"Confession is good for the soul," they say. And on television the cops often tell criminals, "Fess up. You'll feel better."
But if owning up to wrong-doing is such a good thing, why do we fight against it tooth and nail?
In his new book, "The Art of Confession," Paul Wilkes tackles that question. He then tries to grease the skids, so to speak, and make it easier and more appealing for the rest of us to — in his words — "renew ourselves through the practice of honesty."
Wilkes is a Catholic, and Catholics are famous for making confessions. Mormons and other faiths follow the practice as well. And according to the author, it wouldn't hurt anyone, from presidents to prisoners, to do a little less "apologizing in public" and a little more spiritual "confessing."
To begin with, Wilkes separates confession with a small "c" from it's big "C" cousin. Little "c" confession has more to do with self-examination and stripping away all our excuses and pretenses. It clears away the "junk" so we can see ourselves and others clearly. And he touts the "Three R's" of confession: risk, relief and renewal. He methodically follows confession from ancient times down to our own, the shows how "coming clean" can change our lives.
He quotes John Vance Cheney, "The soul would have no rainbow, had the eyes no tears."
On a personal note, over the past few days I have been reading a book by Henri Nouwen called "The Genesee Diary." There, Nouwen flees the buzz of the world by spending a few months in a monastery in New York (a practice, I think, Wilkes would applaud).
In short, the book mesmerizes me. Nouwen is so barebones honest about himself and his motives in life that I can't look away. "Coming clean" soothes his soul. And I found myself feeling closer to the man, not because of his many virtues, but because I could recognize his honest failings. Many were the same as mine. And I felt bonded to him, not because of our shared faith, but because of our shared faults.
Wilkes sounds a similar note when he says that confessing our sins doesn't sever us from our community, but makes us part of the community.
He quotes Thomas Merton:
"If we have chosen the way of falsity, we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it."
The author concludes:
"The first step taken in a new direction can mark a turning point in one's life, with a distinct before and after. These are moments that transform our thinking, attitude, hopes — sometimes even our posture — as if a great weight has been lifted."
I don't know about you, but to me, that sounds like something religious leaders have been trying to tell us for most of our lives.