Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Romance of Piety

As I heard the first confession of a young penitent, I harkened back to my own first, hesitant, and fearful attempt at private confession -- as the sinner seeking absolution.  My mind was filled with fear.  The words on the page seemed to refuse entrance into my mouth.  My mind assured me that whatever I said, it would not be the first time someone had confessed it and, most likely, not the first time my father confessor had heard it.  But my heart seemed reluctant to let go of the burdens binding my heart if the cost of such freedom was to give voice to what lie hidden within me.  In the end I stumbled through it with halting speech, and, like a bookie making odds, decided what I would say and what I would not say out loud.  O Lord, I wondered, why did Lutherans have to get rid of those nice, anonymous confessional booths!  What I had the nerve to confess were not the things that most troubled my soul but I consoled myself by saying this was not the last or only time I would go to confession.  When I finally left the prie dieu, the torment imposed upon my guilty conscience -- which had silenced my voice -- came spilling out in uncontrolled sobs that I could not define as either sorrow or joy.

In the end I believed it was a most salutary experience and insisted to myself that I definitely would do it again.  But, like the dental appointments that we know we should make, the next appointment with my father confessor did not come very soon.  But it came and with it a bit more of the poison kept inside of me bled out into the words of my confession.  As I became more comfortable with the setting, I found it strangely easier to speak honestly with this gentle Pastor the barbs and wounds of my sins.  I had confessed them multiple times within the general vagaries of the Sunday morning preparation office but before I left the Church I had always taken them back home with me.  God may have forgiven me but I was not so sure I could forgive myself. I yearned for the touch of my father confessor's hand, outlining upon my forehead the cross as he spoke directly to me, "I forgive you..."  It was as if the hot coals of my rebellion were jumping from within me as I found the courage to speak out loud what lie hidden and buried within my soul.  Each time I went home lighter, having lost some of the weight that I had carried around with me and I had no idea how heavy this load had become until it was pealed from my shoulders, sin by sin by sin.

I will also never forget the first confession I ever heard as a Pastor.  It was cold in the chancel.  I sat on a chair reading from the Psalms as I awaited the appointment.  As is so typical, it did not begin with a desire for private confession but with the words, "Pastor, I need to talk to you about something..."  But eventually I learned that this is Lutheran speak for I need to go to confession.  The burden of a childhood sin had been with this person well into adulthood and had remained well hidden -- no one would have ever guessed.  But they could not forget and the remembrance was becoming more and more difficult to hide and more and more costly to deal with.  The person did not know how to begin so we began with Psalm 130 and by reciting together the ten commandments out of the catechism.  There was much silence and I was not sure if I should speak or not.  Not proved to be the right course and when the words came, a lifetime of guilt and pain came with it.  A few words of counsel and the assurance that the grace of these words was indeed Christ's own word (John 20:23) and the person was off.  I was as nervous about the whole thing as this person coming to confession but we made it through and this person came many times -- never for confession but to talk to me about something.  Yet we always ended up at the altar rail and made our way through page 54 in the Worship Supplement (1969) and then page 310 in Lutheran Worship (1982).

There is a certain romance about piety -- things like private confession, fasting, disciplined prayer, daily devotions, Bible reading, etc.  We are in love with the idea but seldom do we work at it long enough for it to become habit or norm in our daily lives.  I was in love with the idea of being a father confessor to my people but knew that if that was to happen I must learn first to kneel before my own father in the faith and make my confession.  I am still in love with the idea of the daily office, with disciplined prayer times, with a daily and weekly schedule of services (as once the monastery or cathedral chapel might observe), and with a thousand other things associated with the practice of prayer and the meditative life.  But the romance is like the regret over a lost love -- it offers you nothing of the blessing until you find your way to put it into practice.  As long as it remains only an idea, it can do nothing to assist your journey in faith through this mortal life.

Lent is likewise filled with romance -- of precious loves given up, of regular fasting, of almsgiving, of good works, of special services and devotion.  But the romance of it offers little to help you along the way.  What is required is that we risk the disappointment in order to just do it.  I remember well the person who went through instruction several times and yearned for the Sacrament yet found it hard to believe that there was anything there but a bit of bread and a sip of wine.  They lived with the illusion of reality instead of the taste of that which Jesus calls "real food and real drink..."  And then they resolved to know the mystery they could not own and so this person came to the rail one Sunday.  After the Sacrament, I was tempted to ask "how was it" as if this was a first taste of lobster or some other inaugural experience of an unknown delight.  Later the person came to me disappointed because the lights did not blink and the sky did not open.  "I thought there would be more..." he said with a sigh.  "Maybe you need to still your expectations and just come," I offered.

Years later and hundreds of communions after that first taste of the Lord's goodness, the person admitted to me that the experience had grown with each visit to the Lord's table.  In the end, what they had expected to come with the initial rush of it all, came instead with the gradual experience of the hidden grace in earthly form.  This person is still communing and the reality of it all has become far more than the romance of his first imagination.

We may be in love with the idea of piety, with its romance, but the reality is much more.  The reality is messy -- never as neat and tidy, predictable and perfunctory as we assume -- but that is the way of faith and its expression.  The habit of it becomes the occasion for its greatest gift...


Paul said...

re: expectations on approaching the Sacrament. I find it very helpful to rehearse very slowly the words of communion hymns, such as: "Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face; here would I touch and handle things unseen; here grasp with firmer hand th'eternal grace and all my weariness upon Thee lean."

Anonymous said...

Would that more of us would take advantage of privae confession!

Anonymous said...

"Pastor I need to talk to you about
something" is Lutheran talk speak for
confession. The Penitential Psalms
are God speak for confess your sins
directly to me. While it might be
helpful to confess your troubling
sins to a pastor, it is always good
to daily confess your sins to the
Lord. Confessing sins directly to
God eliminates the middleman of a

Anonymous said...

Would that all pastors would make private confession and absolution available on a regular basis!

Most pastors would probably say that it's "available on request," but that makes it seem an oddity, something out of the ordinary, meant only for extreme situations.

It is unfortunate that private confession and absolution is not a more "normal" practice because there is such comfort in hearing Christ's forgiveness spoken directly to you. Yes, most of the time one confesses directly to God. However, when one is heavily burdened by certain sins, even sins others might not consider weighty, nothing can compare to hearing His voice speaking forgiveness directly to one, via the pastor.

Pastor Peters said...

Confessing sins directly to
God eliminates the middleman of a

Anonymous, would that it were all that easy to accept forgiveness in this way. But then God knew our weakness and so in Matthew 16 & 18 and John 20:23 commanded that the Office of the Ministry serve as those "middlemen" as you describe and insists that whatsoever sins these middlemen forgive, they are forgiven in heaven...

No Pastor takes upon himself this power but it is the authority granted to Him by none other than Christ Himself...

I wonder as I wander said...

My pastors do not offer Private Confession and Absolution of if they do, it's the best kept secret around. That being said, I have become friends with one and the other would not be safe for me to go to, so I guess it's moot point that they don't.

If there was another pastor in the area who made it publicly known that he offered Private Confession on a regular basis and would allow those from outside of his parish to come (from what I understand reading online, most pastors would direct a non-member back to their own pastors), I would gladly go.