Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Why AA Works! The Value of Daily Non-Sacramental Confession and House Groups, Part 1: Avoiding Scrupulosity

This posting is in two parts. In this first one, I consider the value of regular detailed confession both outside and inside the Catholic Church as evidenced by my own experiences. In the second part, which will appear on Thursday, I consider the value of the process of confession for others, such as addicts and alcoholics in 12-step fellowships, and alcoholics in England in the 18th century whose reform came through tthe spiritual method of John Wesley and the Methodist Church. Then I consider why, given the effectiveness of these personal and lay practices of confession, we Catholics need to go to confession in the church at all, and whether Catholics should consider creating home groups of the sort seen in protestant churches today.
Bill Wilson and Bob Smith were Protestants who founded Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930s. Under their inspiration, thousands of gatherings take place weekly in which a program that contains a systematic approach to confession allows alcoholics to recover from their addiction.
I began a process of daily examination of conscience long before I became Catholic and made my first confession to a priest. I did this as part of a series of spiritual exercises given to me by a Catholic layman, which are described in my book The Vision for You, and the sense of freedom it gave me was dramatic. As I result, I came to the point where I couldn’t imagine a happy life without incorporating such a process into my life.

In light of this positive experience, the insistence upon the need for confession was one of my main reasons for later becoming Catholic. There were a number of other reasons, but the most important was not one of them; only after becoming Catholic did I come to understand that it is the worship of the Father, through the Son in the Spirit that crystallizes what the Church is and my part in it, and that this is what opens the door to the fullness of joy available to me as a Catholic. The gradual realization of this came in part through my experience of being a worshipping Catholic, and partly through continued reading and study of what the Faith is. However, it was my appreciation of the value of this lesser sacrament that it became a sign of a hierarchy of sacraments, of which the pinnacle is the Eucharist.

I reflected recently on just how much the Sacrament of Reconciliation was a sign that directed me to the Sacrament of Sacraments when I was asked questions about the value of a daily personal review of conscience. These questions came from Catholics who are already participating in the Sacrament on a regular basis, and are going through The Vision for You process. Many heard about it after I gave a series of presentations on the VfY spiritual exercises for the Institute of Catholic Culture, and were worried that a daily review of conscience might encourage scrupulosity. This worry about scrupulosity typically seems to arise from two aspects of the Vision for You spiritual exercise in particular.

The first is that it guides us to look at our consciences in such great detail. If I am going to analyze every minor feeling of guilt and unhappiness and attribute them to sin, then the worry is that searching for them unearths and magnifies these things unduly, and I spend my life preoccupied with minor emotions unnecessarily.

The second is that by ascribing all unhappiness to sin, as the Vision for You spiritual exercises do, it seems to be saying that we are to be blamed for our own unhappiness. Surely, people respond, I can’t help being unhappy? This seems to be a double whammy, they would say: not only am I unhappy, but it seems to be telling me that my unhappiness is my fault, which makes me feel guilty for being unhappy. This just serves to intensify my unhappiness even more.

As Catholics we are required to go to the Sacrament of Confession a minimum of once a year, but how necessary is it theologically and what is the relation of the sacrament to personal and lay confessions?
My experience with this process is that it does not encourage scrupulosity at all, but gives greater freedom and greater happiness. I will deal with these points one at a time in explaining why I think this has been the case for me, and so can be for others too.

1. A daily and detailed examination of conscience
One of the luxuries of the VfY process is the ability to address the minor sins as well as the major ones. I would say that, provided that the sins we highlight are true, acknowledging them and asking for forgiveness is a good thing, which gives us a clearer conscience and a closer relationship with God. Other things being equal, this increases happiness and holiness.

The danger for me is not when I confess such sins, but when I do so with a lack of faith in God’s love and mercy. It is almost impossible for me to fully grasp what infinite love and mercy can be like. The tendency, as a fallen person, therefore, is to create a false God in my own image. Just as I struggle to forgive others, I start to doubt that God forgives me. To overcome this doubt, I might start to assume that forgiveness depends upon the quality of my confession in a false, perhaps even neurotic way. This has led at times to my anxiously presenting the same sin in several different ways or in unnecessary detail, so as to ensure forgiveness by making sure nothing is left out. This is tantamount to my trying to manipulate God, or the priest into forgiving me through the sheer effort and care I put into a confession.

I realize now that this is not necessary. I only have to do my best to explain the nature of it briefly and succinctly, and God will forgive me if I am sincere. When I do my daily examination of conscience at home, I try to make each request for forgiveness brief, to the point, and done once. Then I draw a line under each item and move on. To be preoccupied with my sins afterward only serves to increase my self-centeredness and to separate me from God. This is the hope of the devil who wants to reduce my capacity to serve God and others happily.

The Good Shepherd, wall painting from the catacombs, c200AD
With this in mind, I thought you might be interested in a letter from my pastor encouraging us to Confession and what he was expecting from us. This is a Melkite Catholic church:
Dear St. Elias Faithful,

