It’s been so long I almost forget how to do this blogging thing. But it’s coming back…
It has been busy here at Douai; that’s one excuse for the silence. Another is that it has been hard to find anything really good to write about, so it was best to say nothing, or so it seemed.
Another reason, if not an excuse, for the silence is that I found the whole blogosphere had become overwhelming. Just going through my Digg blogroll took longer and longer, even with skim reading, and it was getting more and more depressing in content. So I went cold turkey, and I have not opened Digg or looked at blogs (except through the odd single link on Facebook or Twitter) since January.
So here am I writing a blog post. The irony is not lost on me.
This morning I was reading April’s edition of The Oldie. The magazine is kindly passed on to us by a friend of the monastery, and indeed its founding editor attends Mass of a Sunday in the abbey church. It says something of my rapid ageing that I find this journal always an excellent read.
In the opening section, “The Old’Un’s Notes” I think it is called, he discusses how Swing Low Sweet Chariot came to be the unofficial English rugby anthem. I had heard the story ages ago and forgotten it but he has brought it flooding back. It is a recent tradition to sing this Negro spiritual, and it dates from 1988 when boys of our former school at Douai sang it at Twickenham to serenade Chris Oti after he had scored some tries. And it caught on, amazing in a world before digital social media. It was not lost on the Old’Un that the song is actually a plaintive cry to the Lord that he might take the singer away to any place but here. Irony again. Douai seems to have a general susceptibility to it. Of course, how many of us knew we were singing about the plague when as kiddie-winks we sang “Ring-a-ring-a-rosie”?
In the latest The Tablet, the letters (which never fail to appal) contain yet another cry for general absolution in place of individual confession. If ever there were a cause with which I have absolutely no sympathy it is this one. It expresses a desire to get grace cheap and easy on our own terms; which is no grace at all.
During the Exodus God was delivering his people Israel from bondage. It was an ordeal, through the desert of enmity and temptation and general hardship. But of course, the goal was the Promised Land, which would make all the suffering worth it. Yet Israel very quickly fell into sin, and worse, idolatry, as they made gods out of metal to suit their own tastes and replace the one God who was no fun at all. They wanted to play at religion rather than live it in its full integrity, to have the external consolations of religion without its interior obligations.
What else is indiscriminate general absolution? Forgiveness without confession. Or in reality I suspect for most of those who are desperate for it – forgiveness without true repentance. Do they think that if they stand in a room as a priest (illicitly) administers absolution, that their sins will really be absolved? Without true repentance and a firm and sincere purpose of amendment sacramental absolution is of no avail.
In fact I wonder if it is like poison, much as the Eucharist would be to one in mortal sin. As our Bishop Egan said not so long ago, to give the Lord’s Body to people living in a condition of unrepented grave sinfulness is to give them poison, as they would be bringing judgment on themselves. So it seems that to sneak into some sort of mass absolution when not truly repentant and without the resolve to move from sin is an act of sacrilege that would carry a supernatural consequence.
But if Israel is not a convincing argument let’s look at our Lord himself. Every time he forgave someone his or her sins, he did so face to face, and one on one. Forgiveness, absolution, was always a personal encounter with the Lord. To be sure it happens in order to build up the Church, but it is effected one-to-one. And it was always followed by “Go, and sin no more”.
It may be of relief to some to know that not only do I go to confession, but that I find it tough. It is tougher than you might think for a monk and priest to front up to another priest with a load of sin that is felt as all the more shameful because, as a monk and a priest, he has put himself to a higher standard; and that having aimed higher his failure seems all the more pathetic.
But I would not change it for the world. For even though I have occasionally postponed confession due to the challenge of articulating my sinfulness to another, I have always left the confessional immensely unburdened and liberated. For having individually confessed, I have been individually absolved, the words of forgiveness addressed to me as me, not as an anonymous member hidden in the camouflage of a group.
Why should people be denied this wonderful experience, even if they baulk at it? The Church’s laws are usually for our own good. How easily we can kid ourselves without an honesty check. Grace might be free but it is not easy, and its effects are not independent of the disposition of our hearts.
So I am afraid that I abhor general absolution, except in the exceptional circumstances for which it has been provided (imminent disaster and death, for example) and without fulfilling its absolute requirement for individual confession at the earliest opportunity afforded (though death soon after obviously removes this need); without heeding these conditions general absolution is indiscriminate, illicit and abusive, and little short of sacrilege.
Absolution is not magic. If there is no true repentance, there can be no absolution and one remains in one’s sins. Let’s follow the religion that has been given to us, and not make one up that pleases our weakness.
Lastly, thanks to Fr Blake, I have had the pleasure of watching a short video with Fr Jeremy Driscoll OSB, who has been a teacher in Rome and gave our community retreat a few years back. He has just been elected abbot of Mt Angel in the USA. The video is a few years old but still spot on, balanced and honest and utterly clear. It is about the liturgical reform and some of the misinterpretations that have been peddled in its wake. It is 5 minutes of your life that will be well spent.