A popular Lenten practice in recent years is the public penance services offered by many dioceses. Catholics are expected to avail themselves of the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a year and Lent seems an especially appropriate time because of the extra emphasis on penitential observances. Clusters of parishes, often the parishes of a single deanery, join together to offer a convenient way for the faithful to “go to confession.” These services are a quick and relatively painless way to meet the annual obligation confess serious sins. Because of the impulse to keep the lines moving, priests usually don’t take a lot of time with individual penitents nor do they impose heavy penances. For the faithful, the idea of talking to a priest other than the regular parish priest(s) can be very attractive.
Like many Catholics, I hate going to confession. All too often, there is a fear of retribution and punishment at the hands of an angry God (or worse, an angry, petty priest) rather than reconciliation and restoration. The practice of private confession we know today wasn’t always the norm. Confessing serious or mortal sins resulted in harsh, punitive, lengthy, and very public penances. And when those penances were complete, the penitent wasn’t always restored to a relationship with the Christian community. They were often forced to function outside the community. There was a lot of guilt and fear in that practice of sacramental penance. Drawing on their experience of the Desert Monastics, Irish monks came up with a different way.
Back to the Wilderness
If you were wondering when I was going to circle back around to the wilderness, here we are. The Desert Monastics lived outside the community, literally in the desert. (Even today, Eastern monasteries are situated in remote places.) Moreover, many of these early monastics were hermits: they lived by themselves with no community. Celtic Christian monastics felt a deep connection to the desert monastics, though far removed in time and geography. For them the coastlines and islands where they lived in community were just as isolated as the Egyptian. Early insular Christianity was centered around the monasteries that, like their earlier Eastern counterparts, functioned outside of the normal flow of life of the surrounding areas. The Irish monks, following long-held tradition, developed their own practice of confession, penance, and reconciliation
Healing, not Punishment
Unlike Roman law, pre-Christian Ireland’s legal system, what we know as the Brehon Laws, was a complex structure based on restoration, not retribution. Sure enough, actions that hurt oneself and/or another and damaged the community carried consequences if the person was caught: paying for or returning stolen livestock, or rebuilding/repairing property damage. But those consequences were meant to have a healing effect and to restore the criminal to the good graces of the community, to help them be better, what we now call restorative justice. Irish monastics followed this tradition when developing their own practice of sacramental reconciliation.
The Anamchara, or Soul Friend
Instead of harsh public penances which provided little or no healing or restoration, Irish monks developed a practice of confessing in private. Often a relationship developed between penitent and confessor developed, leading to the idea of an anamchara, or soul friend. This anamchara, who often served as a spiritual director, would listen to the confession and guide the penitent back into a right relationship with God and community. The whole point was healing, reconciliation, and restoral. This mainly happened within the monasteries but over time became available for everyone. The modern practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation took root in these practices, although not without opposition from continental Catholics.
Again, Confession, Ugh!
Unfortunately, many Catholics have experienced confession to be more punitive than restorative. Even worse, many priests approach confession as something to be checked off a task list as quickly as possible, imposing token penances like praying a certain number of Our Fathers or Hail Marys. In either case, there is no guidance nor any effort made to discern what needs to be done so that the penitent can make good on the promise in the Act of Contrition to sin no more and to avoid whatever leads to sin. I have experienced both of these first-hand, getting a stern lecture from one priest and another priest telling me he didn’t have the time to talk about my motivations or underlying causal patterns, and to go find a spiritual director. (Now that I look back on it, that last is probably good advice.)
Confession, not Ugh!
They say that confession is good for soul, and talking to someone about it certainly does help, but the healing and restoration that should come from sacramental confession is likely not going to happen with a priest who is trying to get through a line of people a half hour before Mass on Saturday (a line that gets really long close to Easter). In the Celtic Christian Church, of which I am a member, developing a relationship with a spiritual director/anamchara is encouraged. It’s expected of those of us in formation for Holy Orders. A relationship with a soul friend who can help navigate the perils of the wilderness can make all the difference.
Again, it’s a community that makes the wilderness bearable, even if it’s a community of you and your guide.
Blessings on your wilderness trek.