Rules for confession in the Roman Catholic church:

Step One: Get Acquainted

1. Examine your conscience.
2. Make a list (use pen & pad if needed) of all your mortal sins committed since your last confession. You may also confess venial sins, but the priest will think you are a brown-noser. If you're not sure if something you've done is a sin, check your prayer book. Many contain a special list of sins for easy reference.
3. If this is your first confession since baptism you will have a hell of a lot of territory to cover. If you have converted recently, you only need to confess sins committed since your baptism/conversion.
4. Do not be alarmed if your confession runs over 30 minutes, your priest is probably used to it by now.
5. Don't worry if you can't remember all of your sins but DO NOT leave out sins on purpose. Big no no.
6. Confession can be heard anywhere, as long as it is in person with a priest (no, not the Sinead O'Conner kind either!)

Step Two: Cleaning Your Nasty Soul

1. Do something to let the priest know you are ready to begin. Usually this means crossing yourself and saying "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen"
2. The priest will bless you and read some encouraging Scripture.
3. If you want to be a traditionalist, you can say "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." Then let the priest know approx. how long it has been since your last confession.
4. Name those sins. The priest may stop you frequently to clarify details or offer advice. Let him know when you are finished.
5. The priest will give you a penance-- which is something you must do to show you regret your sin. It could be something like reciting prayers or reading Bible passages.
6. Make an act of contrition. That is, ask God to forgive you, tell Him you are sorry...and mean it.
7. The priest will absolve you and say : "God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
8. Say "Amen". Thank the priest and leave. Be sure to do your penance ASAP.
9. Walk out the door and enjoy your sin free life...while it lasts.

I read this essay for a class presentation on Monday. It's probably worth mentioning that the class was Interdisciplinary Studies 4200: Non-Western Spiritual Landscapes. Each member of the class threw together a presentation on spiritual exploration, from the dry and academic to the downright weird. The other night we had our last class and the last of these presentations at my professor's house, a full six-and-a-half hours of genuinely blissful classtime. Mostly. The highlights from Wednesday:
  • The worst of them had a mentally unstable quasi-hippie playing the worst recorder medley ever in the throes of pathological liarhood and New Age spiritualist crap. Then-keep in mind we're in a professor's house-she whips out a pipe and packs it with sage and other assorted herbal goodies (hackcoughsputter), all of which were legal. Trouble is, she smokes pot out of this bowl, too. Sigh. Some people.
  • The best: The shyest girl in the world also has the most beautiful voice. It's liquid music. Which is convenient, because she sang the most beautiful Billie Holiday song...You see, she couldn't get up the nerve to do it, but she wanted to so badly she could feel the notes in her chest. So she went into the bathroom to do a few of her meditations, and emerged a few minutes later. She was just standing there in the doorway, leaning against the jamb, as though she wasn't the center of attention. As though she had just stopped by. And she opened her mouth wide. My, it is lovely to swim in others' music.
Anyhow, the piece that follows was fairly well-received with the class. Keep in mind while reading it that it was meant to be read aloud to a group of people of relative familiarity to me. (And no, I detect no irony in the fact that I've posted it here.)


I used to be Catholic. In the eyes of the Church, I suppose that I remain so. I have not participated in the conventions of Catholicism in years, except in the most perfunctory sense. And confession? I've never really confessed my sins before, and as far as confessing to a priest, I won't do it. He'd only clear my name with a god in which I don't believe. I don't think confession is a bad idea, though. In fact, I think it's a rather good one. I'm sure most of you know the cathartic effects confession can have. After some thought on the matter, I have decided to make you my captive confessors. You'll do as well as any priest, I expect. Better, in fact, because I expect no absolution from you. You are not required to forgive me for anything. You are encouraged to think of me what you will, and if after I am done you think less of me than when I began, then so be it. What I'm saying isn't being said for your sake.

This is not meant to be a Catholic sort of confession. I do not intend to sort out my sins between the venial and the mortal. Further, I do not consider what I have to confess "sin" in the sense of which you are probably thinking. When I use that word, "sin", I mean sins against myself, and not any god. Perhaps a better term might be "little death". Yes, that is what I shall call the things I have to confess. Collections of little deaths. Some clarification is in order, I suppose.

I believe in the existence of my soul. I am pretty sure I believe in the existence of yours. I believe that these souls of ours are manifest in our flesh, that they would not be souls without bodies. There is no separation between mind and body, no distinct essence at which any of you might point and say, "That. That is a soul, and that is a body." Unless you are already bored and staring off into space, you are looking at a part of my soul, and I am looking at a part of yours. It is in my eyes, my smile, my posture, and my words. Anytime you commit me to memory you tuck away a little of my soul and keep it somewhere in yours, and I do the same for you. It's how we manage to live forever. It doesn't matter if you believe this or not as long as you, in your role as my confessors, understand that I do.

