February 20, 2009

Things I've Learned as a Confessor

As time goes on, I hear more and more confessions. I wasn't a priest for four hours before my first penitent appeared, and it has been pretty constant ever since. It's a beautiful ministry and I enjoy it, but it has real challenges. Raised in the therapeutic model, I think we are taught to engage in thoughtful and sustained analysis and archaeology when it comes to reflecting on the movements of the inner person. In confession, by contrast, the confessor must do several things very quickly. He has to diagnose the guilt of the person, often choosing (or letting the penitent choose) among several self-accusations. He must then quickly and succinctly suggest how Sacred Scripture and the tradition of ascetical theology speaks of hope, encouragement, and possibilities for amendment.

One thing you notice right away as a confessor is that there are many devout and thoughtful Christians who struggle terribly and with great guilt over habitual sins that have become very ingrained in their daily lives. Many times these might be sins of speech, like speaking without thinking, cursing or "taking the Lord's name in vain," or they might be sins against chastity or "purity." Sometimes such sins are intrinsically serious, but not all serious matter is serious sin.

The question that arises for me is the problem of locating guilt. I'm beginning to think that when otherwise serious Christians have their prayer and devotion hampered by bad or sinful habits, it may be a mistake to concentrate prayer and ascetical effort on the sinful behavior itself. As Sun-Tzu put it, the best thing is not to attack the enemy, but to attack the enemy's strategy.

This is to say that for Christians who struggle with patterns of habitual sin, the project before them is perhaps not to "cut it out" or "just try harder," but to examine the remainder of their lives surrounding the sin to discover the occasions of the sin and what the sin (falsely) claims to do for them (that is, it's (mal) function). Thus the project goes from negative to positive, from stopping a behavior to re-organizing daily life in order to both reduce occasions of sin and to fulfill spiritual desires well before they turn to the maladaptive behaviors that produce misery and the feeling of alienation from God.

(In the name of honesty, I have to admit that before I was in religious life I spent five years working in a group home in which a large part of my job was to do Applied Behavior Analysis. So I guess some of it stuck. Hey, I'm allowed to plunder the Egyptians.)


Lynn said...

From my own experience as a penitent, I agree. It is not so useful to reconfess the same things unless my confessor/director is helping me go a step deeper, to treat the manifest sin as a symptom rather than an end in itself. Skilled confessors are a tremendous blessing. Thank you for all you do.

Lee Strong said...

I find when my mind strays into troubling areas that I get relief by reciting the Jesus Prayer. It gets me focussing on God rather than the thoughts. Over time, I've been dwelling on those thoughts - which surface spontaneously - less and less.

qualcosa di bello said...

my eternal soul thanks you for this!!!

Jeanne said...

I liked this post a lot, and hope you'll write more - with directions attached for helping us all improve our lot and grapple with habitual sin.