As currently practiced within the Catholic tradition, confession or rather, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is often a structured ritual performed within the hierarchy of the church. However, in some Protestant traditions, confession may be practiced with a peer and in some cases it may be practiced without a witness at all. Pennebaker et. al (1987) looked at the effectiveness of confession in several settings; working with the assumption that inhibition creates stress, leading to disease they began with the hypothesis that disclosure of a traumatic event would lead to a reduction in stress. The researchers discovered similar reduction in stress when writing, speaking to a tape, and speaking to a confessor. They also noted a change in language and presentation when speaking to a confessor, suggesting increased inhibition in some participants. One key conclusion from Pennebaker’s work is that there are different ways to practice confession effectively; we must each find the form that works best for each of us wherever we are on the spiritual path. In light of this conclusion I will not offer specific instructions for practicing confession but instead will include some suggestions and guidelines for the reader to experiment with.

Medium. We may practice confession verbally or in writing; both mediums appear to be useful. According to (Pennebaker 1987) merely thinking about the events appears to be less useful.

Higher Power. It may be useful to practice confession in the presence of one’s divine image. Whether we ask for forgiveness or simply being witnessed, the act of including the divine in our confession supports the spiritual container of the practice. Meister Eckhart writes:

It is to God that we should confess sooner than to men, and if we are guilty of sin, it is our confession and our self-reproaches before God to which we should attend carefully. And if we want to go to the sacrament, we ought not to neglect this confession before God in favor of external penance, for it is in our intention as we perform our works that is just and godly and good.

Ritual. Some people find that creating a ritual around the practice of confession supports the practice as well. For example taking a kneeling position may remind us of our intention to surrender and ask forgiveness. Many sources recommend finding a regular time of day (for example, at the end of the day before retiring) for this practice supports consistency and serves as a daily reminder of one’s commitments.

Witnessing. We may practice confession in solitude or in the presence of a witness (i.e. a confessor). We may also share a written confession with a witness after the fact. This last option may allow for the greatest flexibility, especially when combined with technology like E-mail. While some people find the presence of a confessor to be inhibiting (especially when combined with asymmetrical power dynamics) there is power in being witnessed.

The Twelve Step tradition makes great use of confession; including it in several of the steps and as a regular tool in meetings. Step five in that tradition reads, “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” In this tradition, we see, confession (often related to the process of taking moral inventory) is practiced in the presence of one’s God and another person. Practicing confession in the presence of another person is a humbling experience and one that requires us to look squarely at our shadow. Being compassionately witnessed in this way also leads to greater freedom and serenity. Reciprocal witnessing of confession with a peer (or possibly, group of peers) can lead, over time, to a sharing of trust and intimacy allowing the participants to dive increasingly deeper into their own vulnerability in the practice.

Evolving engagement. Like any other form of practice, confession evolves over time. One particular form of doing the practice may work well today but not tomorrow. Understanding that our ability to engage with a practice changes and evolves over time allows us to keep practicing, slowly deepening, even through difficult or dry times. As you mature in the practice, be prepared to challenge yourself in new ways; perhaps aspects of the practice that did not work before can become the leading edge of the practice.

Last, a few guidelines based on advice from experienced practitioners, Ona Kiser and Jamison Wiggins:

  • Be honest! This practice is an invitation, not a requirement. You are invited to share as much as you are willing.
  • Confess only your own sins! This isn’t the time to make excuses or explain away your actions based on someone else’s actions. This practice is about you.
  • Remain engaged with the practice with both heart and mind. The purpose of this practice is not to accurately describe one’s mistakes but to reflect on the event in its entirety, especially in the emotional realm. We may invite surrender, a feeling of contrition, and a intention to accept one’s limitations while reinforcing one’s commitment.
  • Recognize the relief that follows the practice and allow it to sink in. You may notice gratitude arising as well – to yourself for your dedication or perhaps for divine forgiveness.
  • Understand that more will be revealed. As you confess your transgressions, more will become apparent; perhaps more subtle aspects of your motivations or insights into your own personality structure. This process of coming back to alignment requires sustained effort, time and humility.
  • Let resistance show the way. As you recall your transgressions, you may notice an internal resistance to visiting certain memories or feelings. Take note; these difficult places in the mind are pointing at wounds which have yet to heal. Over time you will learn to see resistance not as a problem but as a navigational aid on the path.

References

Anonymous (2001). Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc.

Eckhart, M. (2005). Counsel 21: Of zeal. In Griffin, E. (Ed.), Meister Eckhart: Selections from his essential writings. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Murray-Swank, A. (2003). Exploring spiritual confession: A theoretical synthesis and experimental study. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses; 2003

Pennebaker, J.W., Hughes, C.F., & O’Heeron, R.C. (1987). The psychophysiology of confession: Linking inhibitory and psychosomatic processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 52(No. 4), pp. 781-793.

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