On Confession and Penance
¿Qué tengo yo que mi amistad procuras?
¿Qué interés se te sigue, Jesús mío,
que a mi puerta, cubierto de rocío,
pasas las noches del invierno escuras?
¡Oh, cuánto fueron mis entrañas duras,
pues no te abrí! ¡Qué estraño desvarío
si de mi ingratitud el yelo frío
secó las llagas de tus plantas puras!
¡Cuántas veces el ángel me decía:
Alma, asómate agora a la ventana,
verás con cuánto amor llamar porfía!
¡Y cuántas, hermosura soberana:
Mañana le abriremos -- respondía --,
para lo mismo responder mañana!
-Félix Lope de Vega y Carpio, Rimas sacras, Soneto XVIII
Lord, what am I, that, with unceasing care,
Thou didst seek after me, that thou didst wait,
Wet with unhealthy dews, before my gate,
And pass the gloomy nights of winter there?
Oh, strange delusion, that I did not greet
Thy blest approach! and oh, to Heaven how lost,
If my ingratitude's unkindly frost
Has chilled the bleeding wounds upon thy feet!
How oft my guardian angel gently cried
"Soul, from thy casement look, and thou shalt see
How he persists to knock and wait for thee!"
And, oh! how often to that voice of sorrow,
"To-morrow we will open," I replied,
And when the morrow came I answered still, "To-morrow."
-translation from from 1893 Cambridge ed. of THE COMPLETE POETICAL WORKS OF HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW from this site
I entered the church and it was already beginning to fall into darkness. There was already a line forming on the side of the confessional. I took my place in line, and instead of standing, I knelt down. I was the “big fish” that day. Maybe the other people had some pretty big things to confess as well, but I was going to be the star of the show this time. I had made up my mind, and I was determined to go through with it. I knew that this was going to change my life and that there would be no turning back. Maybe part of me was lying to the other part thinking that this would be no big deal. But deep down, I knew what this meant. It meant that I had struggled through the night with God. I had pushed Him away, screamed at Him, and said and thought the foulest and most blasphemous thoughts so that God would turn His face away from me. But He had won and here I was.
When my turn finally came, I walked into the confessional and closed the door. It was so dark. All I saw was the dimly lit grill in front of me. It was as if I was a disembodied voice, some wicked spirit who had dreamt that darkness of being away from God for so long, of having lived in a universe that was ugly, dreadful, and cold. I knelt down and began:
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been three and a half years since my last confession….”
Ninety-nine percent of all confessions that a devout Roman Catholic will make in his life will be rather routine affairs. Yes, sin is dreadful. Sin is horrible. Sin is the only real evil in the cosmos. Mosquitoes aren’t evil. Leeches aren’t evil. A child stealing a cookie from a cookie jar: that is the only real evil in the world. The other two obey their nature, the third is rebelling against his nature, and therefore against the purpose of existence that God has given to Him. Many people have a problem with the doctrine of Hell. Anti-Staretz used to always say that he found Hell to be a rather consoling doctrine. Maybe he said this because he was just trying to be funny, but I found that other people who I have respected in my life have said the exact same thing. The problem of Hell has nothing to do with the failure of the mercy of God. It has everything to do with the horrible nature of human sin. Aside from the mystery of the Trinity Itself, perhaps the other great mystery is the mystery of evil. How will God be all in all when many of His creatures will be separated from Him for all eternity? How can they definitively turn away from God in the first place?
Yes, this is horrible indeed. But the reality right here on ground zero, away from the cosmic questions of philosophers and theologians, is much more mundane, is it not? Sin may not be fun (although some of it is for our fallen nature). It may just prove to be a release. It may just result from our weakness. But it is still sin. And we are doing it all of the time. We are surrounded by it, we are swimming in it, and we practically are breathing it. And when we go to wash ourselves clean of it, when we go before the throne of God to accuse ourselves of these very sins, we do it as if we were going to the grocery store, the post office, or the DMV.
Feeling bad about yourself yet? Don’t. It doesn’t help. You might be very contrite for a while, but then you will just go back to being your old self, stuck in your sins, comfortable with them, and treading water until you die and go before the Judgment Seat. Again, welcome to the human race!
It sounds cynical, but you have to realize that true contrition is not something that you can squeeze out of yourself as if you were squeezing water out of a sponge. It is a special gift from God, and if it were a regular event in your life, it would make you a total basket case.
I suppose this is one of the reasons I am extremely adverse to things written in Christian circles that reflect the sighs of “o tempora, o mores!” Does any of this calling down wrath on our neo-pagan society help? Or does it only serve to separate “us” from “them”, giving us a righteousness that we do not really possess and masochistically condemning things that we know torment our own conscience but shielding ourselves from blame at same time. More seriously though, I think that those who feel they can rail against the evil of this age in such righteous indignation really haven’t hit rock bottom yet. That is, they really have not discovered the depth of their own falleness and still find that they can be angry at the “evil” of our present time. Those of us who have spent some time at rock bottom know perfectly well what we are capable and incapable of, and that often makes us less quick to judge.
It is not that the evil of this age is not evil. It is rather that we as people who live in this age must claim responsibility for it. It is OUR fault that things are like this. If I have learned one thing from reading St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, it is that real holiness is not about feeling separated from the sins of the world, it is rather feeling responsible for the horribleness of all of the sins in the world as if you had committed each and every single one of them yourself. That is real contrition, and I may not feel it now, but at least I know that this is the direction I should be heading towards.
Perhaps feeling bad about all of this is necessary, but one must still be careful. If there has been one trap I have fallen into in my rather short life, it is that of believing that someone in particular has the ability to guide you safely into the harbor of salvation. This of course is the error of trusting absolutely in the religious superior or staretz. Archimandrite Vasileios wrote that practically unreadable book called Hymn of Entry in which he has the beautiful line in which he says that the task of the spiritual father is to make God real for his spiritual son. This is a lovely idea, but things simply don’t work this way, at least not anymore. We either no longer live in an age of spiritual physicians (even many holy monks have affirmed this) or we are too deaf to hear them or hear them properly. We must feel our way through this mess ourselves.
Many Catholics in the English speaking world, along with convert Orthodox and Anglicans, will attempt to make sense of this cosmic catastorphe of sin and passion. They will try to use theories of asceticism, moral conduct, and other theoretical tools to soften the blow of proud modern man confronting the darkness and abyss of the fallen human heart. Rest assured that none of this stuff ever works, and what will endure, what has always endured, are the sacraments that Christ left us and the traditional piety that in an infinitesimal way compensates for our almost total lack of attention to the things of God.
God becomes real only by our being knocked around by sin, and this must happen constantly. God becomes real in our falleness, and only in our falleness. I think that this is the real heart of the blood-soaked, tormented, and wailing Spanish Catholicism that formed me as a child. This is the language of the votos, the penitentes, and the songs that moan at God for mercy and compassion. It is not a theological system of trying to speculate how God is like, but rather an attempt to throw yourself against the very heart of God and break through somehow. Sure, there is some talk of amendment of life, but those young men who still don the masks during Holy Week in many parts of Latin America or who walk into churches on their knees probably have done some pretty foul stuff, and they will continue to do it in spite of their best intentions. They have hit rock bottom, and will continue to fall down there. But they will get up and implore God, not with theological syllogisms or speculations, but with sweat, blood, and pain. That is life. That is true sorrow. That is the true essence of repentance in the Roman Catholic Church.