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Twenty-one Years in S. George's Mission

By Charles Fuge Lowder

London: Rivingtons, 1877.

Appendix III. Confession and Absolution.

AT page 49, the blessings attending the use of Confession have been spoken of, and an important place has been assigned to it in our Missionary work. In support of what was there briefly urged, it may be useful to quote from. a letter addressed by the writer to the Bishop of London in 1874, meeting the popular objections and viewing the subject from the point of practical experience.

"Why should priests of great pastoral experience, and with parishes which demand their whole time and attention'--nay, for which they live and die--devote so much of their time and toil to the hearing of Confessions, unless they had tested the paramount importance of the practice by their own experience? Can it be supposed that they would willingly give up other work and plans of usefulness, allow their leisure to be continually interrupted by penitents seeking to make their Confessions, sit for hours hearing the like sad story of sin [235/236] and trouble, be continually perplexed by trying and difficult questions concerning the spiritual life, be driven to their very wits' end (were it not for the guiding and sustaining grace of the Holy Spirit) in the choice of means for best aiding souls in their desperate struggles with temptation, submit to be detained at all hours of the day and night, in the very busiest seasons of their work (as before the Great Festivals of the Church); and this without the support of any excitement, such as may carry them through their public ministry, or the pressure of public opinion, or, alas.! the authority or help of their bishops; unless they were satisfied that the hours, the labour, and the anxiety spent in the confessional were spent to the best advantage, were the ingathering of the fruits of toil in preaching, catechising, and visiting--the most remunerative, in fact, of all pastoral work? ** The hearing of Confessions is the very backbone and marrow of pastoral work. Why do so many sermons fly over the heads and never reach the hearts of the hearers, but because the preacher knows so little of the inner life of his people? Their spiritual wants and yearnings, their temptations and sins, the daily struggles of their lives, the associations and dangers in which they mix, their temperaments and aspirations, are to him an unfathomed ocean, over which he drifts helplessly. What can a priest know of his people, unless he can gain their confidence, that they may open to him the [236/237] secret anguish of their spirit, resort to him in all difficulties, and feel sure that he will enter into their spiritual trials? And where can all this knowledge of the inner life be gained so readily and so surely as in the Confessional? A few hours spent there will give more spiritual experience than many more of ordinary pastoral visiting, because in the latter you continually run the risk of finding your parishioners engaged in some occupation, or surrounded by circumstances quite unfitting them for serious conversation; at best very much time is wasted in ordinary civilities, or the discussion of temporal concerns. The chances are all against your being able to come to the point in their own houses, whereas they come prepared to the church, where the priest is ready to receive them; the object is thoroughly understood, heart at once speaks to heart, the state of the soul is the only subject to be thought of, and the whole time therefore is spent to the purpose, and where there is a good Confessor, and a good Confession is made, to the very best advantage. Experience shows the frequent unreality of spiritual intercourse, unless in some degree connected with Confession or direction. Mere religious conversation with a priest is often put in the place of penitence, whereas it has simply encouraged sentimentalism, or degenerated into religious gossip. How far safer and more satisfactory, both for Confessor and penitent, is that which is confined to the Confessional! I should be among the last to depreciate [237/238] pastoral visiting, carried on earnestly in the full consciousness of its spiritual character, especially where Confession is recognized; nor the resort of the troubled soul to a spiritual counsellor at all times; but I mean that as regards economy of time and labour, and the attainment of the highest results, the spiritual intercourse of the Confessional is by far the most satisfactory.

"First, then, the habit of Confession is specially helpful in deepening the conviction of sin. No power, indeed, but that of the Holy Spirit of God can work this blessed influence on the soul; but among the instruments which He uses this is one of the most efficacious. In the first conversion of the heart to God the change may come without any knowledge of the blessedness of Absolution, and of the consequent need of Confession; but when once this is realized, then no means is more helpful in deepening this conviction and bringing the heart in humble and painful abasement to the foot of the Cross, than the searching and thorough self-examination required in order to a good Confession. Indeed, as far as my own personal experience goes, as well as my acquaintance with the hearts of others, I doubt whether any self-examination is so real as that which is connected with Confession. Few things are more difficult than to maintain the wholesome exercise of self-examination, and among the ignorant and uneducated scarce any can [238/239] use it well except those who go to Confession. The experience of multitudes of persons, even of priests, is that they never fully knew what sin was, or what their own sin was, before they had been to Confession. It gives a sense of the reality of sin as apart from a formless sentiment. No private or public instruction in it, no explanation or books of questions, will do so much as the few moments which are spent in Confession, in opening the heart to a knowledge of itself. In fact, this is one of the greatest difficulties of a first Confession, that with all the care that may be taken in preparation, the soul does not really know its own sinfulness until it is humbling itself before God in confession to His priest. Habitual Confession at stated times ensures the careful examination of conscience, the bringing oneself to book, and is as helpful in checking spiritual negligence as the periodical inspection of accounts in checking public and private extravagance. We all feel the difficulty of teaching the uneducated, and indeed too often the educated also, what sin really is. Until they are accustomed to examine themselves before Confession, or to enter with such sufficient minuteness into their sins as is requisite for a good Confession, many dangerous and unlawful habits are found to have been indulged in without a consciousness of sin. How often does a first Confession reveal that the life has been blighted, misery entailed, and spiritual advancement marred, by habits begun, if not in unconsciousness [239/240] of, yet in very alight acquaintance with, their danger. Alas that parents, ignorant of the blessing of Confession themselves, too often through a blind prejudice, should debar their children from recourse to a remedy which, under God, might save them from life-long pain and remorse!"

