ones without, regularly, putting our hands on each other’s hearts and speaking aloud those things that have been lived in secret.