For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness. (1 Thessalonians 4: 7)
Learning to walk in the footsteps of Jesus is hard work. A great deal is expected of those who try to follow him – of those who try to live a holy life. This goes far beyond a simple avoidance of sin, embracing in addition a demand for cleanliness of soul. It is very hard work indeed and so today’s collect contains the petition, ‘that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul’. Everybody will struggle; everybody who tries to live up to Jesus’ expectations will come under attack from the devil; everybody needs help to survive and to complete the task.
There are different ways of looking at the need for cleanliness of soul, or rather the means for attaining that state. There is a simple ‘quick rinse’ in which we reflect upon a particular failure and then offer an act of repentance so that God can forgive. This can be just a word of truth about ourselves and what we have done, spoken from the heart. This is usually the extent of a daily confession: an act of recollection and confession followed by a realisation that we are forgiven – set free from the burden of sin and guilt.
There are tools to help us to have a ‘quick rise.’ The use of a prayer of confession need not be restricted to an act of worship and certainly not one in which others are present. In the quiet of our own ‘secret place’ we can read the confession from the Communion service or that from Morning and Evening Prayer. The simplest is that from the Communion service, containing everything that is necessary for the forgiveness of sins. The prayer from the daily offices is more expansive and goes to the very root of our sin which lies in the fallen humanity of which we are inevitably a part. It does not just refer to the things we have done wrong, but to our fallen state. We are ‘like lost sheep’; we have followed ‘too much the devices and desires of our own hearts’; there is ‘no health in us’. In saying the prayer we acknowledge our faults, confess our sins and plead for forgiveness. It is then the role of the Holy Spirit to assure us of forgiveness either in the quiet of our ‘secret place’ or in the words of absolution spoken by the priest. The prayer leaves us in no doubt where we have come from, but also enables us to declare what sort of life we are aiming for: ‘godly, righteous, and sober’. We know where we have come from, but we also know where we are going.
Despite this there are times in life when a ‘quick rinse’ is insufficient. Some problems need a soak. The phrase which is often heard today is ‘a deep clean’ or as is sometimes said in the North of England, ‘a bottoming’. When it comes to persistent sins it is necessary to reflect deeply for a considerable length of time. It isn’t that the prayers of confession already mentioned don’t work: they always work. It is rather that when it comes to enduring sin it is not always obvious what we should be confessing. The problem may be deeply rooted, lying buried somewhere in our past so that we can’t remember or quite work out how and when it all started and became the problem it is now. It may simply be about something that has become a habit and which we cannot shake off. To help us reflect at length, God graciously provides penitential psalms to offer us guidance and if necessary a sort of template for penitence.
The penitential psalms are traditionally: 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143. The best known is probably Psalm 51 which features heavily on Ash Wednesday and at other times during Lent. It speaks primarily of the penitence of the individual, but does so within the context of the understanding which the psalmist and his contemporaries had of the role of sacrifice in the religious life and a focus on the ‘contrite and broken spirit’. It is a reminder that our lives are an integrated whole. When we reflect before confession we do not just note the times when we have broken the rules, but also our relationships with God and others, and our commitment to the task of being disciples – not least our ‘spiritual sacrifices’. Penitence can never be considered in isolation from the broader state of our spiritual lives. There is nothing mechanical about sin. Rather it is something which grows within us if we fail to tackle it at its source. It is not so much what we do as who we are; what sin has made us.
Once we have had a soak the grime can be all the more easily washed away. The use of the prayers of confession is then paramount. Reception of the Blessed Sacrament reminds us that we are washed in the blood of the Lamb. At Holy Communion we are both cleansed and restored. For particularly stubborn stains there remains the possibility of confession to a priest. This is always liberating, but can also help us to dig a little bit deeper into our souls. The honesty that is required acts a little bit like biological washing powder which helps to lift the stains that ordinary powders don’t touch! From the first exhortation in the Prayer Book:
And because it is requisite, that no man should come to the holy Communion, but with a full trust in God's mercy, and with a quiet conscience; therefore if there be any of you, who by this means cannot quiet his own conscience herein, but requireth further comfort or counsel, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned Minister of God's Word, and open his grief; that by the ministry of God's holy Word he may receive the benefit of absolution, together with ghostly counsel and advice, to the quieting of his conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness.
Never let it be said that God asks too much of us or that he fails to come to our aid. He knows that we have ‘no power of ourselves to help ourselves’ so he does something about it. He does not just provide one method either, but a shelf loaded with solutions for every occasion.
For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness.
Father Andrew Burton SSC
28th February 2021
Image by Josh Applegate on Unsplash