Some remarks follow on habitual Confession and then the objection of its being unmanly is answered.

"I believe there is a high courage and a true manliness in making a first Confession of a life full of sin and painful revelations; at any rate, I have known the most manly fellows shrinking from it for a long time, until at last, conquered by grace, they have dared to open their inmost heart, and expose their whole life nobly and courageously in Confession. When I think of the fearful moral cowardice which is concealed under the reckless exterior of a man of the world, as well as of a Whitechapel rough, who alike shrink from the ridicule of the society around them, I give the palm of manliness to the gentleman or the coalheaver who has the courage to go to Confession, and is not ashamed to acknowledge that he does so. Yet we hear of Confession destroying that manly independence of character which is supposed to be a special trait of an Englishman. Surely those who assert this are ignorant of the elements of a true independence. For such an independence is not a mere obstinate assertion of self, but a true estimate of that individual responsibility in the sight of God, which [240/241] leads us to brave opposition in a righteous cause. And no means is better adapted to foster and deepen the sense of individual responsibility, and to inform the conscience concerning the right and wrong of our actions, than the habit of constant and careful examination, which is a necessary preparation for a good Confession. If by a manly independence is meant that lawless freedom which sets all restraints of religion and morality aside, in order to indulge freely the natural lusts and passions, then the habit of Confession checks and restrains its licentiousness; but surely such is not the manly independence which is the boast of an Englishman, or at least of a Christian Englishman. The man whose conscience is right with God is the bravest champion of all that is right and just, the most consistent advocate of the true liberties of his country and nation.

"But again, it is objected that Sacramental Absolution puts the priest in the place of Jesus Christ, between God and the soul. In a sense this is of course true, but in the same sense in which Jesus Christ Himself said to His Apostles, and through them to all the priests of His Church, 'As My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you.' 'All power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations.' The very idea of priesthood is mediatorial, but the priest is [241/242] simply the representative, the minister, of the one great Mediator. God employs means, which implies something between us and God; they are His means and instruments, deriving all their efficacy from Him, nothing without Him, and only effectual in the way which He appoints, sanctions, and blesses. The church is the body of Christ, the priest the minister of Christ, the Bible is the word and message of God, faith the condition of acceptance with God; all are means, but deriving their efficacy from His appointment. In a wise and judicious ministry Sacramental Absolution, instead of unduly exalting the priesthood, or veiling the brightness of the Divine countenance from the soul, has a special efficacy in making clearer and more real the virtue of the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ, which alone 'cleanseth us from all sin.' The preaching of the power of the Cross, and the cleansing virtue of our Blessed Lord's Blood, which are too often vague and unreal expressions, are realized by the penitent in the ministry of Absolution.

"During the London Mission, all those who entered heartily into it were agreed that the truest results were to be sought in the personal intercourse of the Mission clergy with individuals, and the after-meetings, whether in the shape of prayer meetings or instructions in the schoolroom or in church, had that end specially in [242/243] view. Now such intercourse, whether conducted by those who sympathized more or less with the Aitkenite or Wesleyan system, or on Catholic principles, has for its objects, first, the humiliation of the soul in penitence, and then the bringing it to the Cross to seek peace through Jesus Christ. By the former clergy that peace is promised very frequently on the instant, under the pressure of present excitement, and thanks are given on the spot for the conversion of the sinner. The latter clergy teach that Sacramental Confession is the safest channel, and Absolution the appointed means for the assurance of this peace. Surely those who declaim against sentimental unreality and emotional religion would allow, that the way which we believe is that of the Church, is less exposed to their objections, and the safer, inasmuch as the preparation for Confession gives time for excited feelings to calm down, and the priest who in either case conveys the assurance of pardon is better qualified to do so after a full than after a partial Confession.

"In answer to the objection that Confession interferes with family confidence, I am thankful to know of many families where Confession is a very sensible bond of union and affection, where the parent trusts the child, and the child respects the parent, and brother and sister love one another all the more, from the consciousness of such a common means of grace; and where the godly restraint of word and action is helped by their [243/244] acknowledgment of the common warnings and counsels which they received in the Confessional. It is not at all an infrequent occurrence for members of the same family, so far from dreading this chimera of priestly influence, to draw one another--the parent leading the child, the child bringing the parent, the wife the husband, the husband the wife--to the same means of grace which they have learnt to value and use themselves."

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