I believe as well that souls need nourishing. Part of this is the chemistry of our bodies and the things we put in them to alter that chemistry, of course. Part is what we put in our minds, and there is no clear line between this chemistry, this body-food, and this mind-food. The people with whom we surround ourselves feed our minds. The things we do in order to survive, the ordinary even more so than the extraordinary, feed our minds. The choices we make as well as those we don't. Dreams-they feed our minds. The places we live, the places we go, the places we hold dear. When our souls are well fed, we thrive. We are happy, creative, productive.

It is hard to starve a soul. There is always something to feed it. Problems arise when your soul food (pun very much intended) consists of nothing but empty calories. The same things that are true of our bodies are true of our souls. There is a common sense adage from the world of computer programming that applies here: garbage in, garbage out. In the case of souls, some modification is required: garbage in results in a little death.

A little death: a hollowing, a reduction of the soul. Not the death, the Big Death, mind you, but one like it in everything but scale and the fact that no little death is inherently good. A little death is a warping of one's being, a movement from that which we should be towards that which we must never become, lest we lose all sense of just what it means to be a human animal. A violation of ideals. Each one of these little deaths maims the soul, and if you're listening to your soul closely when one happens, you might hear your soul cry out. They're different for everyone, of course, just as everyone's ideals vary somewhat. Some are damned near universal-murder comes to mind. Little deaths are something of which we are all guilty, but you should not be ashamed. Angry, perhaps, but not ashamed. Shame is hardly a productive emotion. No degree of shame will negate a little death, but enough constitutes yet another one.

A little death is forever. There is no changing that which has happened, and thus no real sense in regret. Amelioration: this is sensible. This is productive. Little deaths are tools more than anything else. The trick is to make them work.

So, confessors, I think you have an idea of what I would like to say. But, for the sake of clarity, I'll say it in twenty-five words or less: you are about to hear my big little deaths, the collections of a good person who has done some bad things that need setting straight. One more thing before we move on to the relevant parts:

While I have taken the Catholic sacrament of confession as the inspiration for this confession of mine, this is not a Catholic ritual by any means. Obviously. There is no screen here separating our faces. I considered the possibility of doing this sans clothing, as it seems appropriate that if I am going to attempt here to bare my soul, warts and all, I should bare my skin as well (virtually wart-free, by the way). You may be relieved or disappointed: I will not be gettin' nekkid, as they say around here, because of the implications it might have for our noble instructor, for myself, and for the students in this class who might be offended by me in all my glory. I'm far too modest for that sort of thing anyway. Another difference I find crucial to what's going on here is that you will not be offering me absolution, and neither will the Father, the Son, and/or the Holy Ghost. There will be no Hail Mary after this performance, no Our Father, and no Apostolic Creed. I am my only source of absolution. I am the only one who can take the little deaths and refashion them into lessons, run them through my soul again, and hope for better.

Now, the hard part: the little deaths themselves.

The first: alcohol. I think it's a contributing factor in many of my problems, to a degree that I'm almost unwilling to admit to myself. Every time I pour a drink these days, it is a little death. You heard it here first: I have a drinking problem. When I drink, I drink to get drunk. There's nothing wrong with this, per se, so long as it is occasional. At our age, every weekend might be acceptable. Every day is not. I cannot have just one drink, just two drinks, just three drinks. When I sit down to have a drink, I am looking for oblivion, and I find it every time. I actively seek to silence the voice of my soul crying for nourishment. I choose to drown it. I am an utterly different person when I'm drunk these days, different from the person I am when I'm sober and different from the person I used to be when I got drunk. I suspect that the problem started before I was born. Just one of my grandparents managed to make it through life without developing alcoholism. Of their children, the only ones who do not have a drinking problem to some degree are my mother and father. They say these things sometimes skip a generation. I had probably been drunk five times before I came to be educated at this hallowed institution. I managed to somehow make it through my first two semesters here without becoming a lush, but halfway through spring semester last year, I suppose I was well on my way. Most of my friends--no, let's say acquaintances, and you'll see why in a moment or two--most of my acquaintances were Olympic-caliber drinkers. Social outings were not social outings without some form of alcohol. I suppose that I developed an idea somewhere in that subconscious muck of mine that I could not have a redeeming and enjoyable experience without drinking. I ceased to have friends; I had drinking buddies. The summer came around, the problem got worse. Fall: yet worse. Winter: damned near rock bottom. In the middle of spring semester this year I found myself drinking almost every day-each drink, each sip: a little death. Alcohol is very fattening-it's empty calories. Junk food for the soul.

