Wednesday, March 9, 2011
The Romance of Piety
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...