Project Canterbury

The Value of Confession
by Selden Peabody Delany
Dean of All Saints' Cathedral, Milwaukee

Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1914.


One of the most attractive qualities of human character is sincerity, as one of the most repulsive is hypocrisy. We cannot help admiring the man and the woman who are real, and who make no pretense to a character they do not possess; while we shrink from intimacy with those who, we suspect, are not quite what they appear to be. Our suspicions in regard to such people are usually well founded. One needs very little discrimination and experience to be able to distinguish the true quality of voice from the false, or to read the fine lines of the face as bearing witness to the reality or sham of the character behind the face, or to judge from the eyes what manner of soul is looking through them.

There is a very simple method by which we may all acquire that sincerity which we all admit is so desirable an element of character; and that method is to reveal ourselves, the inmost secrets of our hearts, to someone else. It will not suffice simply to tell someone that we have this or that failing. We must lay bare our whole inner nature, everything wrong we have ever done or said or thought, our real character as it is in the sight of God and His holy angels--we must lay that bare to a fellow human being. Even if we let only one human being into the secret, provided we do it often, that will be enough to secure that sincerity and reality of character that we all admire.

Why is this? Because this disclosure of our real selves to another has made a breach in the wall. We can no longer assume any unreal attitude of holiness. Someone at least has seen what is really going on within. One of the spectators knows the secret; so what is the use of keeping up the pretense any longer? That would only be to make ourselves ridiculous. Henceforth we may as well bear ourselves toward others as we are in reality--as miserable sinners.

It is surprising that the mere confession of our sins to one other human being can make such a difference. It seems almost like some uncanny psychological trick. Yet it is true to experience. The difference between the man who has never revealed to anyone the real state of his soul, and the man who frequently makes his confession, might be illustrated by a diagram. The one would be represented by two lines: the upper line, a fairly straight line, being his life as it is seen by the world; and the lower line, very broken and zigzag, being his life as it is in reality with its many lapses into sin. The other would be represented by one line, very irregular and crooked, it is true, but in the main tending upward; for that is his life as it really is, with many falls and recoveries, and as it is known to others through confession, and to God. The life of the self-contained is a double life; he is one man to his fellow men, and quite another man to himself. The life of the man who has laid bare his soul to another, however full of failure and sin, is a single life--simple, childlike, and sincere.

This goal of sincerity would be attained, no matter to whom one might confess one's sins. A husband might lay bare his inmost being to his wife, or a wife to her husband. A child, as is right and proper, does often tell his father or mother the wrong things he has done. One might reveal the shameful secrets of one's past life to an intimate friend. Many people, in moments of illness or depression, tell their physician the real story of their lives--the story so little dreamed of by their friends and kindred. Business or legal difficulties often lead people to unbosom themselves to a lawyer.

But there are special advantages in choosing a priest as the man to whom you are to lay bare your soul. By his previous studies and his training he is especially fitted to deal with the diseases of the soul, just as the physician is best fitted to deal with the diseases of the body. He can advise you and help you with regard to your spiritual and moral difficulties as no one else can. Moreover, he is under a sacred obligation of secrecy; for he cannot reveal, under pain of mortal sin, any knowledge he has gained through confession. Above all he can help you as no other man can, because in his ordination to the priesthood he received with the laying on of the Bishop's hands a Divine commission to grant absolution to the penitent.

Following are the words in the Ordinal, by which this commission is bestowed: ''Receive the Holy Ghost for the Office and Work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the Imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained." Elsewhere in the Book of Common Prayer it is declared that God "hath given power, and commandment, to His Ministers, to declare and pronounce to His people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins."

Striking testimony to the value of confession as a safeguard of sincerity has been given by the greatest American psychologist, William James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience (p. 462):

"For him who confesses, shams are over and realities have begun; he has exteriorized his rottenness. If he has not actually got rid of it, he at least no longer smears it over with a hypocritical show of virtue--he lives at least upon a basis of veracity. The complete decay of the practice of confession in Anglo-Saxon communities is a little hard to account for. Reaction against popery is, of course, the historical explanation, for in popery confession went with penances and absolution and other inadmissible practices. But on the side of the sinner himself it seems as if the need ought to have been too great to accept so summary a refusal of its satisfaction. One would think that in more men the shell of secrecy would have had to open, the pent-in abscess to burst and gain relief, even though the ear that heard the confession were unworthy. The Catholic Church, for obvious utilitarian reasons, has substituted auricular confession to one priest for the more radical act of public confession. We English-speaking Protestants, in the general self-reliance and unsociability of our nature, seem to find it enough, if we take God alone into our confidence."

To claim that confession is a safeguard of sincerity is not to claim that everyone who does not go to confession is a hypocrite. There are many devout and gentle souls who have never committed mortal sin since they received the robe of baptismal innocence, and have never gone to confession. They are not hypocrites. Cardinal Manning generously testified, from his experience as an Anglican priest, that there were many known to him in the Church of England who had never committed mortal sin since their baptism. Have we not all known such devout souls, many of them perhaps very dear to us? They are the salt of the earth and the lights of the world in their several generations. To refuse to recognize them and do them honor and thank God for them would be almost to sin against the Holy Ghost.

Moreover, there are many others who do not go to confession but have sinned grievously since their baptism, and yet they are not hypocrites. They make no pretense to righteousness; they acknowledge themselves wretched and miserable failures. It is not to gain sincerity and humility that they need confession, for they are sincere and humble. They need confession to gain the healing of the Divine forgiveness. Like the publicans and harlots with whom our Lord so freely mingled during His earthly ministry--to the horror of the Pharisees--they are not far from the kingdom of God. They realize their need of a physician, for they know they are sick. Now, as then, the Good Physician gathers them easily into His kingdom, and heals their sicknesses.

Nevertheless there are hypocrites now as there were in the days of our Lord's ministry among the Jews. Now, as then, they are often found among the most religious people. Hypocrisy is always an insidious danger for those who handle the vessels of the Lord and frequent the courts of His Temple. Many a devout communicant of the Church who often receives the heavenly food of the Body and Blood of Christ is as proud and blind as were the Pharisees of old. Clergy and laity--we are all in great need of frequent confession as a preventive of a blind self-righteousness and a safeguard of sincerity.

Project Canterbury