Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions! Psalm 51:1 (NRSV)
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. James 5:16 (NRSV)
How many of you have a close friend with whom you can share your deepest hopes and loses? Such a companion could be an important part in our journey toward happiness. Most religions or spiritual practices contain elements of confession within them, and they encourage us to confess our sins to another and receive pardon and freedom.
Confessions were important in our Hebrew/Christian traditions. One of the most classic Hebrew confessions is Psalm 51, traditionally thought to have been King David’s confession of his sin with Bathsheba. Confessions are also found in numerous places of early Christian writings. One that comes to mind is James 5:16; “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
Churches from the Eastern and Western traditions have confessions. Presbyterians are well known for their ubiquitous confessional prayers. And of course we can all probably recall a story or joke about Catholic confessional booths. Yet they have been and remain an important part of their practice.
The other night Naomi and I attended the West Seneca Community Lenten service at the Blessed John XXIII RC Church on Harlem Road. I noticed a reconciliation booth in the back of the church as we entered. Such have been historic places where people can find relief from terrible mistakes and guilt in their lives. I wondered, as I passed the booth, how many people over the years had experienced release and peace from receiving forgiveness and absolution.
Recently the Vatican even prepared a special smart phone app for Catholics to use to send in confessions of sin and receive absolution! It really isn’t such a bad idea in this mobile and multi-task generation. Maybe I ought to get such an app to give out! Even now I frequently receive emails from people looking for relief from guilt and shame.
Most western ideas of confession are based on the understanding of our separation from God and being sinful by our very birth and creation. Presbyterians often refer to it as our “total depravity.” Naturally the need to endlessly confess our sins would be important in order to be in the best position if the “angel of death” suddenly over takes us.
In Eastern Orthodox Churches it understood differently. Sin is seen not as a stain on or in our souls but more as a blinder to our essence as Christ bearers. Sin thus is not a soul stain but a mistake in need of correction. The priest is not the only one to confess sins to but it could a trusted individual or friend. This was part of the idea I had for Lent in suggesting people finding another person to partner with to pray for during the season.
Buddhism also has confessions of sins or mistakes. Many groups require at bi-weekly confession time or check-ins with a priest or mentor. In the process called “Vinaya”, Buddhism uses confession as a process toward attaining enlightenment.
Even Islam has confessions as part of its daily five calls to prayer. Some think of them as recitations of beliefs but they also include confessions of mistakes and spiritual lapses in one’s daily journey.
The book, A Course in Miracles, doesn’t have a lot to say about making “confessions” except to confess constantly that one is the Son or Daughter of God. It speaks of the proper use of “denial” which arises from being aware and recognizing times when we have forgotten whom we are. We thus deny the reality of hate and any mistake we’ve made which has caused us or others sorrow or anger. In the denial of such emotions from our thoughts, it helps us monitor our thinking choices and continuously return to the practice of self-forgiveness and Self-love.
Fear and guilt with anger are widespread in our world. Carl Jung wrote estimating 95% of Americans walk around each day loaded with guilt, bitterness and un-forgiveness. Ken Wapnick, my favorite teacher of the Course, talks about everyone having “Original Guilt” in his or her coming to this body/ego journey. Such guilt then projected onto others around them causing more pain and guilt. Jung also taught the important of practicing a confessing “catharsis” which helps release the pain. The Course gives 365 lessons in a workbook for individuals or groups to use to grow in awareness of our guilt and its release.
Around 1984 I joined with an Episcopal priest friend for a summer “catharsis cleansing” at a nearby facility. Based on Jungian catharsis techniques, we lied down on soft mats and followed breathing techniques with relaxation and awareness suggestions. Wow! Some people had “all hell break loose!” They would scream and swear, sometimes at themselves, sometimes at spouses, their children, neighbors, and bosses. At times some beat on a pillow as hard as they possible to shout/confess/catharsis out the pain and guilt!
In October, 2007 a man from Germantown, MD named Frank Warren, set up a safe web site in which he invited angry and guilty people to post confessions of hurt or pain. He named it a “Post Secret” site. Within three years he gathered nearly 200 million posts of confessions of terrible mistakes and misjudgments people had made! He now devotes his life to helping people rid themselves of guilt and anger. He was awarded the National Mental Health annual recognition certificate. Today he still receives several posts each week.
I believe one of my major roles as an ordained, recognized Minister is to be a spiritual guide to people seeking a deeper experience of God/Spirit in their lives. Part of this has been and continues to be receiving confidential confessions from people of their sense of worthlessness with for which they feel deep regret. After listening, I pray for the person, often placing my hands on their shoulders or head. I want to give assurance that God forgives all their good and bad judgments. They will always be loved and created as the Child of God!
I encourage people to find a friend in whom they can confide with concerns and misgivings. It is one of the major roles of a good psychotherapist. At Wayside we had a small group which met weekly to read and seek to understand and apply the book, A Course in Miracles, a book with strong emphasis upon forgiveness of self and the world. Maybe someday we could begin such a study/prayer group here. Wayside also, under leadership of dedicated people, created a group called “Stephen Ministers,” who in strict confidentiality, were trained to listen and spiritually console those in times of distress and unhappiness.
Yes, confessions with a sense of absolution and total forgiveness are very necessary for us to attain a deeper and more lasting sense of happiness and joy. When Carl Jung was 84 years old, he met a woman whom after talking a few times confessed she was as happy and free as any person he had ever met. He discovered that in her Catholic practice, she gone all her life on a regular basis to confession with her priests. She shared her most personal failures and mistakes to which the priest would always assure her over and over of God’s forgiveness and Spirit’s presence. Jung replied saying of her, “This is what I have been looking for over the past 30 years of my life!”
Make confessions a daily or regular part of your life. One of my favorite teachers, Fr. Anthony DeMello, suggested spending part of each early morning envisioning the kind of day you would like to experience. Then at the end of the day, sit and review backwards how it went, forgiving and letting go each time you noticed yourself as angry, discouraged, or unloving toward another.
I have kept a journal since I was 15 years old. It has evolved to be mostly my soul journal, noticing failures and known faults but granting to myself, as much a possible, forgiveness. (These must be burned upon my death!!) For if you and I cannot forgive and love ourselves, identifying as one with the Christ within, we certainly cannot be happy and share love with others.
Confess your sins or your mistakes daily and receive pardon and forgiveness. You will be happier, filled with a deeper joy and peace, with the growing sense of Divine Presence within each day. And you will be a deeper blessing and Christ to all whom you meet and encounter. But when you fail, simply get to your quiet place as soon as possible, with paper and pen, a friend, a trusted priest or pastor, or study book with reminders, and let the guilt go, and become free once again!
Talk presented at the 1st Presbyterian Church of West Seneca on March 25, 2012.