The Mystery of Honesty and Truth
“I hate going to Confession,” I told my father-confessor recently.
“As long as you keep on going,” he responded. Then he added, “Of course you do. It’s not easy admitting to failure.”
I grew up in a dysfunctional household where disapproval reigned. Expecting chastisement or even condemnation is a hard habit to unlearn. I’d been anxious enough about making my first Confession that I had postponed my Chrismation and entry into the Orthodox Church for six months. Now here I am, seven years later, no longer a newbie, and still I struggle. I am unaccustomed to ruthless honesty.
I still don’t understand Confession. Nothing else is analogous to it. Not even psychotherapy. Yes, my therapist will challenge me when I need it, but most of the time he’s a sympathetic listener. He gingerly respects my ego defenses, even when prodding them. Confession is entirely different. My priest is kind and gentle, but he is never sympathetic to sin. He may even suggest that my ego defenses are the barriers from which I need to turn away (repent); they are the obstacles that need to be illumined by God’s grace and healing.
The best thing I can say, grudgingly, about going to confession is that it’s good for me (like eating broccoli). It’s an exercise of the muscle of honest self-appraisal. With repetition, like making consistent trips to the gym, it transforms into the practice of humility—and then hopefully a habit, and maybe even a lifetime of repentance. I am unable to form any cogent arguments or protestations against humility. So I keep practicing. I’m not very good at it yet.
I embrace the Orthodox term mystery. Confession is a mystery—in both the colloquial and the theological sense. It’s healing without the epiphanic a-ha! moment. (At least it is for me. If you have lightning bolts of startling comprehension, I envy you.) But with time—weeks, months, years, later, my life is made right. Slowly, ever so glacier-creeping slowly, as I continue to participate in the life of the Church, I begin to approach God’s Kingdom.
Of course Confession is also a Mystery in the theological sense of the word. What in Latin is translated as sacrament, a consecrated action, the Eastern churches recognize from its Greek origins: mysterion, mystery. A sacrament is the meeting of an outward, visible sign with an inward, spiritual grace. This unseen, inward element is what makes Confession so (forgive me) mysterious. Perplexing, if you’d rather. In Confession, I’m not doing something. It’s the triumph of being over action. In this place of non-striving, healing somehow arrives.
I have come to understand that there is power in speaking truth.
A dozen years ago, my father was diagnosed with cancer. At the time, I was the first of my peers to have aging parents with significant—terminal—health challenges. I wasn’t withholding the information from my friends; I just couldn’t seem to fit the topic into the conversation during our brunch mimosas and coffee. I wasn’t exactly in denial; I wasn’t avoiding the truth. But I wasn’t facing the knowledge full-on either.
Then one day in the Lutheran church I’d belonged to at that time, during the open petitions from the congregation, I prayed for my father and his cancer. Verbally. Audibly. Liturgically. Lord, in your mercy. Hear our prayer. My voicelessness broke, and I’d allowed myself to cry for the first time since receiving his diagnosis. My friend asked me afterwards, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I couldn’t,” I’d answered, and I hoped she understood that I meant it literally. I’d been unable to verbalize it. Only in the Church could I admit the unthinkable.
The best explanation I can offer is that an honest confession is a little like that prayer for my father. Pandora’s box was her mouth, and in speaking we give life to what moments before were merely ideas. The mystery of confession, the mystery of that prayer in which I first faced my father’s mortality, is that once something is spoken aloud, it cannot be rescinded or denied. It becomes truth. Such knowledge must now be acted upon.
The early medieval Irish church had a term for one’s spiritual guide—anam cara, or soul friend. St. Brigid of Kildare reportedly stated that a person without a soul friend is like a body without a head. If I confess my sins in the middle of a forest, do I make a sound? I had prayed for my Dad before that particular Sunday in church. But speaking words aloud in community makes them inescapably real. My “I” needs your “thou.” We need to be heard and truly accepted. My priest would say it’s a gift to be the listener as well.
Lent is upon us. Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches especially encourage participation in Confession during this season, although I’ve known Lutheran and Anglo-Catholic churches to also offer this opportunity. Other traditions allow open prayers of the people, or the sharing of prayer concerns in smaller, intimate groups. Asking for help is difficult for so many of us! Lent is a good time to start. Speak your worries, speak your troubles, speak your sins. Practice humility with a brother or sister, community, or father-confessor. Consider the Lenten discipline of speaking ruthless honesty to a friend of your soul. I can’t explain it—it’s a mystery—but in honesty is healing.
Cynthia Long is a librarian and writer with an interest in fairy tales, Celtic mythology, and the intersections between Christianity and folklore. She has an MLS in Library Science from Simmons College and an MFA in Writing from Rosemont College. She recently spoke at the 2017 Doxacon Prime convention on C.S. Lewis’s oft-quoted phrase that “someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” She blogs about literature, folklore, and faith at cynthiajunelong.wordpress.c