Confession and Despair

A greater focus on sin in our practice may be a better remedy for loss of hope in redemption, than trying to trivialise or marginalise evil.


I am used to considering sacramental confession* an indispensable part of my ordinary practice, but having recently attended a weekend for young adults at which confession was repeatedly advocated by both the group leaders and local clergy, in a way that clearly assumed most people didn’t take it for granted, I ended up reflecting on why I practice as I do, particularly as my impression is that it is probably not the conventional response to the type of spiritual difficulty for which I ended up turning to it.

I have always been afflicted with continuous temptations to despair: that is, to deny the possibility of salvation, something that makes Christian life and faith impossible, as well as being obviously untrue when considered in the light of salvation history. Voluntarily assented to, it is therefore a serious sin (though it is important to distinguish between an unfortunate state of mind and voluntary assent). I have found that the only thing which has any effect in dealing with this tendency is regular and frequent confession.

My tendency to despair was not the result of growing up with a fire and brimstone attitude that emphasises judgement to the exclusion of grace. I think it is easy to see how that can lead to despair in many people as Christian ethics unashamedly asks too much for human nature: real holiness of life is only possible through a reliance on God’s grace. Instead, I grew up with what I tend to refer to as a cheap grace attitude, in which both sin and judgement were watered down as much as possible in the liturgy. There was a fashion (possibly there still is) for softening or removing mentions of sin in the liturgy**. The effect was rather like being endlessly told how effective and wonderful a cure had been produced for chapped hands, while I knew I was dying of multiple skin cancers on which it would presumably have no effect.

It was only when I started to use Common Prayer – which doesn’t mince its words when it comes to sin – that I started to realise that the Redemption God had offered in Christ was actually sufficient to deal with the real extent of the things I did wrong, and ultimately, that he was able to deal with and redeem the underlying flaws in humanity which produce and reproduce evil. Whoever wrote the general confessions in Common Prayer still thought they would be forgiven, and still thought that God could bring them to holiness of life, despite the fact that they had “erred and strayed from his ways like lost sheep” and “justly incurred his wrath” through manifold sins and wickedness. Even so, this emphasis wasn’t enough to counter my mind-set on its own, and I eventually, following the logic of the Common Prayer tradition*** and the general exhortations of traditional Anglo-Catholic clergy, resorted to Sacramental Confession. It was the result of coming to an intellectual conclusion as to what ought to help which I didn’t trust emotionally, and I was rather taken aback by how much difference it made.

I still feel that the whole thing is substantially counter-intuitive, perhaps precisely because what one is doing is giving God a window through which to act, and what God does with that space is not reducible to normal human experience. I still struggle with the process even in the context of extreme familiarity. I find that all spiritual tensions, including those that are not obviously to do with unethical conduct or acting wrongly towards God, end up in the confessional in some way.

However, despite the difficulty of saying what you have done wrong to someone else, it is very reassuring merely on the human level to drag things out into the light and speak of them, in a safe environment and before someone who is there to assist. It is a way of bringing one’s whole life into the reality of the costly but worthwhile joy of Christian living: while in theory it would be possible to examine individual actions for a general confession, regularly and reliably, and I’m sure some people do, I find it practically impossible as a discipline. It is too easy to stop bothering, and as I don’t tend to find a general absolution enough to counter the natural tendencies of my heart and mind, I tend to find it too frightening to examine my conscience much in this way. My tendency to despair is pernicious enough that any attempt to examine tends to increase the conscious temptation to despair, and I need the process of the sacrament to deal with that – which it does, in a way that trying to ignore the temptation cannot. The sacraments open us up to God’s power to help us: as he does not impose himself on us, I find it easy to underestimate the extent of the power he actually has over the human heart and mind, once I start assenting to his aid by the series of actions which confession involves.

Obviously I can’t speak about the experience or use of confession in the context of having a different temperament, but, despite the fact that focusing on sin rather than ignoring it is difficult when inclined to despair and despondency, I have found the process extremely helpful as a counter to those very things, and would recommend it as a remedy for them, as well as in the context of a general deepening of Christian practice.


The Good Shepherd by Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne. Photo from Wikimedia Commons


*Confession, also known as “auricular confession”, “the sacrament of confession”, “sacramental confession”, “the sacrament of reconciliation”, and probably quite a few other things, is the practice of seeking the mercy of God through the specific confession of actual sins to (under normal circumstances) an ordained priest.

**I came to the conclusion as far as liturgy is concerned, that instead of taking out or watering down mentions of sin, they should be balanced with equal space spent emphasising God’s mercy and grace to all who desire repentance. While in many ways I think the Common Prayer general confessions are good, I think they can be justly criticised in several ways, including that the general confession specified for the Communion service emphasises a particular emotional response to sin “the burden of them is intolerable” which is not in fact necessary to sincere repentance. The inclination or disinclination of temperament to be emotional about guilt is morally and spiritually neutral: it is what is done with either that matters.

