Confession to a priest in the confessional booth is one of the well known practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Most Protestant churches reject it on the grounds that we should confess to Christ not a priest. Nevertheless the story of how it came into existence is instructive.
Throughout the Middle Ages sins were not confessed in private but in public. To sin was to sin not only against God but against the church. Thus it was a public matter and confessed publicly. Even where confession was made in private the contents of the confession were often made public. What’s more penance was usually seen as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Sin after your confession and penance and you were lost forever. Sin could be forgiven only once.
St. Patrick of Ireland changed all this. Growing up in Britain he had experienced the humiliation of having his sin made public and the terror of believing it could be forgiven only once. When he went to Ireland as its first Christian missionary he established a new practice. Confession would now take place in private and be kept private – the sin was no one else’s affair. It was between the sinner and God alone. What’s more confession would be repeatable as necessary, acknowledging the fact that everyone sinned pretty much all the time and that God’s forgiveness was always available.
Whatever we make of the practice today, Patrick’s innovation highlights important realities surrounding sin, confession and forgiveness. Yes we all sin regularly; yes we are called to confess our sin to God; yes God’s forgiveness is freely available; and no, people should not be publicly humiliated for their sin.
Source: Reported in T Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilisation (Hodder 1995)
Leonardo Da Vinci, the noted Italian artist, painted the Last Supper. It took seven years for him to complete it. The figures representing the twelve Apostles and Christ himself were painted from living persons. The life-model for the painting of the figure of Jesus was chosen first.
When it was decided that Da Vinci would paint this great picture, hundreds and hundreds of young men were carefully viewed in an endeavour to find a face and personality exhibiting innocence and beauty, free from the scars and signs of dissipation caused by sin.
Finally, after weeks of laborious search, a young man nineteen years of age was selected as a model for the portrayal of Christ. For six months Da Vinci worked on the production of this leading character of his famous painting. During the next six years Da Vinci continued his labours on this sublime work of art. One by one fitting persons were chosen to represent each of the eleven Apostles – with space being left for the painting of the figure representing Judas Iscariot as the final task of this masterpiece.
This was the Apostle, you remember, who betrayed his Lord for thirty pieces of silver. For weeks Da Vinci searched for a man with a hard, callous face, with a countenance marked by scars of avarice, deceit, hypocrisy, and crime. A face that would delineate a character who would betray his best friend.
After many discouraging experiences in searching for the type of person required to represent Judas, word came to Da Vinci that a man whose appearance fully met his requirements had been found in a dungeon in Rome, sentenced to die for a life of crime and murder. Da Vinci made the trip to Rome at once, and this man was brought out from his imprisonment in the dungeon and led out into the light of the sun. There Da Vinci saw before him a dark, swarthy man his long shaggy and unkempt hair sprawled over his face, which betrayed a character of viciousness and complete ruin. At last the famous painter had found the person he wanted to represent the character of Judas in his painting. By special permission from the king, this prisoner was carried to Milan where the picture was being painted. For months he sat before Da Vinci at appointed hours each day as the gifted artist diligently continued his task of transmitting, to his painting, this base character representing the traitor and betrayer of our Saviour.
As he finished his last stroke, he turned to the guards and said, I have finished. You may take the prisoner away. As the guards were leading their prisoner away, he suddenly broke loose from their control and rushed up to Da Vinci, crying as he did so, “Da Vinci, look at me. Do you not know who I am?” Da Vinci, with the trained eyes of a great character student, carefully scrutinized the man upon whose face he had constantly gazed for six months and replied, “No, I have never seen you in my life until you were brought before me out of the dungeon in Rome.”
Then, lifting his eyes toward heaven, the prisoner said, “Oh God, have I fallen so low?” Then turning his face to the painter he cried, “Leonardo Da Vinci, look at me again for I am the same man you painted just seven years ago as the figure of Christ.”
In 1995 Harvey Keitel and William Hurt starred in a movie called “Smoke.” Harvey Keitel plays Auggie Wren, the owner of a tobacco store, the Brooklyn Tobacco Co. which sits on the comer of third and seventh streets in Brooklyn. One of Auggie’s closest friends is a writer by the name of Paul Benjamin, played by William Hurt. At the end of the movie Paul Benjamin the writer, tells Auggie that he’s been asked to write a Christmas story for the New York Times, but he’s stumped. What’s he going to write about? Auggie says, “I’ve got lots of Christmas stories. In fact I’ve got a great Christmas story. Buy me lunch and I’ll tell it to you.”
