Aaron R. returns again with some ideas on confession, atonement, and community.
Amy Tan wrote in The Kitchen God’s Wife ‘this was how you [come] to love someone… One person [lets] out their fears, the other drawing close to soothe the pain. And then more would pour out, everything that has been hidden, more and more – sorrow, shame, loneliness, all the old aches, so much released until you overflowed with the joy to be rid of it, until it was too late to stop this new joy from taking over your heart.’ In addition Mircea Eliade has noted that confession has a long history pertaining to the alleviation of suffering. To my mind both these mechanisms play an important role in the process of atonement, not just with God, but in our religious communities.
The functions of confession are numerous and well known. They involve being stripped of pride, they are expressions of love to God and they also serve as a catalyst in the process of repentance. In a study of the theological and historical practice of confession Edward Kimball argues that the Hebrew root of confession is yadah, which has connotations suggesting an acknowledgement of one’s human nature, to extol God’s characteristics or to praise and give thanks.
One transition that Kimball describes pertains to how the early Church used to practice public confession much more frequently than we do today. This might involve individuals confessing to a congregation or organised meetings of confession between small groups. One example Kimball cites is of a decision made by an Elders Quorum in Kirtland in 1840 which ‘voted [Charles Wood’s] Licence be taken from him and withheld until he make satisfaction by confession to the Church.’
It seems that after the excesses of the Mormon Reformation, where public confessions became a norm, and under the influence of Brigham Young, who seemed to value a certain silence on such issues, the practice became less common. However, small revivals continued, for example, prior to the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple members were encouraged to meet together, confess their sins and forgive one another as a preparation for this spiritual feast. Kimball also briefly documents the long history of public confession in the mainstream Christian Churches.
The practice in many ways has fallen away and in my mind this is something that is missing from our worship services, especially from our testimony meetings. Confession seeks to approach others in a spirit of love and honesty; it seeks forgiveness in a way that embodies the trust and humility that are foundations for healthy relationships; it seeks to break-down the barriers which separate us one from another and seeks out help from a person or community that is motivated by similar desires; it helps remove the veils of self-deception and enter a more intimate relationship with those we want to create sacred communities with. As we humbly express our failings to one another, following our collective partaking of the sacrament, and ask for their help and patience as we strive to live a life more fully in tune with the Spirit, we will surely see the impact such confessions have upon the people in the wards that we attend.
Zion became one in heart, I believe, because the people no longer tried to hide their hearts from one another. These Zion-like communities, I am sure, were not perfect (in the sense of being un-improvable) but were rather bound together in love and fellowship because they were willing to forgive each other and were able to trust in the forgiveness of others. My own experience of trying to express my sins in this way began just over a year ago. Regardless of the impact it may have had in the lives of those others who are present in such meetings, I have felt my love for those people in my ward increase. Moreover, I have seen (or perhaps more readily perceived) the good that they do.
I should note that I am not suggesting that people begin to confess intimate and specific details of serious transgression, but I do believe sincere confession of weaknesses can empower communities to be more at-one. President Kimball spoke of this when he suggested that we say something like the following: “I recognize my weaknesses and imperfections and I am striving constantly to overcome them and ask you, my brothers and sisters, to overlook my frailties and errors.” I think we can be more specific about certain weaknesses, in fact I sense that the more personal or ashamed we are of that transgression the greater the impact, as longer as it does not fall into areas that might put a person’s membership in jeopardy. Edward Kimball notes that ‘If sin is conceived not only as an offense against God, but also against the community of believers, then confession to that community is consistent with the basic requirement of confession to those who have been hurt.’
Following those lines I cited earlier from Amy Tan, her character records ‘But I stopped myself. I kept myself hidden’. I believe that our ability to build Zion will be hindered unless we learn to be more vulnerable with one another, to be more open about our failings. I believe that confession is a spiritual practice in that is a catalyst for allowing the spirit of atonement to permeate an individual and a community.