An article by Allison Courey, originally published in the January 2017 edition of the Rupert’s Land News, and used here with the author’s permission.
I was a little shocked when, during Lent ten years ago, my priest stood up and announced that the clergy would be hearing confessions throughout the Lenten season. If I so desired, I was to email the church office to set up a time to confess.
This felt like an outrageous Catholic practice I’d never discovered before. But my shock gave way to intrigue as the idea rolled around in my mind over the coming weeks. Imagine, saying all those things I’d being carrying around for years to one other human being, and then being absolved and set free. At the very least, it was worth trying for the ethnographic nature of the thing.
A decade later, I find myself kneeling before my confessor in a quiet chapel for what has become my bi-annual practice. It occurs to me that I have less time to collect sin between Advent and Lent (three months) than between Lent and Advent (nine months!), so this shouldn’t take very long. I reach into my coat pocket and draw out a crinkled piece of paper with my list.
As I trudged through a snowy field on my way to the chapel this afternoon, I wondered why I keep coming to the confessional long after the intrigue of the thing has faded. Not a common Anglican practice, even my confessor seems to find my diligence a little odd.
My mind skips back to another confession not long ago. It had been a long and difficult year, and by the time I arrived at Lent’s doorstep I was holding more than I could carry. My confessor at that time, Andrew, had recently preached about clay. He spoke about our difficulties in allowing ourselves to be clay and allowing others to be clay. We try to pretend we’re made of tougher stuff, and we expect others to do the same. But God created us to be clay and called it good. Clay, Andrew told the crowd at our early morning worship service, is mouldable. With warm and gentle hands, it can by softened and sculpted and changed. Clay is what we are called to be.
I went to Andrew for confession later that Lent to lay down all those things I was carrying which prevented me from being soft, mouldable clay. Anything causing — or being caused by — guilt, fear, anxiety, or shame, I brought and named before Andrew that day. I named things I had done, but should not have; and things I had not done, but should have. I brought him my “sins,” those one-time events I was individually responsible for, and my “Sin,” that greater societal brokenness of which I am a part. And when I finished naming those things out loud, Andrew asked if I also forgave those who had hurt me. And then he told me that through Jesus I was absolved of all sins and all sin and was restored to wholeness. And when those words have been said, I can no longer carry those things around with me anymore — like an old backpack slowly collecting stuff as it becomes heavier and heavier — because all that was preventing me from being soft clay has been given away. I am not free to take any of it back.
One time, the priest took my list and set it on fire, preventing me from even looking at it again. Sometimes, as I walk away, I am tempted to revisit the things I’ve left behind. To turn them over in my hands just one more time, making sure I haven’t missed anything. But I can’t. They are gone.
I’ve often heard Protestants say that confession can be made to God, and that’s enough. But sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes there’s something about bringing those hard parts of our clay selves and naming them before another one made from clay. Saying all of our fear and brokenness and sin out loud tends to release the power those things hold over us.
Accountability has been a Christian discipline for centuries, and this is one way of doing that in a safe and structured environment.
The good Lord knows I love structure! The formal practice of confession isn’t for everyone. I know one priest that makes a point of having lay people as confessors, thereby stating his conviction that all baptised people are called to the ministry of reconciliation. Still others are able to name things before God, in the silence of their hearts, and then walk away.
The word “repentance” means turns turning around and walking in the other direction. The liturgy of reconciliation enables me to focus more on the turning around part than the dropping-off-the-heavy-backpack part. I remember telling Andrew one time, “It seems too easy!” He smiled and responded gently, “It was never meant to be hard.” But sometimes it is hard.
I have met people in the winter years of their lives who’ve carried around deep secrets for decades, wrought with shame and unable to forgive themselves. Jesus reminds us, “Come to me! All you who are weary and burdened — and I will give you rest.” Jesus takes all of that heaviness with him to the cross so that we need not carry it into our own winter years. Jesus takes those things into the battle with death so that life can reign in our lives. Death and sin and brokenness no longer have the final say.