Reflections on the Ritual of Confession and Reconciliation
by Carolyn W. Metzler
This article was developed from a letter to a young spiritual director.
You have asked me to explain this strange dialogue to you as a possible tool for your work as a spiritual director. You’ve been approached about this and want a more considered response. It’s very courageous for both you and your directee. Why would anyone intentionally expose the shameful actions and patterns of her life to another human being, receive that person’s response, and return to normal life, at peace with knowing that these secrets are now held by another? It is a strange, dangerous dialogue, not easily understood by a culture that masks flaws, wrinkles, fat, bald spots, age lines, and apologizes as little as possible. It is incomprehensible to a society that upholds righteousness and moral rectitude as the ideal in a person of faith. Alas, not many people willingly go into this spiritual nakedness.
Some might argue that this practice has no business being included in the work of spiritual direction, that this places too much power in the director. While I think there is very important caution there, much of what is spoken in a confession is actually already the subject of transformative spiritual direction. The whole relationship is built on and guided by vulnerable intimacy and trust. Spiritual directors have a valuable, relatively safe way of helping directees see, move through, and go beyond those things that bring them shame. So I am arguing that, carefully done, there is a place in spiritual direction for this kind of painful but healing exchange due to the profoundly intimate relationship.
My first experience with it was when I was twenty years old. I was babysitting a sweet child, the four-year-old daughter of agnostic parents. As I gave her a bath that evening, I was so filled with love for her that I impulsively “baptized” her. It felt like a gift I could give to her. When I mentioned the incident later to my partner, he blew up at me, blasting my theology, lack of community, not consulting parents—all of which were good points.
I was completely filled with shame. I could not escape this skin of stupidity that made my heart pound. Not knowing what else to do, I hauled myself off to a priest, a wise man who listened carefully, pointed out that the church’s theology of baptism invalidated what I had done anyway (which, in spite of myself, I found insulting!). “However,” he said, “you did what you did out of love for this child, and God is far more interested in that than in all our theology.” He absolved me. I laid it down and went on my way, freed from my shame by the reminder of love. (The other good thing that came from this is that I ditched the shaming boyfriend!) My relationship with confession had begun.
The traditional word for this exchange is confession. It is still often referred to in that way. But many faith communities these days call it reconciliation, shifting the emphasis from wallowing in our constant state of sin and unworthiness to being reconciled again to oneself, to the Holy One, and to the wider community.
What we receive when we hear a confession is a small piece of a much larger story—the corner of a tale within a greater narrative about how a human being, created in the image of the Holy One, struggles to come to fuller truth by naming what needs transforming within a life. We do not behave regrettably because we are bad; we behave so because we are complex creatures, often fearful and wounded. Thus, the stance for receiving this truth is reverence. We hold what is given in this naked truth-telling as a precious jewel, an offering of vulnerability and intimacy, and we must respond with honor, presence, and reverent love.
There are two levels to this. The first is the sacramental ritual—formal, intentional, prepared for, following some sort of liturgy. The roles of what are traditionally called “penitent” and “priest” or “confessor” are clear.
The second level is less formal, and you have already experienced this. The person receiving the vulnerable truth does not need to be clergy. Sometimes this is part of the conversation in spiritual direction. You slowly realize that what is being spoken to you is the shadow side of the human heart, the voice lowered, speaking the hard words of truth-telling that you would never want included in your Christmas card. The person speaking may not even realize what they are doing. They just know that the words emerging need to be said, that there is an urgency to speaking them in the presence of one they trust utterly, and that in that exchange there is a lightening of soul they had forgotten existed.
Both levels are sacred gifts. In your work as a spiritual director, Ben, you have heard several of these, and it spooked you because your training program did not include this work. That’s no surprise. Even seminaries preparing for ordination give reconciliation short shrift in the curriculum! I once made my confession to a priest—and had to coach him through the ritual even as we did it. It is a mystery to me why such a valuable spiritual tool is sliding into obscurity. So let’s look at it together.
As someone not affiliated with any faith tradition yourself, I imagine you might use different language here. The language might be different, but I only know how this is from within my own skin, which is as a Christian priest. So run my words through whatever inner translator works for your own situation.
Reconciliation is an act involving three persons: the penitent, the companion receiving the words (“confessor”), and the spirit calling us to deeper truth and wholeness. Anybody who is spiritually astute, is essentially unshockable, possesses the gift of compassion and discernment, and is a practitioner of this discipline herself can hear the confession of another. I do feel strongly that anybody who receives the confession of another should be practicing the discipline herself, similar to how you should not be a spiritual director unless you are also a directee. It is a matter of humility and integrity.
