This is the last Sunday of Lent – Palm Sunday. Today we celebrate Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem – the event that triggers the events of Holy Week. As I have worked my way through Lent on this blog there has been a theme – a theme of discovering our weaknesses as Christians. While this Sunday is a celebration Sunday what is being celebrated is Christ’s sovereignty. If you think about it admitting and dealing with our weaknesses is a very powerful way of acknowledging Christ’s sovereignty, and hence the Lenten theme applies even this Sunday when we sing hymns of praise and children march in church with palm fronds.
On Friday, I wrote about Evangelical confessional practice, or the lack and inadequacy thereof, as one of the root causes for Evangelical political ineffectiveness. In that post I quoted from “Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Helped Build—and Can Help Rebuild—Western Civilization” by William J. Slattery. Slattery’s discussion of Celtic confessional practice as an “engine for renewal” is a deeply enlightening passage. After all, what is confession if not a discovery or our weaknesses and an effort to cope with them? As such I would like to discuss a couple more extended quotes from that section of that book.
The first such quote:
Fifthly, there was the personal guidance that the priests linked to the sacrament. They gave spiritual guidance because they first took it themselves. For these monks were not satisfied simply with receiving absolution from the guilt of serious sin; no, they wanted much more. Passionately they wanted to purify the soul from even the scars of evil in order to allow the new supernatural life received in baptism and the other sacraments to transform their thoughts, aspirations, and actions. They wanted Christian perfection, a transformed personality, Christlikeness—and being Celts, they wanted it fast. But, naturally, such an arduous task and such a subtle surgery of the soul could not be done on one’s own. Since nemo est iudex in causa sua (no one is a judge in his own case) and since self-knowledge is even more difficult for those blinded by years of labyrinthine self-deception, a wise guide is vitally urgent. A master physician is needed, and where else to seek one, and where else to undergo such surgery, than in confession? After all, who knew the soul better than the priest who had just listened to the tale of one’s sins and evil inclinations? And who was better equipped to be a master surgeon than the priest who was already so knowledgeable? Was he not himself a man who had spent years living amid the peaks of Christian self-conquest?
Thus, Celtic confession provided the trustworthy guide who could lead the sinner through the jungle of his own soul, at times preventing self-knowledge from becoming an occasion for despair, and at other moments removing the blindness of pride and shallowness in order to see all the suffering caused to those around him. The Celtic format of confession with spiritual guidance made it a powerful and subtle tool for the pedagogy of transforming raw human nature into the new Christlike man. For it was personalized like a tutoring system, able to take each one where he was at, helping him both to appreciate God’s unique love for him as an individual as well as the importance of an energetic response. It was an effective surgical instrument for a successful “heart transplant” because it facilitated three conditions for the operation: self-knowledge, wise decision making, and practices of self-mastery (asceticism).
As I have discussed here many times, confession is a lost art among Evangelicals. Protestants separated from Roman Catholics in the sacramental nature of confession and the priestly role that entailed. You see, the issue was never the value of confession, but instead the issue was that a man, in the priest, could grant absolution. In the Protestant view only God could do that. Then there was the fact that too often in the Catholic sacramental practice absolution was somehow tied to performance of the penance which violated the deeply held conviction of Protestants regarding the unearned and unearnable nature of God’s grace. Thus Protestants do not hold confession as a sacrament which demands administration by a cleric. But they do maintain the practice in the liturgy – or at least they did until Evangelicalism came to dominate most Protestant churches. But this change, well grounded theologically has had dire consequence.
In this extended quote Slattery emphasizes two extraordinarily important things about the sacrament of confession. First of all he points out that penance is about spiritual formation, it is not about earning absolution. Thus theologically, the confessional does not stray from the Protestant understanding of grace. The practice remains open to the theological abuse it has frequently suffered under, but practice and theological content are separate things. Evangelical, and Protestant, theological objections to the confessional are poorly founded – at least as Slattery, and presumably Roman Catholics generally, currently understand the sacrament.
The second thing Slattery illustrates in this quote is that for spiritual formation to work there must be a party in the holding accountable role and one in the being held accountable role. He also points out that the one holding the other accountable can only do so well if they are leading the other down a path they have already trod. One can disagree with the priestly role, with another man as the conduit of God’s grace, and still grant that Slattery has one heck of a point there. Spiritual formation requires that a person first know they need to be better formed and secondly someone to lead them to it that actually knows where they are going. This is in fact something that the liturgical practice of confession often misses.
The Evangelical analog of the confessional is the small group, but the small group suffers from several shortcomings in this regard. Which brings me to the second extended quote from the book:
Thus, Irish confession was a quantum leap from all that the great Roman and Greek writers such as Cicero and Aristotle had written about the friend as the other half of one’s soul. These authors were thinking about those friendships between individuals who, bound by a common and intense pursuit of virtue, open the doors of their hearts to each other for mutual guidance and encouragement. Yet, sublime as these friendships are, they do not rival the relationship between priest and penitent since this is transformed by the supernatural. For in the person and functions of the confessor we are dealing with something surpassing human grandeur. Here it is God’s love that faces the sinner, respects him, and loves him by destroying the guilt of sin and invigorating his soul anew.
In this quote Slattery is reasserting the priestly role in confession, claiming that the priest is necessary for supernatural presence. As a Protestant this I disagree with. However, that fact notwithstanding, this quote still points out the weaknesses of the small group model. For one, small groups are generally and often a meeting of friends and peers. For there to be effective confession, as a form of spiritual formation, in such a situation there must someone that is above the rest of the group in maturity. There must be a leader. Secondly, peer friendships have an ordinary sense about them, not a holy sense. Even if we do not believe in a priest as necessary to bring a supernatural presence, for confession to be effective the supernatural must be invoked and His presence acknowledged. This liturgical confession succeeds in accomplishing, but the small groups often fail.
Too often small groups end up being built on a therapeutic model, not a confessional/spiritual development model. In other words they tend to be a form of group therapy rather than an intentional encounter designed to produce growth in the individuals. There is nothing wrong with the therapeutic model at face, but I have encountered far too many where they tend to be about wallowing in our issues rather than overcoming them. The other problem with the therapeutic model is that such groups often lack a sense of the sacred – of God’s sovereignty. Oh sure, they include prayer, but it is generally prayers of petition and one often speaks to God as if He were a “favor vendor” than as if He is Lord of all creation.
I like how in this quote Slattery differentiates between friendship and a priest/penitent relationship. The difference is real and it is necessary for spiritual formation. Evangelicalism tends to be more about “First among equals” than an authoritative relationship of the type here described.
I think that the best confession we could make this Lent is about our lack of confession.