I sometimes say with pride in my voice and my eyes that I have scores of acquaintances, but very few close friends. I think that is part of it, this little death by alcohol. Perhaps I am frightened of the kind of intimacy that comes with friendship, the kind of honesty that I cannot afford as I am now. No one wants to look closely at the ugliness of someone slowly drinking himself to psychic death, cordoning off the world one day at a time.

Another part might be my utter dissatisfaction with school. There's nothing like a case of beer to put the paper I haven't written and don't want to write at the back of my mind. What disgusts me about this is that it's so very fucking easy. There's no effort involved. That's right: you, too, can become an alcoholic by drinking a hell of a lot to avoid thinking through the hard parts of your life. It's typical of so much of what's wrong with our culture: the convenience and the ephemerality of the solution.

Little death number 2: I have a great many acquaintances, but few close friends. It's not for lack of social skills (although in my most preposterously drunken moments, that is rather a problem). I am a likable enough person, I'm intelligent, and I recognize qualities in the people I encounter every day that I like. It's not for lack of good people in this town, although I had myself convinced of that in the months during which I had made up my mind to transfer to a different school. Rather, I think it's a combination of factors. First, I'm not a very good friend. To those of you in this room to whom I refer, I apologize. I am very lazy these days with regard to the people in my life. I make little effort to seek the people that matter to me and to build those acquaintanceships into something greater. I say I will call and I don't. A little death. I say I will be there and I am not. A little death. I am not learning anything about the people I do know. So many of them are terribly interesting, and I cannot seem to muster a single good half of a conversation when it really matters. Another little death.

The third little death involves sexuality. I'm sure all of you are now terribly interested.

I am not a very physically affectionate person. I hug in greetings and goodbyes, yes, but in many cases it's a matter of convention-it's what's proper in certain situations. Those of you who know me might have some sense of this. I do not readily lend myself to platonic physical contact. The kind of affection I confer on the people with whom I am...shall we say...involved is something I consider a privilege, and rightly so, I think. Ideally, no one receives that kind of attention from me except for those with whom I share something unique, something greater than what your average sort of friendship provides: the union of the physical, the emotional, the intellectual, and the spiritual: a sum of those facets of a bond that is somehow greater than its parts. But this is not an ideal world, by any measure, and neither am I the embodiment of my own ideals. I violate that ideal myself, and confer that unique affection on people who have not earned it. Not frequently, but too often. When I do, I immediately hate myself for it-the act feels horribly, horribly empty. It is horribly empty. So why the hell do I do it? A couple of reasons come to mind. One: I've been drinking. A powerful contributing factor, to be sure. Two: I feel I need some sort of affirmation of my worth as a person. Three: I am a human being, and my inherent desire to procreate sometimes outpaces my moral judgment. Morality always catches up, thank god.

The fourth and most egregious confession is an admission of naked dishonesty. I do not mean that I habitually lie to others; I mean that I habitually lie to myself. The capacity of the mind to convince itself that it is not thinking or feeling what it is, in fact, thinking or feeling never ceases to amaze me. I so consistently fail to consider the potential or inevitable consequences of my actions that there is really no question as to whether or not I am an adult. I am not. I have given over to habit so many aspects of my life, ceased to insist on self-honesty with such frequency, that I approach a state of automaton-like despair at my seeming lack of control. A big little death.

Enough, already! you say. This is not meant to be an orgy of self-hatred! Get to the bloody point! No one is perfect; we could have told you that when you started and saved us hour-seeming minutes angst-ridden bullshit!

Fair enough. The point: The question is one of absolution.

What do I do with these little deaths? How do I refashion them into meaning, joy, and redemption? The answer, I think, lies in the rebirth of my ideals, the reclamation of the person I once was. I must change, and I must change now.

Patterns of behavior must be changed. I've been bitching a lot in my journal this semester that there doesn't seem to be anything that I can do to find direction, and I'm sure Jay is losing hair at an accelerated rate because of it. I am tired of being disgusted with myself as well. Here's what's changing:

First, I am finishing my undergraduate degree here. Jay has said that he thinks I'm placing too great a value on places unseen and the promise they hold, and he is right. Ever since I conceived of leaving this town, I have been floating in limbo, waiting to run off someplace new and exciting and reinvent myself as the person I would like to be. That is wishful thinking, and viciously unfair both to my future and present selves. It's that sort of thinking that has aided my degradation. If I cannot approach my ideals in thought and action here, there is no reason to think I will be able to do so anywhere else.

