“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.