Wednesday, September 23, 2009


In the religious tradition I serve few things would create such a firestorm as the suggestion that we ought to develop a regular practice of confession. For one thing, there are a great many self-described "recovering Catholics" in Unitarian Universalist pews and such a suggestion might be too much for them. (Especially anyone already struggling with trying to pray with beads in their newfound religious home!) Yet even for Protestants and even non-Christians who might not have quite the same "allergic" reaction, the idea that in the 21st century there is a serious suggestion that a regular dose of confession is, well, "good for the soul," would strike many as a decidely antiquated notion.

And yet that's just what I'm suggesting.

In fact, every religious tradition we human beings have ever created have incorporated some disciplined form of confession among their spiritual practices, at least when confession is fully understood. If all confession consists of is a legalistic listing of the bad things you've done -- according to someone else's criteria -- then it's a practice we'd all be well done of. If, on the other hand, it consists of a true and full appraisal of ourselves, it's something with which we could all use a little more.

In the various Twelve Step movements it's called a "fearless moral inventory," and the analogy used is that of a business which must inventory its stock to see what's in good shape, what's gone bad and needs to be replaced, and what's been used up and needs to be reordered. As it says in the so-called "Big Book" of Alcoholics Anonymous, "A business which takes no regular inventory goes broke. Taking a commercial inventory is a fact-finding and a fact-facing process. It is and effort to discover the truth about the stock-in trade." ["Chapter 5: How it Works," from AA Big Book Online] In this case, the "stock-in trade" is everything that makes up your life.

"Oh Lord, you have searched me and you know me," begins the 139th Psalm. Gnothi seauton, it said above the gateway to the Oracle of Delphi, "Know Thyself." Properly understood, the prayer of confession is truly about nothing more -- and nothing less -- than fully knowing yourself. Yet since you have just spent time in the Naming prayer paying attention to those things for which you are grateful, in the Knowing prayer you focus on those things you regret or for which you are sorry.

Here, too, there are many ways to do this. I sometimes let my mind begin to generate a list of each of the things for which I am sorry at that time -- most recent or most serious first. At other times one thing may be so strong (even if it is not "objectively" the most important or seemingly the most "serious") and I will dwell on that for the entirety of my time with this bead. At other times I just allow feelings of grief and regret to wash over me and, hopefully, flow out of me. (These feelings can build up and sometimes just need to be released -- thinking about them doesn't always do the trick; sometimes they just need to be poured out.)

Just as with the Naming prayer I have found that it can be difficult to stay with Knowing prayer without turning it into something else. I will think about how deeply I regret an interaction I had with someone, for instance, when I begin to think about the part the other person played in it. Anger and resentment -- sometimes even justifiable -- may begin to rise. I am learning to let those thoughts go, at least while I am praying this Knowing prayer because I am trying to learn discipline and, during the time of this prayer my focus is on knowing my own responsibility. (Staying "on my own side of the street," as Twelve Steppers often say.) Sometimes, too, I begin to think of things I can do to make ammends or reparations, ways I can turn the situation around. Even these thoughts I am trying to learn to set aside, if only for the duration of this prayer. The discipline is hard, but is part of the practice.

The purpose is Knowing prayer is not that I might have more ammunition to hurl at myself. Rather, it is that I might say of myself, as the Psalmist says of God, "I have searched me and known me." Because when I can truly say this, I can truly move forward.

In Gassho,

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