Second: I must take pains to be brutally honest with myself. I must stop averting my eyes from the inconsistencies in my behavior and face the damned things before they drag me down further. This does not mean I expect myself to be henceforth perfect; barring an angelic messenger from Allah himself informing me that I am, my only hope is to approach perfection in my ideals. I must examine every aspect of my life, from the food I eat and the clothes I wear to the things I think and the way in which I think them, and compare those aspects to my ideals. Where there is inconsistency, change must be made. I must examine my ideals in order to discover whether they're even worth having. That, of course, is dangerous business. I could end up with the sort of existential anxiety and uncertainty that one normally finds only in the novels of Camus and Sartre, but I think it's a necessary risk. An example: I am against the existence of Wal-Mart, and yet I still find myself there on occasion for the very reasons that I hate the idea of Wal-Mart: convenience. I know that as a patron I'm contributing to the horrible things Wal-Mart does to people all over the world, and yet somehow I manage to quell my conscience and cough up the money. This is just one of those many things that are going to have to stop. It's a little death feeding on apathy. I do not expect myself to change overnight. I do expect myself to change.

I notice that I'm being rather fuzzy in my response to very specific things. Fear not, gentle confessors, for I have plans.

Something must be done about my drinking. I don't think that my problem has escalated to a matter necessitating total abstinence; rather, I think it is a matter of altering my drinking habits to reflect a healthy respect for the benefits and detriments of alcohol. There are a few measures I'm now working into my life that I hope will end this problem before I become my grandfather. I am allowing myself to drink no more than three days a week. This doesn't mean I'm going to get stumbling-around-breaking-stuff drunk three times a week. I can have a beer after work if I want, but that one beer counts as a day's worth of drinking. Furthermore, I will not drink to intoxication two days in a row. For me, that constitutes an unacceptable pattern. Getting drunk every night is a very effective way of forgetting that there are other ways to have fun. I am no longer going to drink to intoxication by myself. I will allow one or two beers consumed in quiet contemplation on my back porch. In addition to curbing my drinking and removing alcohol from the integral role in my life I have given it, I hope to rediscover the aesthetic value of good spirits, and to hold that aesthetic quality in greater esteem than the intoxicating value. I hope to have no need to urgently address the role of alcohol in my life in two months.

Enough of that.

With regard to the people in my life: I must learn of them, from them. I must teach them of myself, and teach them good things. I must seek them, and remain open to being sought. Go on long walks. Talk 'til dawn. Take some fucking risks and introduce myself to the ones that intrigue me.

I think I'll close with a few signs of life, a bit of hope. This semester I started writing for myself again after a staggeringly long dormant period, and what I'm writing is good. I'm still capable of turning the little deaths around; any of you who are familiar with events in recent memory that could have been worse know that. I cry at appropriate places in life. I find joy in many of the things I always have, and while that joy may at present flicker, it shows no signs of sputtering out. I smile at the sun when it comes out. I still care, a lot.

I suppose this means I'm done with my little confession. Writing this and reading this are two very different things, and I can't say how I'll feel as I say these words aloud. What I can say is thank you for paying attention, or at least appearing to do so. I presume at this writing that you've all been exemplary confessors, and so, I hope, have I.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Although in popular thought confession is almost wholly associated with the Roman Catholic Church, it has been, in fact, a Sacrament (or Mystery) in both East and West from the earliest times of the Christian era. The original practice was for the repentant individual to confess his sins before all his peers, before the church assembled. Obviously, if more than one person wanted to confess, this might take a while (not to mention lingering issues with sins once confessed--if you've lusted after your neighbor's wife, it might not be entirely politic to tell him so, even if, theoretically, he's a good Christian and will forgive you). Eventually, the whole thing evolved into a private sacrament in which only the priest and the penitent were involved.

What with the Great Schism and all, it goes almost without saying that some theological differences crept in between East and West. Historically, the Catholic Church (and here I refer to the Latin Rite, the most common by far within the Church. Other rites, although falling under Roman jurisdiction, are closer in ritual and practice to the Orthodox Church--for which, see below) has used confessional booths, as highly evinced in film and literature, in which the confessor and penitent are seperated by a grille and--theoretically, at least--do not know one another's identity. Nowadays, however, priest and penitent are encouraged to enact the sacrament in the open, face to face. But it has long been the Vatican's practice to view priests as nigh interchangeable, and indeed, priests are sometimes moved from parish to parish without regard to personal ties, so it is, perhaps, hardly even necessary that the two people should know one another. Within the sacrament the priest acts in the person of Jesus, forgiving and absolving whatsoever sins may be confessed, not in his own name.