With the new year before us and all of us trying to clean up and have a fresh start, we should also have a desire to cleanse our souls and have a fresh start spiritually through the reception of the Holy Mystery of Reconciliation. This is a wonderful Mystery (Sacrament) and goes by different names: Confession, Penance, Reconciliation. I like the last one since it best describes this Mystery, but whatever the case, it is important to understand what it does. It is, in essence, a restoration of our baptismal grace and thus a reconciliation of our relationship with God.
Have you ever wished you could be re-baptized and start all over again? Well, this is what this Mystery provides, a renewal of God’s life-giving life within us. Some of you are in the habit of receiving this Mystery weekly. This is excellent. But if you are unable, due to time, you should at least come once a month, and as an absolute minimum, once a year! If you haven’t been for a few years then it's time to get washed and clean things up!
I always try to provide an opportunty for this Mystery before the Divine Liturgy each Sunday. So if you would like to receive it, try to come at least a half-hour before. That will help ensure that you have a chance. Sometimes the lines can be quite long so don't wait until the last minute. But if you miss that chance then let me know when you receive the antidoron (bread after Divine Liturgy) and I’ll make sure to stay in the church afterward for you. When you do come up for the Mystery, I will be standing just to the left of the cross. I leave the space in front of the cross open for you. Come right up and stand next to me while facing the cross. When you come I will immediately begin praying with you the penitent's prayer: “O God be propitious to me a sinner and have mercy on me.” Together, we will say this three times with bows while making the sign of the cross. I am saying this with you as a fellow sinner. So this is a prayer you should be saying as well.
Next, I will bless you making the sign of the cross over your head and say, “Have you asked Jesus for the forgiveness of any sins you may have committed.” The hoped-for response is, “Yes,” since before you come to this Mystery you should have already asked God for forgiveness of whatever sins you have on your conscience.
I will then ask, “Are there any sins you feel you need to confess at this time?” I am saying this because, while we all have many sins that we deal with on a regular basis, there are usually some that stand out and it is for these reasons that you are probably coming for reconciliation. So, the answer would be, “Yes, I........etc.” This is when you explain to me the more significant things with which you are struggling. There is no need to get into major details but just enough for me to understand some of the issues so that I can offer some help. But the basic principle regarding details here is: less is better. I’ll ask if I need to know more.
I will then attempt to give you some recommendations, maybe it is some advice about the issues, maybe it is a Scripture passage to read, or maybe it is about improving your fasting as a way to increase your willpower to resist temptation. After I have given you the recommendations, then I will say, “Now bow down your head and pray for God's blessing.”
You then bow toward the cross and I will put my epitrachelion (stole) over your head and say, depending on time, a long or short variation of the following prayer, “As God, through the hand of Nathan the prophet, forgave David when he confessed his sins, so may the same God, through the hand of me a sinner, forgive you all the sins which you have confessed in this life and in the world to come and cause you to stand uncondemned before his awesome judgment seat.”
I will then make the sign of the cross over your head and remove the epitrachelion saying, “Now having no further care for the sins which you have confessed, depart in peace.” At this point, it is traditional to kiss the cross on the epitrachelion and then the hand of the priest and embrace as a sign of your reconciliation to God. As you depart I will ask you to pray for me. Please remember to do so since I also am a sinner!
I recommend starting out this year with the Holy Mystery of Reconciliation. You never know when it will be your last year to do so.
May God grant you a happy, healthy, and HOLY New Year!
In Christ,
2. Unhappiness is caused by sin
One of the great blessings of the VfY spiritual exercises is to be able to analyze all my unhappiness and to see that it arises from my sinful tendencies. In my experience, every unhappy thought can be attributed to a selfish response to events around me. This can be manifested as resentment about past events, in the form of anger, irritation, annoyance against others, and guilt, remorse, and shame about my own past actions and thoughts. Or in fear and anxiety, which occur when we anticipate that something unpleasant will happen in the future. Such fear and anxiety can be attributed to the same self-centered impulses.
The Penitent St Peter, by Jose Ribera, Spanish, 17th century. 
Many who go through the Vision for You process say to me that while they acknowledge these reactions and see that they arise from self-centeredness, they say also such reactions are not voluntary, and so they feel that it is somehow unjust to call them sins. This arises from a misunderstanding, which I once held also, that all sin arises from voluntary actions. In fact, sin is any disruption to our relationship with God and can be voluntary or involuntary. If we accept that happiness arises from a union with God, then we must accept that unhappiness arises from separation from God and therefore that sin, defined as any rupture to our relationship with God, is the cause of all unhappiness. While it is vital to acknowledge willful acts of sin, many of our sins are involuntary too - they are instinctive and self-centered reactions to events around us.

In this sense, we are like sheep who stray from the flock and so the watchful eye of its shepherd. No shepherd blames such a sheep for being disobedient or blameworthy, but that doesn’t save it from danger. As the desire for greener pastures causes the sheep to drift away from safety, concupiscence causes our drift from God. When we recognize this and ask for mercy from sins voluntary, involuntary, known and unknown, reconciliation with the Good Shepherd is always given.

This is part of the tradition of the Church. For example, the Estonian theologian, Fr Alexander Schmemann (d.1983) describes in his book Of Water and the Spirit - A Liturgical Study of Baptism the prayers for the mother of a newborn child in the Orthodox liturgical rite of the first day. The second prayer has the words,
…show mercy also upon this Thy servant, who today has borne this child; and forgive her sins, both voluntary and involuntary and preserve her from every oppression of the Devil.
Eastern Christians, I am told, habitually thank God for all of His blessings, both known and unknown, and for the forgiveness of all of sins, known and unknown, voluntary and involuntary. I am not aware of this happening in the Roman Church in the same way, (but am happy to be told otherwise).

As with all sin, we have not harmed a God who can never be harmed, but we have harmed ourselves by damaging our relationship with Him. Many times we are doing things that are destructive to that relationship but don't actually realize it. The requests for forgiveness are a request for reconciliation with God. When thought of in this way, the unhappiness we feel is a sign that tells us that we are drifting away from God, and so we should be grateful for it as much as the release from the unhappiness that occurs with reconciliation. The need for forgiveness reflects the fact that harm has been done, but not whether or not that harm was caused voluntarily or involuntarily.

What a blessing it is to be aware of this and to be reconciled with God as a result.

Part Two on Thursday....
Megachurches build community by breaking up into many home groups that meet during the week and provide opportunities for confession and fellowship in the manner of the old Methodists, perhaps this is a model that Catholic parishes should encourage. I discuss this next week.

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