The sanctity of reconciliation lies in the fact that the central action is made not by the penitent nor by the companion but by the Holy One, who draws each person into a yearning to be reconciled; who shines light on all that needs to be addressed; who clues the companion into what needs to be turned over gently and examined; and who guides the response. It is Divine Love who enables the fullness of forgiveness and reconciliation, restoring the completeness of the sacred image in each person.
This is a part of what is generally called a spiritual discipline. It is one thing we can do to break through when we are spiritually stuck. It is a tool to help us restore right perspective to life, make amends, and go on. Sometimes we put way too much stress on our sin; sometimes we trivialize it. Neither extreme is helpful. Engaging in confession and forgiveness restores true perspective to the struggle with our inner brokenness. It moves us into a truer, deeper, more balanced, luminous spirituality, helping us begin to make the changes we know we need. Here, almost more than anywhere else, we know the truth of our brokenness and our innate goodness.
The setting for this holy exchange can be just about anywhere. We meet face to face, over an altar rail, in a restaurant, by a hospital bed, in living rooms, on park benches. Sometimes in airports, waiting to board. We respond to the proffered need before us. Sometimes we use a written formal ritual, sometimes we use a liturgy that the penitent has composed as part of the preparation, sometimes we use no liturgy at all. My own preference is to have the conversation first as spiritual direction, where the directee speaks what is troublesome, what the struggles are, and what will be disclosed, and we talk about it. After the conversation, we then do the ritual together, and by then the fear has settled down, the anxiety dissipated, and the way is open for love to speak those huge words that allow healing grace to wrap around us.
What we are considering is actually three parts of a whole: preparation (what the penitent does alone, prayerfully, in anticipation of speaking aloud), making confession (which involves the penitent speaking the prepared words to the confessor-director in a sacred context), and absolution or declaration of forgiveness (the radical acceptance of what has been spoken, restoring peace and wiping clean the moral slate). Each without the other is basically empty. I want to look at each of these, knowing that each will be shaped uniquely by the people engaged in the discipline.
Preparation for confession basically depends on content. If the prompt for doing this is a particular behavior, habit, event, or action that weighs heavily on one’s conscience, then the focus would be on that. This would involve naming the behavior or act and acknowledging sorrow for it. But it would also be useful to look beyond the act itself:
Why did I do it in the first place? Is this part of a larger pattern? What need is expressed by my doing this? What do I gain from it? What do I lose by it? How does it continue to affect me? How does it impact my relationships? How does it taint my life now? How does it skew my relationship with the Holy One? How does it influence my prayer life?
When I hear confessions, I care very little about what people say they’ve done. What is of great interest to me is: Why do they do it? What is the compulsion beneath the regretted actions? What is the fear? What is the deep wound that often is the motivator for our less noble actions? What needs deep healing here? A priest who used to hear our confessions in the convent (every week whether you needed it or not!) used to say, “Hearing the confessions of the Sisters of Saint Scrupulosity is like being stoned with popcorn.” Being a confessor and a penitent myself, I now understand he never went beneath the surface.
A nuance of this is unbalanced proportion, which tends to lean into addiction. Truth-telling here is acknowledging what is out sync, out of balance, out of appropriateness. If we realize that we are giving way too much time to an activity or an emotion, we are probably operating out of some unrecognized need. We may also be deep in shadow territory. We may be compulsively engaging in something distracting us from something else that is actually more needful. As a spiritual director, you can recognize this as a red flag when you see it in others. As a human being, you can recognize this as a red flag when you see it in yourself.
Ben, it is precisely the intensity and importance of this inner conversation that prompts one to engage with a trusted companion rather than a stranger, with someone who knows my worst and loves me anyway. That in itself is strengthening, since it drives away the “If you knew what I’m really like, you wouldn’t love me” bugaboo. Knowing that I am known and still loved is an experience of sheer grace. That’s not to say a complete stranger cannot do this also. And certainly, some people prefer that the person hearing their sordid admissions never cross their path again! But I believe there is value in doing this in the context of an ongoing, trusted relationship.
Of course it is also possible to do this alone. Helpful disciplines such as a simplified Ignatian examen—”Where did I love, where was I loved, where did I refuse to love?” (Linn, Linn, and Linn, 2)—practiced regularly, can open in us consciousness of ways in which we fail love daily. It is deepening consciousness for which we are striving. But personally, I find that the solitary examinations I do and then address in personal prayer rarely bring me to the kind of completion and freedom that face-to-face confession offers. There is something about hearing the words of forgiveness spoken, the weight of a hand on my head in blessing, that does not happen for me alone. Alone I can never quite get past the secret fear that I’m making all this up and nobody is actually listening.