Confession in the Orthodox Church (insomuch as one may speak of it as a single entity), on the other hand, has always been done out in the open. Greek and Slavic churches vary in actual practice of the prayers used (sometimes even on a per-parish basis), but in general, the confession is done in the church itself, in front of the Royal Doors (which are the double doors in the iconostasis in front of the altar), with a copy of the Gospel and an icon of Christ (and, in Slavic churches, a crucifix) on a stand in front of the kneeling penitent. The priest stands to one side. Here, the actual confession is made to God, with the priest standing by to bear witness, and to pronounce absolution. The priest acts in the name of Jesus, but also on his own behalf, offering up his own prayers for the penitent. Both priest and penitent are known to one another because the priest is a part of the community and always has been.

In addition, the Anglican/Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer contains a short Pastoral Office for the Reconciliation of a Penitent. There are probably other Protestant communions who practice confession as well, but I regret to admit to an ignorance of them. I also regret having no information with regard to the Coptic Church or the so-called Oriental Orthodox Churches—although as close as they are in doctrine to the Orthodox Church generally, despite longstanding terminological differences, I would expect them to have a muchly similar doctrine of confession as well. Please /msg byz with any additional information.

But, in any case, the sacrament is in broad terms the same--the acknowledgement of wrong done, and the forgiveness thereof. It is a cleansing, cathartic, ritual--and a trueness, for those who believe.


Thanks go to SEF for information regarding the Roman Catholic Church

Additional reading:

  • http://www.oca.org/pages/orth_chri/Orthodox-Faith/Worship/Penance.html
  • http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_02121984_reconciliatio-et-paenitentia_en.html
  • http://www.saintgabriels.org/bcp/447.html
  • Last updated: 100510Z May 2003

The Confession, or Viduy, is a key part of the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) services in the Jewish tradition.

In fact, Jews start specifically asking for forgiveness about one week before Rosh Hashanah (according to the eastern European Ashkenazi tradition) or about one month before (according to the Spanish & Portuguese Sephardi tradition). The prayers are all asking for forgiveness for sins you have committed against G-D - the view is that G-D can't forgive you for a sin you've committed against a fellow man (such as stealing something). For those sins, it's up to you to ask for forgiveness directly from the person concerned, and many people will try to speak to their friends in the time around Rosh Hashanah and ask them for forgiveness for anything they have done to offend them over the previous year.

The confession prayers are recited in all five services of Yom Kippur - one in the evening (Jewish days run from nightfall to nightfall) and four during the day. They are said quietly as part of the Silent Amidah service by everybody, and then again out loud and comunally by the entire congregation when the Amidah prayer is repeated.

All the confession prayers are in the plural. This is to show that sinning reflects badly on the Jewish people as a whole, and that there is collective responsibility to ask for forgiveness for the sins. Although there is a standard wording for the confession prayers, many say that if you have specific sins, you can add them in during the silent Amidah as well.

During the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, the central service on Yom Kippur was conducted by the High Priest and also involved a core confession for the entire Jewish people. Nowdays in synagogue, although we don't do the sacrafices that the High Priest's confession involved, we describe the entire service in great detail. It is also during this part of the service that religious Jews kneel in Synagogue - this is rare as we only kneel 6 times in the year (once on each day of Rosh Hashanah and twice on Yom Kippur).

In Judaism, Rabbis can't absolve a person of a sin against G-D. Neither can the person leading the prayers. Neither can the Cohen (Priest). Each person must "Make his peace" with G-D directly through prayer. We fast on Yom Kippur as part of repentance. And hope that our prayers are accepted.

Commentary on Martin Luther's Small Catechism, Part Five: Confession

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Commentary

In this deceptively simple part of the lessons, Luther conceals from the unlearned public the great storm of controversy which he touched off with his 95 Theses in 1517. His objective is "pastoral" in the sense of acting like a good pastor or Shepherd of his flock: to preserve what is helpful and good for people in the practice of Confession, and not to burden ordinary Christians with weight of history and conflict over "penance". But it is precisely here, with "penance", that the Reformation begins.

Up to this point in the Small Catechism, Luther has stuck close to his Catholic and Augustinian roots. With the Ten Commandments, The Lord's Prayer, and the Apostle's Creed, Luther stuck close to the the traditional teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and instructs people to avoid the heresies and errors condemned by the Popes and Church Fathers through the ages. Even Luther's discussion of Baptism sticks close to Catholicism --especially when compared to Anabaptist or other later Protestant teachings. Luther could avoid a break with the Church on Baptism because it was not one of the Sacraments which the Church taught must be administered by an ordained priest or bishop: the Church acknowledged that a baptism could be performed by any person. Baptism was effected by God's grace: a free gift directly from God. It was thus not subject to the corruption which had overtaken all the Sacraments involving a priest, that is, the theological error or lie that a person had to perform a certain task, assume a particular attitude, or pay a bribe, before a priest would deign to grant the favor of God.

