Restoration in the Wilderness

Confession, Ugh!

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

coast of Kerry, Ireland

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

Celtic Cross with triquetra symbol in the center and the word "anam cara" at the bottom

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.

Ash Wednesday: A Call to Repentance and Community

Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he,
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.
Perhaps he will again relent
and leave behind him a blessing,
Offerings and libations
for the LORD, your God.

Blow the trumpet in Zion!
proclaim a fast,
call an assembly;
Gather the people,
notify the congregation;
Assemble the elders,
gather the children
and the infants at the breast;
Let the bridegroom quit his room
and the bride her chamber.
Between the porch and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep,
And say, “Spare, O LORD, your people,
and make not your heritage a reproach,
with the nations ruling over them!
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?'”

Then the LORD was stirred to concern for his land
and took pity on his people.

Joel 2:12-18 – First Reading – Ash Wednesday

Our trek into the wilderness begins in earnest today with the observance of Ash Wednesday. Christians everywhere will show up to church to receive ashes on their foreheads as an outward sign that we are beginning a forty-day period of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, all focused on restoring our broken relationships with God and each other. What are you giving up for Lent is a commonly heard phrase, as are the interminable ads for Red Lobster, and MickeyD’s Filet O’ Fish sandwich.

As I was exploring the readings for today’s liturgy, I was struck by the communal aspect of these calls to fasting and repentance: assemble, gather, proclaim, public proclamation, cessation of everyday activities, public expressions of sorrow and repentance. This should provide a source of comfort and strength for us as we step off into the wild places. We don’t take this journey alone; God walks with us.

Todays’ prayers are all about repenting and turning to God for forgiving. I’ve touched on the corporate aspect, but we can’t forget our individual sins. We do have to acknowledge our own individual part in turning away from God and contributing to the pain and suffering of the world. In the Confiteor, we begin with I confess that I have sinned, through my own fault, my thoughts, my words, my deeds, what I have or have not done. Even there we are not alone; we invoke the presence the Blessed Virgin Mary, angels and saints, and the community here with us to pray for us. There is a lovely prayer that the Iona community in Scotland uses in its daily morning worship that speaks to all of this.

Trusting in God’s forgiveness,
Let us in silence confess our failings
And acknowledge our part in the pain of the world. (a short silence)

Before God,
With the people of God,
I confess to turning away from God
In the ways I wound my life, the lives of others
And the life of the world.

Iona Community

It’s time to take that first step into the dangerous desert places. We will be challenged, we will be afraid, we will face deprivation and hardship, we may find pain. Whatever we find, we will walk together, holding each other up and offering encouragement and strength as a community of believers following the Way of Jesus.

Daring to Follow Jesus into the Wilderness

Forty days and forty nights you were fasting in the wild …

— George Hunt Smyttan (1856)

These are the first lines of the Lenten hymn, Forty Days and Forty Nights. We sing these words early in the season, often on the first Sunday of Lent as we prepare to hear an account of Jesus going into the wilderness following his baptism. The hymn promises, in typical Catholic fashion, that if we faithfully commit to suffering in the wilderness with Jesus, we may appear with him at the “eternal Eastertide.”

We often sing another hymn, The Glory of these Forty Days, that alludes to the numerous instances of biblical folk entering the wilderness: Moses, Elijah, Daniel, John the Baptist, and of course, Jesus.

For centuries, Jesus’ trek into the wilderness has set the tone for Christians’ Lenten observances. Some might dismiss this idea as those silly Catholics being all into their suffering and guilt. While a lot of Catholic practice seems to glorify suffering, this is much more.

The wilderness is not a hospitable, comfortable place where we can feel safe and validated. It’s a dangerous place full of uncertainty, sharp edges, and hazards that will trip us up if we’re not aware. Why would anyone in their right mind want to go there?! If you read between the lines of the biblical narratives, those illustrious folks apparently didn’t go willingly: Moses and Elijah were driven into the wild by angry political leaders, Daniel was thrown into a den of lions for not bowing down in worship to a conquering king. We don’t really know much about why John the Baptist went into the wilderness; we just know he walked out of the wilderness afire with a message of a coming redeemer. The Gospel accounts tell us Jesus was driven by the spirit out into the wild.

The wilderness is daunting, and most of us probably wouldn’t even think of going there without a little, ahem, encouragement. It’s a place of deprivation and hardship that most of us try to avoid at all costs. We have enough writings from the saints to know that the experience is not a pleasant one, although a large part of the spirituality of the early Irish Christian was shaped by the lives of those we call the Desert Fathers (and Mothers). More about that in a later reflection.

For now, let’s take a long, hard look at the wilderness places God might be driving us to explore. Let’s try to enter the wilderness of Lent expecting that, though it will be challenging and sometimes feel impossible, we will come through on the other side with renewed spirits eager to share in the joys of Easter.

Blessings on your Lenten journeys.