Good For The Soul
I confess. Somehow in this culture it seems like a weak little phrase. It lacks self-confidence. It suggests that you are not going to defend yourself. It admits that you are wrong—where the modern world has almost no requirement that you ever do so. It’s out-of-step, odd, anachronistic.
Given that, though, it is also revolutionary. It suggests that you have standards of truth which you value more than your own opinion. It suggests that you can allow yourself to be wrong and survive the experience. It suggests that, rather than being a servant to your own mind and its constant, almost uncontrollable, defense of self, you serve another power altogether. In that context, the words “I confess” are positively subversive.
Indeed, isn’t the person who confesses the confident one? Isn’t the one willing to confront himself or herself, while their ego is undoubtedly making an expert argument that they have done nothing wrong, the stronger person? Indeed, if you do not confess in one form or another, aren’t you really only serving yourself, and never anything higher?
I confess. In Latin, Confiteor (cone-fee-teh-or).
Near the beginning of the Mass we come face to face with this concept of Confiteor. Indeed, if we participate, we become part of a public declaration: I am a sinner. While there is shame in being a sinner, of course, to declare yourself a sinner is also to put yourself under God. It is the counter-cultural, counter-intuitive assertion that we do not seize into our own hands the stark line dividing right and wrong, we do not bend that line to suit ourselves, we do not grab at at the power of God. He is above, we admit. We are below. This culture gives us the absolute freedom to declare ourselves right even when we are wrong, to bend the lines, to serve ourselves. But we decline. We refuse. We confess.
In the Extraordinary Form, the Traditional Latin Mass, the priest and server offer this confession. With the priest facing the altar, it begins with: Confíteor Deo omnipoténti. I confess to Almight God. (A Wikipedia entry with the side-by-side Latin and English text of the Confiteor is here.) It continues as a striking confession to Jesus, to Mary, to all the saints and all those around him. Then it becomes unmistakable in any language when the priest strikes his breast three times saying “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa”: Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Then the priest asks for the prayers of those he has confessed before. At the end of the priest’s Confiteor mercy is sought and then the server says the Confiteor on behalf of the people, mercy is sought and the people affirm with their Amen.
In the Ordinary Form of the Mass one of three forms of the Pentintential Right is stated or sung, the Confiteor or one of two shorter forms declaring a state of sinfuless and seeking God’s mercy. All end with the priest saying: “May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.” The November 2011 corrections to the English-language translation of the Mass brought back the “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault” language of the Confiteor and the beating of the breast three times, restoring the ancient practice.
Historically, the public, communal confession which became the Confiteor may have started as a prayer or private confession offered in preparation for attending Mass. Indeed the Didache, an early church treatise (c. 90-100 A.D.) states: “But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.” See Chapter 14, Didache, at New Advent.
There is evidence, though, that it may have been a part of the ceremony before Christianity itself. In the ancient Jewish sin offerings, the priest began by laying his hands on the animal and saying: “Ah, Jehovah! I have committed iniquity; I have transgressed; I have sinned—I and my house. Oh, then, Jehovah, I entreat Thee, cover over the iniquities, the transgressions, and the sins which I have committed.” See The Temple—Its Ministry and Services by Alfred Edersheim at page 101.
St. Augustine of Hippo noted in the Fifth Century that “[n]o sooner have you heard the word Confiteor then you strike your breast. What does this mean except that you wish to bring to light what is concealed in the breast, and by this act to cleanse your hidden sins?” Augustine, Sermo de Verbis Domini, 13. The basic words of the Confiteor began appearing in written records of the Mass itself around the Eleventh Century. See New Advent History of the Confiteor. They became a part of the accepted Order of Mass at the Council of Trent, when the Church had to institutionalize the Order of Mass from the threat of increasing protestant changes to the liturgy.
If that is the story of the words, where did striking the breast come from? Jesus explains:
Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
Regardless of when everything was formalized, the Confiteor is a public declaration by individuals, gathered in a group, that they confess their sins and place themselves humbly at the mercy of God before encountering their Lord in the Scriptures and Eucharist. It offers no grant of personal absolution from particular sins like the sacrament. See EWTN article here. On the other hand, it is not hiding in a crowd. It is instead an individual declaration (I confess) before the community that we are a sinner. It makes clear that God is above and we are below. That we each are imperfect. That we each need mercy and prayer.
Still, somehow in this age it just seems wrong. We have to go out in public and humiliate ourselves? People are striking their chest? Isn’t that a bit silly? They’re lowering themselves like that? Won’t that hurt their self-confidence? Don’t they know they don’t have to do that? There are indeed a thousand reasons not to do it—and if those run out the ego will dream up a thousand more to prevent its being tamed. We want to exalt ourselves. We want never to be wrong. We want to constantly be blurring the lines so we are always within them. While denial of this kind takes mental effort, it is ultimately the easy thing to do. It is the human instinct. It is why the Confiteor is needed: to wash away this worship of the self so that we can then worship God.
The oddest thing, though, is that by bowing down we are raised up. Somehow the act of humility, of admitting fault, of lowering one’s self is freeing. It is a relief. The pain of imperfection that we take such effort to avoid, deny and defend against just suddenly washes through us and loses its power.
St. Augustine said that our hearts are restless until they rest in God, and by participating in a public statement of confession there is an undeniable feeling in the heart that we have escaped for a time from twisting around in our own chains. While we can play God and try to redefine truth for ourselves, it is ultimately in admitting that we are only human, and that God is God, that order is restored. And, at that time, the Mass can continue.
And, at that time, life can continue.