Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The unpopular concept of repentence.

Along with many another, I've been pondering the public reaction to the prayer of penitence during that wedding last week. I suspect that popular sensibilities, shaped by a throw away culture where things are better disposed of than mended and "love means never having to say you are sorry", simply find the whole idea of acknowledging a painful past abhorrent. Better to pretend that it has never been, rather than give it a long hard look and seek help, from whatever source, to make a fresh start…
The trouble is, of course, that this never really works.
Each of us is the sum of our past experiences, good or bad, and so hurts and disappointments lurk, waiting to trip us up at our most vulnerable moments. That's why it's so wonderful to be able to confront them, knowing that they are part of the person you are, and then allow yourself to be loved despite them. Surely it's an essential part of the process of beginning a new life with another person, to accept that they know all about you, and still choose to love you.
But, if seeing yourself and your relationships clearly is important as we move through of rites of passage, then I've been guilty in the past year of depriving people of this opportunity. Whether from kindness or cowardice, I tend not to use the penitential material included in the Common Worship Funeral service. Somehow it has almost always felt too heavy, when the mourners are at best agnostic. In my anxiety to be "pastoral" I've majored on the fact that nothing can separate us from God’s love, without allowing time to pause and consider those elements of the past that might make this specially welcome news. When we meet with mourners, there is so much that we cannot “make better”, and in simple human terms this includes damaged relationships. To be truly reassuring, words of forgiveness need to be spoken by the one voice that is now silent. With only an hour’s visit, it feels hard to probe beyond the non-negotiable fact of a life that has ended, and it can be difficult even to glean the details of that life to make the service real for those who attend. Not surprising, then, that I hesitate to suggest that there might be things to regret, but that there is still something to be done. That it’s not too late, after all.
I need to get over this, though, don’t I? I’m only involved at all because I represent a hope beyond the simply human. One of the final nudges towards ordination for me was a conversation with someone who badly needed to hear that her past was behind her, that a fresh start was possible. I hated the feeling, then, that I lacked the Church’s authority to speak the absolution she craved…I guess I need to remember her, as I knock on the door for the next funeral visit.


Humble Secretary said...

Q for you, oh great one. Is repentance always necessary for absolution? Esp in the case of a dear departed? I think of my raw angst of the departing of my former priest. There is much to repent of - could have been a better and more considerate and more active parishoner. Any form of repentance seems rather lame now as it is too late - and absolution may come but it ultimately it is surely up to me to deal with whatever guilt I carry?

Or am I just impossibly heretical and have completely missed your point? Apologies if so.

Kathryn said...

Well, istm that the absolution is there on offer if someone is carting the guilt around...that's kind of the point of what I was clumsily trying to say. It WILL feel too late, but this doesn't mean that anyone needs to be weighed down forever, and perhaps in not including the possiblity of looking at that guilt in the funeral service I've been compounding the problem for those who feel they have to do just that.
Knowing that you are forgivable and forgiven may not always enable you to forgive yourself, but it isn't a bad starting point on the journey.

Dr Moose said...

humble secretary was concerned about insufficient activity as a sin, presumably, against your former priest. But since all sin is ultimately against God, as a failure to do/achieve his will, a confession to him is not inappropriate in those circumstances. There may be regret at the inability to admit failure to the departed (and hear their forgiveness), but absolution, in the broadest sense, ultimately must come from the divine source.

kathryn - you were concerned about whether and how a time of confession could be included in the funeral service. I, too, feel that a formal confession is largely inappropriate. When I visit the bereaved I always take copies of the service order with me and try to go through it with them. Partly so they will have some idea about what is happening, and partly because I remain unsure about how much will "go in" on the day.

I always improvise around the four-fold form of prayer on pages 264-5 of the Pastoral book, without congregational responses. When I do so I always extend the "Heal the memories of hurt and failure" to include "words we said but cannot now unsay, and words we should have said but never did" - thus allowing a space for implicit confession, for both the immediately bereaved and the woder congregation. I always warn the family that I will do something like this. Just as I always ask if they would like me to pray with them before I finish my funeral visit. (Most don't, though).

Hope that helps.

Kathryn said...

It does indeed help, dr moose....I love your addition to the prayers, and will include it myself from henceforth, if that's OK with you?
Interestingly, most people in these parts do want a prayer at the end of a funeral visit...often, this brings their emotions to the fore again, so that what was going to be the end of the visit turns out to be more of a half way point,- but that's fine.

Humble Secretary said...

dr moose: the problem arises when there is insufficient belief in a deity , then seeking absolution from said deity is a non-starter.