Preparation can also be done with someone else, addressing these things together. Sometimes the work of preparation takes several conversations, wherein the whole thing is laid out for courageous scrutiny and reflecting. After that kind of work, the actual confession becomes the formalizing of this inner work, which has already been done. When a family member was working on a twelve-step program, he did the fourth step with his sponsor—“Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”—before the fifth step—“Making Confession.” That is pretty much the same process as I am relating here. I love the words searching and fearless. We can do this because we do it in love, with love, for love, no matter how painful it might be. Or, as my favorite Hasidic proverb goes, “The truth will make you free!! But first—it will make you miserable!”
Sometimes the prompt for confession rises out of a general need to start anew, as we generally do at the beginning of major seasons like Advent or Lent, at certain occasions like birthdays (especially those that end with zeros), or before embarking on a difficult thing, when one just wants to begin clean. Sometimes the prompt rises out of a general discontent, an uneasy sense that things ought to be other than how they are. In either case, the preparation is more general. One looks at the whole of one’s life and names the debilitating events and patterns in relationships, at work, in discipline or lack thereof, in our handling of money, abuse of power, sexuality, change, fear, conflict, and the like.
The penitent makes a list of everything she wants to bring before the light of truth. I find it helpful to do this in categories, so, knowing I am not unique, here is my own “sin list”: How do I fail personal relationships? How do I fail leadership? What are the ways I abnegate responsibility? What are the ways I delude myself? What are the temptations that draw me from consciousness of my true life in the Holy? What are the ways I attempt to control or manipulate others? Where have my responses been out of proportion to a situation? What does that say? Where have I been ruled by fear? How do I project an egocentric image to the world (masked as humility, of course)? How do my less loving actions impact my heart life?
And so on. One thing is true—we will never remember it all. Thus, some liturgies might include this comforting loophole: “For these and all other sins I cannot now remember.…” In divine grace, even the forgotten ones come under the compassionate and merciful umbrella of intentionality.
I want to look at “sin” also. I share with you my sin list here, not because I am an exhibitionist, but because I hear them so often I know my list is not particularly unique or scandalous. I have rarely heard a confession I, myself, have not made. So what is it we need to look at in ourselves when we fall on our knees?
I have come to think of sin simply as a failure to love. When I hold myself back from giving care to others, be it a stranger on the street or my family, I fail love. When I hold resentments, nurse grudges, or rehearse my grievances against someone, I fail love by not moving beyond the hurt. When I make snap judgments about other people based on their appearance or make assumptions about their motives because they are not doing what I want them to do, I am failing in love because I am not trying to see them the way Divine Love sees them. When I tell little lies to place myself in a more advantageous position or when I play out of my wise-guru-priest fantasy, I fail love, which is always truthful. When I choose to play Spider Solitaire instead of going into prayer, I fail to nurture the relationship with the Holy. When I give over my power to an addiction, be it work or thrift shops, I fail to love myself with integrity. When I’m shabby in friendship with my nearest and dearest, I fail to honor the gift of love offered me through these people. When I beat myself up for not being perfect, I fail the love of Holy grace. You get the idea. These are the sorts of things I write on my list to share with my confessor.
Then there are what I call the “sins of default,” where I participate in, benefit from, and support a racist, consumer society that rapes the Earth and exists on the backs of the poor and afflicted all over the world. The penitent is not personally responsible for those things but does participate in them, like it or not, just by virtue of being a citizen and consumer. I pay taxes that support drones that kill innocent people. I may oppose the laying of pipelines through sacred lands but need oil for my car to get to the protest rallies. I am a citizen of a nation that executes people in all our names. I am lulled by compassion fatigue into apathy about the needs of those I refuse to see. I accept a normalcy of insane priorities that threatens our planet. My carbon footprint contributes to the demise of millions of species.
Where do we go with these heartaches? I don’t know. But I believe they, too, are failures in love of justice, failures to “respect the freedom and dignity of all human beings,” a vow from my baptismal covenant. I may not be able to change any of them in my lifetime, but I can begin by naming them and my compliance with them, my benefiting from them because I happen to be a wealthy, white person, privileged with a U.S. passport. These sins of default are “the evil done on our behalf,” as one of our liturgies says. The benefit of speaking these evils out loud is that doing so keeps us mindful of them, of our unwilling participation in them, and of our need to stand publicly against them. Consciousness of what breaks our hearts open teaches us what needs to be lamented.
