Archives for category: Spiritual Practice

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.


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.

“There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.”

~Oscar Wilde

The practice of confession is familiar to many Christians, especially those in the Catholic tradition, although it is by no means limited to Christianity. According to Murray-Swank (2003) confession is a widespread cross-cultural phenomenon and “diverse spiritual traditions have developed variety of rituals and methods of confession.” However the popularity of this powerful practice, especially as it was traditionally practiced, appears to be diminishing over the last few decades. While weekly confession used to be the norm among many Catholics, Murray-Swank (2003) cites a study from 1990 that found 80% of Catholics attend confession twice a year or less. There are probably many reasons for this decline, however, they are beyond the scope of this work. In this section I will describe the benefits of confession and offer a few variations on the practice that I believe will be helpful for a modern audience.

Before describing the benefits of confession I would like to expand the definition of the practice to include two main forms: individual confession and communal confession.

  1. Individual confession is similar to the practice of confession as practiced in the Church. This may be practiced in private, with a witness, or in the presence of one’s divine image.
  2. Communal confession is practiced by an individual in the presence of a community (often a community of fellow practitioners). Communal confession allows one to ask forgiveness when the transgression involves another person or persons. Being witnessed by one’s community in this way make this a powerful practice.

The practice of confession serves several functions; I will mention a few here, focusing on confession in the context of a spritual practice. For a more detailed overview of this topic see (Murray-Swank 2003) & (Pennebaker, Hughes, & O’Heeron 1987).

  1. Reducing guilt and shame. Guilt and shame are often mentioned as a reason to seek confession. Studies have also found a reduction in guilt following confession. Through confession we can make guilt into a “healthy” emotion. When guilt motivates us to seek confession we may act to repair relationships, seek forgiveness (interpresonal or divine) and self-improvement.
  2. Seeking social connection. The feeling that we have somehow sinned or transgressed a social boundary is isolating. Confession between individuals or in a group is likely to promote connection. For more on the effects of confession in a group see (Weiner, Graham, Peter, & Zmuidinas 1991).
  3. Seeking meaning and coherence. Discolsure of a transgression and related feelings may allow us to find meaning and emotional relief in an otherwise difficult experience. It may lead to a more comprehensive understanding of ourselves and insight into troubling habits. As we make progress on the path we may notice that the topics that come up in confession are changing as we are able to notice more subtle elements of our experience. In this way regular practice of confession can be a tool for integration and reflection on our path as a whole.
  4. Coming back into alignment with the sacred. To understand this point more clearly, I would like to introduce the concept of Sin as explained by theologian Paul Tillich (1999):
    “In any case, sin is separation. To be in the state of sin is to be in the state of separation. And separation is threefold: there is separation among individual lives, separation of a man from himself, and separation of all men from the Ground of Being.”
    At times we transgress in a way that leaves us feeling separate, lost, disconnected, or misaligned from whatever it is that we hold sacred, be it God, nature or a set of values. The act of confession requires that we face that transgression, in effect facing part of our shadow, and allows us to come back into alignment with that which we hold sacred. Facing the shadow element is integral to psychological and spiritual growth. Turning again to the words of Paul Tillich, we can say that confession is a way to come back into grace.
    “Grace is the reunion of life with life, the reconciliation of the self with itself. Grace is the acceptance of that which is rejected. Grace transforms fate into a meaningful destiny; it changes guilt into confidence and courage.”


In my next post I will offer suggestions and guidelines for the practice of individual confession.


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.

Tillich, P. (1999). The essential Tillich: An anthology of the writings of Paul Tillich. Church, F.F. (Ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.