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Reimagining Confession As Noticing

Confession has always been a part of the Christian tradition of spiritual deepening. As such, it has all too often been understood within a dynamic of payment due, penance to be done, conditional forgiveness, substitutionary Christology. No doubt for many, a deepening of their spiritual lives and even a re-formation of the direction of their being has been born out of this understanding of confession. The contemplative tradition brings an alternative, transformative experience of confession, reimagining confession as an integral part of our journey into wholeness.

As a child learning the stories of Jesus in Sunday school, I was always struck by the encounter of what has been traditionally known as “the woman caught in adultery.” (You might want to re-read this Jesus story in the Gospel of John, 7:53-8:11.) Perhaps you remember it: Jesus teaching at the Temple; the established religious authorities bringing a woman who had been in an adulterous relationship asking Jesus to judge her to be stoned as the Law said; Jesus kneeling and silently writing mysteriously in the earth; Jesus finally rising to respond to the insistent authorities, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her;” Jesus bending down again to write in the earth; slowly, beginning with the oldest, the men retreating; Jesus conversing with the woman, ending with “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin.”

An alternative understanding of confession and re-formation arises in this Jesus story that is fully within the dynamics of the contemplative tradition. There is a movement from the mind into the heart, the spiritual heart. The religious authorities—all male—were acting on a logical extension of the rules dealing with disruption of the sacredness of marriage, although no mention of the man involved in this relationship appears. Jesus, seeing with the eyes of the heart, perceives deeper dynamics at play and the potential of transformation. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” “When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders….”

In the end, confession had begun in the hearts of the men, and it began with noticing. From outward judgment, Jesus’ comment and his silent writing in the earth caused the men to turn inward and to notice how they too had parts of their lives that were out of sync with the fullness of who they were. They began to view this situation from a different perspective, perhaps noticing not only what they were called to work on, to confess, but also understanding that their actions toward the woman were driven by self-centered, egoic motivations as bad or worse than adultery. Jesus extends the graciousness of the Beloved not only to the woman but also to the men, calling them to confession and transformation. They turn away from righteous judgment and leave one by one to ponder how they are to live.

Key to confession as part of the journey of spiritual transformation is noticing, sometimes by being hit over the head with a ton of bricks, but more often by noticing in the stillness how once again we have acted out of those old inadequate behavioral patterns that are more interested in feeding the little, needy ego than in re-forming the ego into a strong and healthy center, marked by compassion and courage, integral to the spiritual heart. Noticing may come from silently bowing down and reading the writing in the sand that reveals what spiritual work we are called to do. Like sitting still in order to wonder at the beauty of birds chanting their songs into the world, we need to be still, held in the pregnant silence of divine grace and love, in order to be freed to notice how we fall short of the person we are created to be, that we want to be, and how we might step toward that fullness, following the invitation of the Spirit.

This confession is not reserved for the confessional booth or Sunday’s general confession or any other specific time, but rather is always present as we live through our days. With clear and courageous eyes, we notice how we fall short and where we are called to go—an ongoing examen that leads us forward. We can hear for ourselves the words of Jesus, the Wisdom Teacher, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin.” Of course, we will fall short again and again in being the person we deeply desire to be, but again and again we see these words written in the earth to lead us into a deeper consciousness and fullness of life.

This article is from Shalem’s FY19 annual report.

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Richard Leslie

Thank you Winston. I remember you from a Shalem gathering. May I have permission to share some of your thoughts in a meditation at church next week?