'When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.'
This is the compelling opening line of Frank McCourt’s award winning Angela’s Ashes. The book was published in 1996 and sparked a new literary genre known as the ‘misery memoir.’ It’s a long time since I read it but one thing I remember is that the Church does not come out of this book well.
Everyone seems to go about riddled with guilt, and under great pressure to confess their manifold sins – or risk burning in hell.
Many people have a negative impression of the practice of confession. But, in an era where we are more likely to encounter the practice of cover up rather than confession, I want to say a few words in its favour.
First, confessing or ‘fessing up’ can be truly liberating.
Not just for ourselves but for others too. If we recognise we’ve done something wrong and respond by saying, ‘Oh man, I can’t believe I’ve done that…’ or ‘I’m so sorry, I don't know what came over me…’ it’s hard, in these circumstances, for the person you have offended to go on being angry.
Unless you have a reputation for making gaffe after gaffe (without naming names in politics here!) a quick and genuine confession is a very effective way of diffusing even the most difficult of situations.
We all make mistakes, we all mess up. But only some of us admit it and say sorry, when we do.
Also, the more that we fess up, the more it encourages others to feel free to admit their own mistakes.
A very dear Church friend of mine called Fred, who is sadly no longer with us, had a wonderful habit of always repenting of his sins whenever we prayed together. He was a wonderful, kind and generous man but was also very thankful that he felt so completely forgiven for things he’d done in the past. When this really good man prayed so openly and honestly about the stuff he’d got wrong, it really helped me and others to open up about what we had got wrong too. After praying with Fred, you always came away feeling much freer and less burdened than you had been before.
At this time of the year in the Church, we start to read stories about a character called John the Baptist. He was a huge figure in Palestine around about the time Jesus started his ministry. The Baptist did not mince his words or message. He was teetotal, wore clothes made of camel hair, lived in the desert and ate locusts and honey. He called people to repent, to confess their sins – and in symbolism of this, he ‘baptised’ them in the River Jordan. If he didn’t feel some people were authentic in their repentance, he called them ‘a brood of vipers’ and warned them of ‘the wrath that is to come.’
So the whole ‘confess with fear and trembling’ thing is there, sure enough, in the Bible. But then Jesus shows us, in his ministry, that when we confess, we need not do that in fear. But in the certainty that we are loved and forgiven.
We see this, for example, in the story Jesus tells of the Prodigal Son. Where a son is abusive to his father and goes off and wastes all his inheritance on ‘wild living.’ Eventually in disgrace the son has no one to turn to but the father. And so he returns home, rehearsing his confession as he goes. But how does the father respond? Does he meet out some appropriate punishment, some burning in hell? No. He runs out to meet his son. He puts a ring on his finger and dresses him in robes. He calls for the fatted calf to be slaughtered and arranges a big party to celebrate. Because his son was lost and is found. He was dead and is alive again.
So this is what we can expect when we fess up to our mistakes. Not punishment and retribution. But acceptance, forgiveness and celebration.
Confessing is also not all about admitting mistakes. There’s also a very positive aspect to it. When we confess our passions in life. Again, something we may not do enough of.
I confess, for example, that I am a supporter of Arsenal Football Club. Despite current travails at the Emirates, the familiar chant, ‘I’m Arsenal til I die, I’m Arsenal til I die..’ applies to me. I’m sure I will support the club for the rest of my life. I confess that.
I also confess that I am a vegan. That I love vegetables and believe they are not just healthier to eat but also a vegan diet helps reduce animal cruelty and environmental damage to our planet. I confess that.
I also confess I am a Christian. That I’ve decided to follow Christ because I believe my life has been saved by him. My sins are forgiven – and this has set me free to be a much bigger, richer, more generous person than I would otherwise be.
So whatever burdens you may be carrying, find a way to put them down.
And that way starts with confession.
Admitting your faults and mistakes in the first place. And admitting your passions too. The things that bring your life alive.
Confess! With joy.
And be free.
Posted by Martine Oborne