“We must all be saved together! Reach God together! Appear before Him together! We must return to our Father’s house together…what would He think if we arrived without the others, without the others returning, too?”
Rachel Watson, a reader from Berkshire, England, writes:
“Confession is a sacrament of hope, at one and the same time sublimely particular and profoundly unifying. Hope, by its very nature, has these all-embracing dimensions. It reaches to our own depths and stretches us out to embrace the whole world. ‘Our hope is always essentially hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too. As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my personal salvation as well.’ (Spe Salvi 48)
When we go into the confessional laden with our own sins, we bring our connection to all the sin in the world. We are part of a vast network of interrelated weakness and malice. Who has had the perfect childhood or received an unflawed genetic inheritance, or lives out their life in utopia? We are constrained to sin by our very humanity and by the time we know and understand what sin is, we are already partially disarmed in the fight to resist temptations and to free ourselves from vice. We are warped in relation to ourselves, to others, to the world. In defending ourselves from those around us, or simply in coping with the effects they have on us, we can become puckered with pride and snarled with self-loathing.
When we do fight our sinful nature and our vices, we often fight the wrong way. We harden our hearts, stiffen our necks and set ourselves against the rest of sinful humanity. We want to control and conquer ourselves, to enter heaven triumphantly holding up our own souls. We grab our own bridles and yank ourselves this way and that, only to ourselves battling seven devils in place of one.
What I am learning is that to confess is to acknowledge my place in space and time. Sinned against, I have sinned in turn. Kneeling in front of that grille, with my sins and my certainty that, without grace, I will sin again, I can look back at this vast inheritance that makes me what I am–the threads of interwoven pride, depression, anger, hardheartedness, selfishness and limitations of all the people in my past, the people in theirs, in theirs, and so on. They are all present in the person I am in that moment, and I also am present in myself, connected to them, yet distinct in my capability to turn all this to Christ.
In asking for his help and forgiveness, I turn also to all of these people. My encounter with Christ changes the meaning of all I have inherited through them, just as statements in a dialogue acquire a new meaning through the interchange and resolution. Their restoration and forgiveness is, in a sense, embedded in mine. Their sinful actions, insofar as they have shaped and affected me, are drawn into Christ, into my and the world’s re-creation.
These threads, however, do not just lead into me, but out. I have contributed in turn to the sins and the weakness of others–sometimes directly and maliciously, sometimes indirectly–by failing to be all that I should have been. I stand not just at the end of a long line of sinners, but at the head of one as well. How, I wonder, will these things I have done play out? Will they terminate in heaven or in hell, and for whom? And with this sense of responsibility, I seek not just forgiveness for myself, but mercy for this world that bears the brunt of my failings and waywardness. The final meaning of what I have thought, said, done and failed to do, is, in part, determined by other souls. My restoration and forgiveness is embedded in theirs. What has passed from me to them will only become a truly happy fault if they are willing to open themselves to the love of God.
In seeing this I also see in confession Alice Meynell’s ‘bolder way…wilder enterprise’ and this is to use my own person to imprint the “Our Father” on my crossroads of space and time. It is to accept what comes to me as the sum of the world’s sin and to give it to God to carry in me. It is to ask God for a healing that is also a wounding, to beg Him to conform my weakness and warping to His own mystery of reconciliation won by self-emptying. It is to give up my own ideas of perfection and to ask Him to make me perfect in a way that I will never understand or see. It is to sift my whole self through that grille for a re-creation on the other side quite inseparable from my neighbor’s.”
After I sat stunned for several minutes, I wrote back, “You are kidding, right? You dashed this off yesterday afternoon in your spare time? Are you a writer yourself?”
“No, I’m not a famous writer or anything like that, just one more person trying to make sense of my life. I do write more and more stuff like this at the moment, and it all sits there on my computer. I’m not very sure what I should do with it. Most of it comes out of thinking about St. Philip, his spirituality and the Roman Carnival–a weird set of connections, I know–but one that seems to open theological doors all over the place! He didn’t leave much in the way of papers or writing, but there’s a poem remaining with the line, ‘Gladly would I learn from Thee how it is made, that net of love which captures so many.’ I think one way he constructed the net was confession…he tells confessors that sympathy with the penitent is the best way of not falling into sin themselves. My thoughts about that mushroomed into this.
I suppose what lies at the back of that piece–in part–is the sense that sin is a loss of relation, and so also of our potential to be ourselves and become ever more ourselves in relation to others. The Trinitarian connection is right there, of course–God gains infinitely by being three in one, one in three. We can’t go back and reclaim what is lost for ourselves, but need others to give it to us. If all those totalitarian monsters aren’t there in heaven with me, I’ll be worse off for the loss of all they could have been. And, of course–my personal sticking point–others will be worse off if I’m not there. God wants us all, wanting and with each other.”
I hope you’re as stunned as I was. And let’s pray that Rachael Watson keeps writing.