***Which says that you should make a specific confession to a priest and seek absolution and counsel, if private prayer does not produce a state of mind in which it is possible to come peacefully and faithfully to Communion. (The Book of Common Prayer; Oxford University Press; page 304-305 – i.e. at the end of the first exhortation printed between the intercessions and the general confession of the Communion service). What exactly it was intended to encourage or discourage in its historical context remains unclear to me, though I think it is sufficient (combined with the comments in the instructions for the visitation of the sick [same work, page 379]) to be sure that there is nothing un-Anglican about advocating auricular confession. I don’t suppose the prayer book or articles to be infallible, but I think it is reasonable to place the burden of proof on those who are disagreeing with them rather than on those who are agreeing, when discussing these things within the Anglican tradition.


Cherry Foster

Gender Inclusive Language and Other Shades of Meaning

A week or so ago I downloaded the music and words of the carol “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” from a website (it is the wrong time of year, but there were reasons for looking for something very familiar). Trying to sing it through, I realised that someone had changed the line “pleased as man with man to dwell” into “pleased as flesh with flesh to dwell”.

Whatever we choose to do with modern liturgy – and where we have our liturgy in modern English, it would be logical to follow normal modern grammatical conventions – I do in fact dislike people meddling with traditional words to try to make them conform to these modern conventions.

It usually involves a diminishing of the quality of the poetry*, and in any case, the older English grammatical convention of male and mixed pronouns being the same means that in actual fact, an abstract “he” or “man” is properly speaking inclusive and not gender-specific.

I realise that this convention can become a social problem if there is too strong a cultural tendency to read “male” instead of “mixed” in cases of ambiguity, and I realise that awareness of the grammatical change goes along with particular types of educational and cultural background, so I would not suggest that it was wrong in every single pastoral circumstance to change old words to conform to the modern conventions, though I’d love to see it done less.

However, I think there is a worse spanner in the inclusive language works than the mere fact that which language is gender-specific or inclusive is fluid. And that is that the words which we use instead of the traditional words often have different meanings or implications which can matter.

For example, I have a line in a Good Friday poem that reads:

“Tonight thou** sleepst, and no man can awaken thee”

Could it not with equal logic follow modern gender-inclusive conventions and read:

“Tonight thou sleepst, and no one can awaken thee”?

I don’t think there is much to choose between the poetic quality of the two lines.

However, the word “man” and the word “one” don’t have the same implications. To use the word “man” – “human being, mortal” – emphasises the limits of human power and the fact of human subjection to death. The word “one” which means “person” is problematic in this context, as it would include God***, who is not subject to death, and can – and does – raise the dead. It would be positively daft to worry about that implication of the word “one” when writing an essay on childcare in medieval India or an advertising poster for an awards ceremony, but in religious poetry, the particular connotations of mortality and limitation that are attached to the word “man” (and are not attached to any of the substitutes) are often valuable.

A similar problem accrues to using “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier” for “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”****. The two phrases do not mean the same thing on levels that go far deeper than mere gender. The three persons have been depersonalised into functions, and into functions the referent of which is the creation rather than the other persons. We are referring not to God as he is (for all we don’t understand “as he is”) but to the Trinity as we see what it has done. Using such language, for whatever reason, seems to erode the notion of personal relationship with a person in favour of a distant, abstract Deist God. To refer continuously to one’s mother or father or brother or sister or husband or wife as “the electrician” would diminish the relationship!

I suppose – though in a lesser way – that a depersonalising implication is part of the reason why I am disconcerted by the change from “man” to “flesh” in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. “Flesh”, like “man” and “one” has its own implications and emphasises. Granted these things are rather personal, but I feel that “man with man” emphasises God relating to us by becoming what we are, while “flesh with flesh” emphasises only his having become what we are.

I don’t want to say that inclusive language should not be a consideration or concern, and I am not arguing that those who have wanted to promote the modern grammatical convention of male/female/mixed (as opposed to the traditional male-or-mixed/female) have necessarily been wrong in general. But I think it would also be good to be careful of ignoring all other considerations of meaning or emphasis or quality or integrity on the grounds that there have been good reasons for the grammatical convention to change in many circumstances.




* For example, in that case the assonance “ea-a-a” has been altered by the change to “ea-a-e”, which has a completely different effect, and overall, I would say that the increase in the number of “e” sounds in those two lines is a loss not a gain.

**   I tend to write religious poetry in a traditional idiom because, being used to Common Prayer, it is how I naturally pray.

*** And, presumably, the angels.

****I do also agree with the theological objections to using gender neutral or feminine language for God (possibly excepting the third person of the Trinity): that is, I do believe that being faithful to the prayer language of scripture, and the manner in which God has revealed he should be spoken of and addressed, should take precedence over any other preference, feeling, or cultural norm. While feminine images are sometimes used of “God” in scripture, feminine forms of address or reference never are.

