Not By Myself: A Penance Reflection (Ephesians 4:1–6; 5:1-11a)
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But fornication and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints. Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving.
Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not associate with them, for once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness….
Solitary confinement has been a severe measure used in prisons for the worst prisoners, but extended and extreme isolation is damaging to the human psyche. Recent studies on human subjects are rare––in part because of the damaging effect––but in 1951 researchers at McGill University paid a group of male graduate students to stay in small chambers equipped with only a bed. They could only leave to use the bathroom. They wore goggles and earphones to limit their sense of sight and hearing, and gloves to limit their sense of touch. The plan was to observe students for six weeks, but not one lasted more than seven days. Nearly every student lost the ability “to think clearly about anything for any length of time”. Several others began to suffer hallucinations.
That may seem a strange way to begin a reflection on the Sacrament of Penance, but my thesis is simply this: People––even many Christians––subject themselves to spiritual solitary confinement, and the effect on the soul can be as catastrophic as physical solitary is on body and mind.
The Sacrament of Penance is a gift Jesus gives to his Church. And in this context, remember who the Church is: one body baptized into one Spirit (to use St Paul’s words). In the Church, we belong both to the Lord and to one another. To make my point clear, Christianity is not a private, individualistic faith. A properly formed Catholic would never say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” As a former Protestant, it was up to me to keep my faith ordered. Is that all we can do…. just do the best you can and hope we’ve responded well enough?
I came to see that none of us are smart enough or good enough to always know the right thing and do it. We need wisdom and support far beyond ourselves to have healthy souls. An open and honest hearing of what Paul wrote to the Ephesians in our reading proves the incredible gap between contemporary conventional “wisdom” and the truth that God offers all who will listen.
It is almost considered improper today to mention the wrath of God even in our churches! It is the same with naming sins––fornication, impurity, covetousness…. no filthiness, nor silly talk…. We can think that sounds so judgmental.
But we have another standard. It is a higher calling. We are to be imitators of God and that means to walk in love, as Christ loved us. How did Christ love us? He gave himself up for us…. a sacrifice.
Left to ourselves, we can easily wonder what to “confess”. That often means we are practicing spiritual solitary confinement and not giving ourselves enough to the Church for our souls to stay sensitive. It is possible to “feel” okay simply because we are too weak and disoriented to recognize that something is dangerously wrong. Our personal tendency is rationalization.
Yet our standard is always Jesus. How am I like Jesus in what I do (and don’t do)…. in what I say and how I say it…. in my inner thoughts and dreams and desires? That will usually be enough to give us a good confession (if our understanding of “Jesus” is rightly ordered)!
So what can we hope from Confession? First of all, there is a guarantee that we are not alone. I do not have to figure it out and deal with my guilt and fears by myself. Jesus comes in the tangible person of the priest and speaks from the perspective of the Church (for which he gave his life). The explicit purpose is to affirm that we are loved, that we are called to spiritual health (which is one way to understand holiness), and that everything necessary to wipe us clean and steer us in a right direction is a gift that God wants to give us through the Church died to create.
The world-spirit calls us to the darkness. We are tempted to embrace what ruins us, and to try to hide from everyone (including our own selves) the awful effects of spiritual solitary.
Jesus calls us to the freedom of light and release and affirmation. He does this through his Church. We are not alone. Paul tells us who we are: you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light. And St John tells us in another place exactly how to do that: if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1Jn 1:7–9).