The most blatant bribe taken for God's grace was the indulgence: a believer would pay a Church official a certain amount of money, and would be issued a certificate indicating that the believer's deceased relative would be spared a certain number of years in Purgatory before being admitted to Heaven. This was quite obviously a tax program whereby the Roman Curia raised cash for crusades and cathedrals. It was very unpopular with temporal authorities, especially in Germany, because it impoverished the the people and undercut secular tax programs.

Luther's objections to indulgences were not practical or nationalistic, but rather theological. As a university professor at the dawn of the Humanistic resurgence, Luther had approached the Bible through a close examination of the original Greek text. At Mark 1:15, Jesus begins his ministry by instructing us all to "repent and believe in the Gospel." See also Matthew 4:17 ("Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand").

The word translated as "repent" in Greek is μετανοειτε, or "metanoeîte", the imperative form of "metanoîa" (repentence, literally "re-thinking"). The scholars assembled by King James would later render the passage in 17th Century English which closely followed the Greek, thusly:

And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.

In the popular Latin version of the Bible, known as the Vulgate, however, the text was “agite pœnitentiam,” meaning “Do penance”. In the Latin church the idea of repentance was externalized and identified with certain outward acts ("works") of self-abasement or self-punishment for the expiation of sin. A great variety of actions were recognized or deemed effective to "do penance", ranging from the extreme ascetic practices and self-flagellation, pilgrimages and donations to the Church, to simple prayer. Most extreme practices were discouraged, but all Christians were required to go before a priest, in private, to confess their sins and be instructed in what sort of penance would be sufficient. The Lateran Council (1215) made private confession mandatory for all Christians, at least once a year. The Church hierarchy could not refrain from abusing the confessional as an intelligence gathering tool, and encouraged regular confession, particularly among the rich and powerful, to ensure that every influential person in Christendom had a priest as a close confidant and regular advisor.

The distinction between doing penance, and the mental process Jesus required, which could be sub-literally rendered as "change your mind", hit the monkish Luther like a thunderbolt. Luther himself was prone to bouts of depression , which he called, in German, anfechtung (doubt, inner turmoil, pangs of conscience, despair) or, in Latin, tentatio (temptation, trial, affliction, tribulation). Whether it is the relatively dismal weather, or a genetic predisposition to depression or melancholia, I do not know, but it seems Northern Europeans are more prone to obsessive and neurotic self-examination and self-flagellation than Europeans of more sunny, Mediterranean climes, like the Romans or Greeks. Certainly Luther took Jesus' instructions concerning God's law, which always emphasized humility and the infinite character of God's commandments, very seriously and strictly, one might even say obsessively. No matter how good and how holy you were, Luther believed that Jesus demanded better. Thus, once Luther started down the path of reflecting on his own sins and shortcomings, it became a paralyzing spiral of despair and self-doubt for him, until a superior slapped him out of it.

In such a mood, Luther despaired of ever being able to "do" enough penance to avoid being judged by God and cast away from God's presence into eternal torment. In the practice of private confession, it seemed to Luther that he could never bring to mind and confess all his sins, and therefore never "do penance" for all of them. If, however, what Jesus required was not "doing" penitence but rather changing one's mind, and turning away from sin, this Luther thought he could do regularly and effectively.

To Luther, personally, this was Good News indeed, and a great weight off his shoulders. Luther pursued this epiphany regarding repentence to a rediscovery of Paul's teaching of justification by grace through faith, not by works. That is, our sins are forgiven by God as a free gift, not by virtue of anything we "do" or could do, simply because we believe God's promise that he will forgive our sins, and indeed, already has forgiven and redeemed us from sin, by becoming a man and dying on the Cross. This lead Luther to criticize the practice of indulgences. Luther announced his discovery in the very first of his 95 Theses:

Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying “Repent ye,” etc., intended that the whole life of believers should be penitence.

Step by step, Luther attacked the notions that particular "works" or acts were required to receive forgiveness of sins. Eventually, in a series of tracts published in 1520, including his Address to the German Nobility, his Babylonian Captivity of the Church and On Christian Liberty, Luther made a complete and very public break with the Church, and was excommunicated when he refused to recant. He called for a redefinition of all the Sacraments, not as good works but as the means by which God's grace is received and recognized by the Christian people. By this definition many of the rites deemed "sacraments", i.e. confirmation, marriage, ordination and the anointing of the sick could not be understood as channels for God's forgiveness, though they might have a value in themselves. (For example, Luther demonstrated the value of marriage by repudiating his clerical vows and getting married to a former nun, Katherine von Bora. His papal opponents, by contrast, were generally celibate priests.). Luther limited the term "sacrament" to the two practices which Jesus expressly instructed his disciples to perform: Baptism and the Eucharist. He denied the role of the priest and/or the Church in bringing God's grace to the people (for example, by "transubtantiating" the bread and wine in the Eucharist, or by granting absolution in confession) instead insisting that grace comes freely and directly from God, through an interior, spiritual process. The role of Church leaders, in Luther's view, should be to teach, explain and comfort.