Making confession is speaking the words either from a chosen liturgy or one that can be written by the penitent as part of the preparation. It includes the reading of “the list” and listening to whatever words of counsel the companion director might give in this work. The speaking of the list aloud is important because it makes the named actions and patterns very sharp and real to us, and to do it in this semipublic way with one other also makes it heart-thumpingly real.
People who come from liturgical traditions generally have a Prayer of Confession read corporately in the context of communal liturgy. This is important because it sets the reality of our brokenness before us in the worship and reminds us of our constant need for grace and mercy. It also allows us to receive the forgiveness of God in the ritual. But it is also easy just to gloss over it all and speak without attention or intention. The grace of forgiveness may not mean much, because rattling off the prescribed words does not cost us anything. Doing this one-on-one with a trusted confessor-director is difficult and forces us to grapple with the brokenness of our being. We must look at it squarely, recognize it, and own it. The martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about confession in his little gem Life Together:
While it is always possible to deceive oneself, it is much more difficult to do so in a participatory relationship.
In spiritual direction, the setting for such exchange will be what is familiar. I make sure we will not be interrupted, light candles, and sometimes wear a purple stole. I make sure the seating is appropriate for the occasion—sometimes facing each other, sometimes side by side facing an altar or sacred object. I always meet the person at the door, welcoming them, offering tea, easing the tension as best I can. It is, at the last, an exchange of joy, and so I offer whatever supports joy.
A bit about the difference between shame and guilt. Shame is hopelessness about who I am. Guilt is regret about what I did, and sorrow is about my habits that corrode my relationships with all, including myself. The bite of conscience needs to be about changing my attitudes and behavior, not about who I am. Shame wants to negate myself as being unredeemable, unworthy to live and move and have being in this world. There is nothing holy about shame. Shame is debilitating. The late psychologist author Alice Miller calls this “soul murder” as it shuts down the authentic self.
The very foundation of the work of reconciliation is our inherent belovedness, which cannot be obliterated by anything we think, do, feel, or imagine. We are created good, and the Creator will never cease to love us no matter how we fail. So we are never stuck in the old egoic patterns because this work always allows us to begin again—new, fresh, a new creation. It is precisely our awakening consciousness to our failures to love that, with work and grace, allow for transformation.
Speaking the words one has prepared is nasty business. Personally, I hate doing this. I’d much rather people think I’m a wise, holy person who prays all the time, floats a few inches off the ground, and has a direct line to the Holy One. But I know how false and dangerous that image is, not only for others to believe but also for my own spiritual health. So as much as I don’t like doing this, it has to be done (by me). Confessing as a penitent reminds me that I am only a sister sojourner on the way, not the perfect guru who has no need of grace, forgiveness, or God. At the same time, it also reminds me that I am created in the very image of Holy Love and that nothing I can say or do can remove that stamp of belonging. It is a gift to being able to companion people through their own struggle because doing so also calls me to accountability, both for the sordidness of my life and the grace of it. From either side of the altar rail, reconciliation is healing in a way that, against all odds, restores our wholeness and brings peace.
The response of the confessor-director is a crucial part of the exchange. This person must be a compassionate listener. At this point, the penitent does not need a lecture on how important it is to change his ways. The companion recognizes the courage and determination to change, to turn again (metanoia) back to love, and respects the humility that brought the penitent to this moment in the first place. The confessor-director may respond to what has been spoken and pick out some particular aspect that needs addressing. Then he offers hope, perspective, and encouragement and reframes the life of the penitent in the larger arena of wonder, goodness, fellowship, and belovedness. The vulnerability of the moment may tempt the confessor-director to trivialize or minimize what has been offered: “Oh, that’s nothing!” This would be an act of spiritual violence bringing further shame. The words offered must be received and honored as offered.
The confessor-director may also suggest some action to perform that is appropriate to the context of the confession and will help guide the penitent in the struggle. This is not a punishment. This needs to be a way of helping this person on the journey, given what has been shared. Sometimes it can simply be an act of thanksgiving. Perhaps it is a piece of reading or writing. Sometimes it might be appropriate to seek reconciliation with one who has been hurt. It needs to reclaim consciousness of our original wholeness in the Holy.
In rare cases, such as crimes, the confessor-director may suggest that the person do something to take legal responsibility. It could be returning something that has been wrongfully taken or offering recompense for a harm done. In this case, the confessor-director might offer personal support accompanying the penitent through the process ahead.