I would also protest that I personally value using masculine language for God, because the bridal analogy of fulfilment is particularly significant for me: not all women feel that we are diminished rather than enhanced by the fact that God choses to reveal himself in masculine rather than feminine language. I am as keen spiritually and emotionally as I am technically to preserve masculine language for God, as it is part of the way I comprehend Theosis and union with God.

However, these things, though thoroughly relevant to this particular aspect of the inclusive language debate, are beside the point I was trying to make.


Cherry Foster

Eustace and a (probable) Plot

Some ramblings about C. S. Lewis’s “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”

(N.B. Probably contains spoilers)


I have just finished reading – again – C. S. Lewis’s book “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” – the fifth Narnia Chronicle, if one takes them in the story world’s chronology rather than in the order in which they were written.

I’m never really quite sure what I think of it. There is something in all the Narnia Chronicles which leads me to read and reread them over and over. But when I initially read this particular one, I didn’t really think much of it – I felt it had no plot.

I’ve revised that particular opinion since: the plot can be readily summarised, but the nature of the quest involved (seeking seven different people who turn out to be in five different places) is sufficiently diffuse that, taken with the presence of the moral underpinnings (rarely obtrusive but always important), the adventures sometimes seem to have no relation whatever to each other, but that they happen on the same journey and during the same task. However, they are nicely varied and mostly wonderful fun – I don’t think I’ve ever got bored in the process of reading it due to feeling it was repetitive – and the nature of the voyage itself, where to fulfil the quest they have to go “towards Aslan’s country behind the sunrise”, has a considerable significance in the world’s set up, which I think holds things together more than I initially realised.

While I entirely enter into the way Edmund is set up as rather nasty at the beginning of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, I have mixed feelings about Eustace as he is described by the author at the beginning of this book. Granted, the subculture Eustace is described as coming from is not one I’m familiar with, and I have no way of considering whether or not I’d agree with its criticism. And certainly Eustace does plenty of things he shouldn’t. However, I have a certain amount of automatic empathy with him because I was also a child who was much criticised for preferring books of information to stories – I didn’t enjoy stories much until I was nine or ten! There isn’t an obvious logical reason to assume the bad character of a child because they prefer information to imagination and artistry at a particular stage of their development. However, in Eustace’s case it seems reasonably likely to be shorthand for something else that is going on, which I don’t recognise.

I also think Eustace gets unfairly treated in certain places. For example: “Eustace was crying harder than any boy of his age has a right to cry when nothing worse has happened to him than a wetting.” Laying aside changes in gender expectations, it just isn’t an accurate description of events. Eustace was standing in the guest bedroom of his parents’ house, when a picture began to behave oddly, and then fairly suddenly he found himself washed into the middle of a sea. I don’t think describing that as though he had merely tripped over and fallen into a fountain while on a walk in the local park makes sense.

Interestingly, later in the book, after he starts improving, more allowance is given to the fact he hasn’t any experience of “adventures”. As Eustace improves fairly early on in the book, feeling the early criticisms of him are a bit heavy-handed doesn’t affect enjoyment of that much of the story.

I also feel that a better reason for them sailing into the unknown “darkness” could have been found than the fact that Reepicheep had never heard the proverb “The better part of valour is discretion”! I love the Quixotic mouse – who, ironically, is right often enough despite his recklessness – but I still feel the plot limps slightly here, in that the motivation for risking lives in the way (King) Caspian does isn’t adequate. The other characters don’t usually have the same “death-and-glory” mind-set as Reepicheep, and usually check his excesses rather than joining in with them. Again, it seems rather arbitrary that the enchantment of the three Lords should be broken at the end by one member of the company continuing on into Aslan’s country; there doesn’t seem to be any connection between the two things. Though these things don’t matter very much, I’m sure they contributed to my initial impression that the book lacked a plot, and I think it would be raised from good to excellent, by more coherence in these places, particularly in the second (given the significance of Aslan in the world’s set up). This may be a matter of purely personal taste: where coherence and consistency matter and where they don’t in fiction is hardly a straightforward issue.

Though I haven’t done a “how-does-the-author-use-language-to-create-this-effect” analysis on the prose style of each section, one of the things that struck me on this last reading was the extent to which C. S. Lewis creates different atmospheres through the book – the tension and fear of the dark island and the sea serpent, the apparent normality of the island of the voice, the dreamy calmness of the last sea at the end of the world, the almost oppressive wildness of some of the uninhabited islands.  It is extremely well written from the technical point of view.

There is a lot of morality, spirituality, and metaphysics in the book overall, something I always enjoy, but if – like “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” – it is intended to be built around an analogy of some type, rather than being a series of adventures which make moral and spiritual points, I haven’t spotted it yet (or read an introduction/commentary which points it out).

Perhaps part of the reason I never really determine what I think of it is that while it is in itself an excellent book, I miss in it overall the raw power and mythological depth of some of the other books in the series (particularly “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe”, and “The Last Battle”). It is an enjoyable read, with a lot of depth and thoughtfulness, but it isn’t really the same type of book.



*Primary school: ages four to eleven in the English school system.


Cherry Foster