Here, in the Small Catechism, Luther makes no mention whatsoever of acts of penance which a confessor might instruct a confessee to perform. Gone are the stages of confession (contrition, oral confession, and satisfaction by good works), gone are the categories of sin as "mortal", "venal", and so forth. Rather, Luther emphasizes self-reflection: "Consider here your place in life according to the Ten Commandments."


The Small Catechism of Martin Luther

Part Five: Confession

Translated by Robert E. Smith (1994)

How One Should Teach the Uneducated to Confess

  • I.

    Q. What is confession?

    A. Confession has two parts:

    First, a person admits his sin

    Second, a person receives absolution or forgiveness from the confessor, as if from God Himself, without doubting it, but believing firmly that his sins are forgiven by God in Heaven through it.

  • II.

    Q. Which sins should people confess?

    A. When speaking to God, we should plead guilty to all sins, even those we don't know about, just as we do in the ``Our Father,'' but when speaking to the confessor, only the sins we know about, which we know about and feel in our hearts.

    Q. Which are these?

    A. Consider here your place in life according to the Ten Commandments. Are you a father? A mother? A son? A daughter? A husband? A wife? A servant? Are you disobedient, unfaithful or lazy? Have you hurt anyone with your words or actions? Have you stolen, neglected your duty, let things go or injured someone?


This text was translated in 1994 for Project Wittenberg by Robert E. Smith and has been placed in the public domain by him. You may freely distribute, copy or print this text. Please direct any comments or suggestions to Rev. Robert E. Smith of the Walther Library at: Concordia Theological Seminary. E-mail: smithre@mail.ctsfw.edu Surface Mail: 6600 N. Clinton St., Ft. Wayne, IN 46825 USA Phone: (260) 481-2123 Fax: (260) 481-2126

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Save me Mother, for I have sinned.

― Only our Mother in Heaven can save you, my daughter. The Holy Church and her servants can but show the Way.

― I have come to you to confess, my Mother, not to the Church, and not to The Mother of All.

― When did you last confess, my daughter?

― Long ago. I don't know.

― But now you will return to the Church.

― Now I feel that I must confess, and where can I turn but to the Church? Although I have lost my faith in God, and have little faith in Her Church.

― But still you have the awareness of sin. Have you then sinned so much?

― My sins will be many, but only one is a burden I cannot bear alone.

― All sin is one, as virtue is one. If you name the sin that lies on your heart, you may find forgiveness for the rest.

― As if forgiveness were enough…

― Have you sinned in thought, word, or deed?

― I will tell you of two sins; it is the second that I must confess. One in deed, the worse in thought.

― And do you still sin now?

― I cannot stop, from when I wake at sunset to the late hours of morning, the thought will not leave me alone.

― So tell me your story.

― It starts many years ago when I shed my last childhood and was married. My wife was a model of purity and beauty. And is. Although I know she thinks the same of me. And I cannot tell her she is wrong…

― Have you tried?

― I cannot. And so I am here, telling you. They say you are a better priest than most.

― None of us is greater than our vocation.

― You may believe that if you must. I lived in purity with my wife for three long years.

― You were not happy?

― I felt I was in heaven, but for one thing.

― You had no daughter?

― We had no sons. The marriage could not be consummated.

― Three years is a long time to wait, especially when you are young. But then your purity was rewarded?

― My purity? You are talking to a rapist, Mother.

― So rape is your first sin. And the second is worse? You bear a heavy burden.

― We lived together and tended our garden and waited, and no sons came. We loved each other deeply, but had no sons. Others had gardens of lesser beauty, but they were filled with beautiful sons. It seemed to me that others loved less, but they at least could express their love. Our garden seemed to mock me. I was young and hungry. And one day…

― One day you stilled your hunger.

― One day I walked out in the midday sun, when the world was asleep, entered a strange garden and ate a stranger's son.

― And you have kept the secret since then.

― There are no secrets before God, I thought, and I thought that She would punish me. In punishing me She would have punished my wife, and thus would have punished me twice. But instead we were rewarded. I did not understand at the time.

― You had sons?

― I did. I chose the most beautiful and gave it to her, and finally our union was consummated. Then she had sons, and our happiness was complete. Except for my secret. But people can forget anything, as you must know, if it stays hidden.

― They never truly forget. The worm still eats the apple.

― Mine was a very quiet worm. I was never again tempted to stray.

― And was your union blessed with daughters?