Absolution or Declaration of Forgiveness
Absolution is the immersion into grace. It is what melts away the guilt, the shame, the remorse of broken relationships. These words of forgiveness deepen in our consciousness the gift of grace, which makes us whole. All we need to do is feel and pray our sorrow and repentance from the privacy of our beds, and forgiveness happens. But the thing is, we often don’t believe it ourselves. We so often hold onto our shame or, with inverted pride, believe our sin is so great even God will never forgive us. Sometimes we believe that we are so bad, we deserve every bad thing that happens to us for the rest of our lives. This is a dangerous spiritual rut, an arrogance in itself, and a form of self-deception as perilous as that of believing we have no sin. As spiritual directors, we need to be alert to when we see this happening.
Absolution is the pronouncement of forgiveness by an ordained priest, and the declaration of forgiveness is spoken by a lay person. Both are effective when the relationship grounds those words in trusted truth. The distinction is a nuanced understanding of the nature of ordination, not the subject of this letter. Both basically perform the same purpose, with the same ultimate result.
The actual hearing of these words spoken over us is powerful. There are many variations of the words. When desired, the words are said with some kind of physical contact: usually a hand on the head, or holding of the hand—whatever the two participants determine they want ahead of time. I often also anoint the person with oil. I use chrism, the oil of baptism, as a reminder of our identity rooted in the Holy, but any fragrant oil will do. With the oil, I sign their forehead with a cross, circle, dot, or whatever symbol is meaningful to them. Sometimes I anoint their senses and hands also to remind them to use their whole bodies in the service of love. It is not magic; it just adds dignity to the exchange, lending credence to its validity and effectiveness.
When all is said and done, penitent and companion both go on to resume life. The difference is that the person who has confessed can know in every fiber of her being that whatever went before has no moral power over the present any longer. There may be changes that need to be made. The penitent will probably never forget what has transpired, and that’s all right. We cannot change what has been. The point is the guilt is gone. The relationship with the Holy, oneself, and the faith community is restored.
It takes courage to look into the dark places; it takes courage also to go into the fullness of our belovedness, to “abide in my love,” to live as one set free for love. I recently came across a prayer—on Facebook of all places—that stopped me in my tracks: “Lord, give me the courage to see myself as I truly am, no matter how beautiful.”
One of the graces of reconciliation is that the person who hears a confession forgets what has been said. We don’t forget this has happened, but the content vanishes. I find it often vanishes before even the end of the ritual. What remains is the appreciation and deep respect for the hard work that has been done, and for the individual who cares enough to take this difficult journey. No mention is ever made of the exchange again by the confessor, who lives in the close knowledge that we all betray our truest selves. All this is absolutely sealed and confidential. No one is ever told by the confessor-director that the event even happened. No record is kept of the exchange.
The desire to clean out one’s interior house and restore order, perspective, and wholeness in one’s spiritual life is profoundly faithful in and of itself. Whether it comes to this kind of ritual or not, the content of a confession is often the content of spiritual direction held in sacred confidentiality. Confession and reconciliation are valuable tools for releasing the heavy guilt and sadness of our troubled lives and being restored to the fullness of beloved community. It is to be entered into voluntarily, never coerced. It is to be undertaken prayerfully, never flippantly. And it is to be received as a holy gift, never an abasement to be lorded over.
At its conclusion, both penitent and companion give thanks together for this gift of grace. I love the words “Go (abide) in peace.” Grace and wholeness happen again, and we go on as beloved in all our messy humanity. As Julian of Norwich has said so wonderfully, “First there is the fall. Then there is the rising from the fall. Both are the grace and mercy of God!”
So, my dear brother Ben, I can understand your being “spooked” by the weightiness of the conversation into which you were invited by this spiritual directee. But I say to you, be not afraid. You are a man of humility, of care, of wisdom. You are compassionate in every cell of your being. You are doing your own hard work. Go on walking beside this person. All you need to do is to love this person, listen with all the goodness of your heart, keep perspective, and be in continual prayer for the spiritual directee you are serving and for yourself, allowing yourself to be a channel of grace as you so often are. I will be praying for you also as you give yourself to this work.
And pray for me, a sinner.
Note: I wish to thank spiritual directors Margaret Gunnell and Ruth Baker for their invaluable help sorting through the sticky wickets of this article.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009.
Linn, Dennis, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn. Belonging: Bonds of Healing and Recovery. New York: Paulist Press, 1993.
Carolyn W. Metzler is in liminal space as she has recently retired from her position as spiritual director for the Living School for Action and Contemplation. She is a weaver and is working on a book on wilderness spirituality. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lisa Palchick graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in painting, an MA in education, and an MA in communications from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA. Lisa is now a working artist and a spiritual director and is affiliated with the Spirituality Network, Columbus, Ohio, USA. Contact Lisa at email@example.com.