― Three girls. One of hers and two of mine. All wonderful, all still alive. Our eldest is is in her last childhood now, and is to be married next year.

Praise to the Mother!

― If only I could still say that!

― Poor child! I would not like to live without faith.

― It is knowledge that stands in the way, not faith. The knowledge I have come to confess.

― Can knowledge be a sin?

― I would not have thought so if I had not sinned. But the Church must think differently.

― When has the Church ever spoken against knowledge?

― You cannot speak without revealing the secret. What I do not understand is how you can live with it.

― Believe me, I do not know what you mean.

― Then I shall tell you, and maybe you will confess to me, when there is no more to hide.

― I repeat, I do not know what you mean.

― A shame that you must be a hypocrite. But I suppose you have no choice. We were happy, my guilt was almost forgotten, and the time came for us to choose our professions. She became a nurse, and I became a zoologist.

― A great honour.

― Yes. And I was proud. To be chosen from so many.

― Then I may even know your name. Are you sure you should be telling me this?

― I cannot tell you what I have to say without revealing who I am. And yes, you know my name. There are only three of us, and I am the first amongst them.

― Then you have changed our view of the whole web of life. The theory of evolution by natural selection: a breathtaking revelation of the ways of our Heavenly Mother!

― If you say so. But what of the puzzle my work left untouched? What of our evolution?

― We were created by the Mother of All. That is why we are unique.

― So I thought. But then one of my colleagues observed some interesting behaviour among some kinds of arthropod

― Oh Mother save us!

― Need I say more? How much do you know? The females sometimes ate the males after mating. She didn't recognise the implications. As I said, I am the first among my colleagues. I think in strange directions. And one day I thought: what if some ate the males before mating? I looked through old observations. The data were there, but no-one had realised what they meant. They had thought they were eating a different species. And they were so like us in so many ways… What are you doing?

― I know who you are. Does it matter if I see you? Or if you see me?

― I confess that I had not expected you to be so beautiful.

― Am I not? And what do you think of my son, here?

― Lovely. Don't do that!

Take it. Eat it. You have been faithful so long.

― With a Priest of the Mother, in her Holy House!

― You see? You still have some faith.

― Before I committed adultery with a priest, I at least had faith in the Church as a guardian of truth, of morals, of the family.

― And all of that we are.

― That was why I came to you when I found out…

― Found out?

― That no pure marriage can be blessed with children. You must eat a son to have your sons. Through rape or adultery. Fornication, filth. But you must know this. You hear confession. You know what is hidden.

― Yes. We know there is no blessing without sin. Some day maybe we will understand the Mother in this and will understand how to teach it. Until that day we will keep the secret.

― And I must keep it, too?

― No, we shall take this burden from you. Only through faith are we able to bear it. As also the secret of the poisoned son, and many, too many others. Please forgive me. Forgive us.

― I understand, my Mother. Thank-you. Please care for my daughters and my wife.

― But how shall I bear the truth of your death? For none is as beautiful as you were. And your spirit was the purest.

Father, forgive me, it's been
something like thirty years
since my last confession


I think that's how you start an official confession
in the Roman Catholic tradition of my youth

but now, being a Methodist
I admit to missing


the sanctity and scent
not of clean, polished wood
but the breath and sorrow of other sinners

of the dark
of the two uncomfortable stalls
joined by a sliding screen
opened and closed
by the priest


that held me on one side
and God's forgiveness on the other

Con*fes"sion (?), n. [F. confession, L. confessio.]

1.

Acknowledgment; avowal, especially in a matter pertaining to one's self; the admission of a debt, obligation, or crime.

With a crafty madness keeps aloof, When we would bring him on to some confession Of his true state. Shak.

2.

Acknowledgment of belief; profession of one's faith.

With the mouth confession is made unto salvation. Rom. x. 10.

3. Eccl.

The act of disclosing sins or faults to a priest in order to obtain sacramental absolution.

Auricular confession . . . or the private and special confession of sins to a priest for the purpose of obtaining his absolution. Hallam.

4.

A formulary in which the articles of faith are comprised; a creed to be assented to or signed, as a preliminary to admission to membership of a church; a confession of faith.

5. Law

An admission by a party to whom an act is imputed, in relation to such act. A judicial confession settles the issue to which it applies; an extrajudical confession may be explained or rebutted.

Wharton.

Confession and avoidance Law, a mode of pleading in which the party confesses the facts as stated by his adversary, but alleges some new matter by way of avoiding the legal effect claimed for them.

Mozley & W.

Confession of faith, a formulary containing the articles of faith; a creed. -- General confession, the confession of sins made by a number of persons in common, as in public prayer. -- Westminster Confession. See Westminster Assembly, under Assembly.

 

© Webster 1913.

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