Paul buys Auggie lunch and Auggie tells his story. “It’s about me” says Auggie. “One day, I’m in my shop” – the Brooklyn Tobacco Co. on the corner of third and seventh – “when I notice a kid in the act of stealing a girly magazine from the shelf up the back of the store. I call out and the kid bolts for the door and starts running away. So I chase him.” While he’s running something falls out of the thief’s pocket onto the sidewalk. It’s his wallet. Auggie stops running and picks it up. It’s got the thief’s drivers license inside. Now Auggie’s got his name and address. The only other thing the wallet contains is three photographs. One of them is the thief as a young boy with his mother. It softens Auggie’s attitude. This is just a kid who lives in a poor part of the town, who’s struggled all his life to get by. So Auggie decides not to go to the police. Instead he takes the wallet home and puts it on the shelf. And there it sits.
A couple of years later it’s Christmas day. Auggie’s got no friends or family to celebrate with, so he’s sitting at home and his eyes fall on that young thief’s wallet sitting on the shelf. “What the heck” he thinks. “I’m gonna go round to that kid’s place and give him his wallet back.” So he heads downtown, ‘til he comes to the address on the driver’s license. He walks up to a rundown building, rings the doorbell and waits. After a few moments he hears some shuffling, then an old woman’s voice, “Yes, who’s there.”
“I’m looking for Robert” says Auggie.
“Robert” replies the woman. “Is that you Robert? I knew you wouldn’t forget your Granny Joe on Christmas day.”
She flings the door open and Auggie can see she’s an old woman who’s almost completely blind. She opens her arms wide, and next thing Auggie knows she’s hugging him.
“I knew you’d come Robert. I knew you wouldn’t disappoint your old gran.”
Well, what’s he supposed to do? “What the heck” thinks Auggie, “I’ve got nothing better to do today. I’ll play along.”
“Yes gran, it’s me, Robert.”
He can tell by the look on her face that she knows it’s not her grandson Robert, but she’s living all alone and seems to need some company. So she decides to play along too. She welcomes Auggie in, and for the rest of the afternoon Auggie pretends to be her grandson Robert. He tells her how he’s got a good job now, that he owns his own store, that he’s met a lovely girl and they’re going to be married. All this brings a smile to her face and she replies “That’s fine Robert, that’s fine.”
Auggie decides to make lunch for the two of them, but when he goes to the cupboard he finds Granny Joe has no food. So he goes down the road and buys a chicken and breadrolls and salads, and brings it back for them to have lunch together. They open a bottle of wine Granny Joe has lying about and spend a wonderful afternoon together, Auggie still pretending to be her grandson Robert, and she pretending to believe he really is her grandson.
Later in the afternoon Auggie needs to go to the toilet. He walks down the hallway til he finds the bathroom. He goes in, and as he’s relieving himself he notices a stack of six polaroid cameras by the window. Brand new, still the box. Six of them. He thinks to himself, “I’ve never had a camera before, but I’d love to have one.” In a moment of decision he decides to take one of the cameras. After all, the old woman won’t know. She’s blind, she’s got no use for them. So he picks up one of the cameras and heads back to the lounge room. When he gets there Granny Joe has fallen asleep. He decides to let her sleep. He washes the dishes, cleans up the kitchen, picks up his coat and the camera, and walks out the door.
From that day on he starts taking photos of his shop, the Brooklyn Tobacco Co, on the corner of third and seventh. Every morning at exactly 8.00am, whatever the weather, he walks across the road and takes his photo. Over 14 years he documents life in his little comer of the world. It becomes his hobby, his life’s work.
A few years after that Christmas he stole the camera, Auggie decides to go and see Granny Joe again, to apologise for stealing the camera. But she’s no longer living there. He guesses she’s died, but his guilt pangs have not died with her. Fourteen years later as Auggie Wren tells his story to his friend Paul Benjamin the writer, he still feels guilty and ashamed for stealing that camera.
The story says something about all of us, not just Auggie Wren. It captures the human dilemma. On the one hand we’re capable of extraordinary acts of love and generosity, like Auggie’s gift of his presence to an old woman on a cold Christmas day. But on the other hand we’re capable, in exactly the same moment, of extraordinary selfishness, like Auggie when he steals a camera from the house of a lonely old blind woman. In Auggie we see ourselves, in all our glory and all our shame.
The capacity for self deceit about our sin is illustrated graphically in the life of James Hammond, a plantation owner, slaver, congressman and governor during the years the United States practiced slavery. He was also a man who abused his power to satisfy his raging sexual desires. In 1839 he purchased an 18 year old slave named Sally and her child Louisa. He made Sally his concubine, and had many children by her. Then when Sally’s daughter Louisa turned twelve he made her his concubine and fathered children by her.
Not content with the sexual abuse of his slaves he also sexually abused his sisters four daughters.
His evil caught up with him when his brother-in-law threatened to publicly reveal the sexual assaults on his daughters if Hammond didn’t resign from political office. Hammond’s wife left him, and many of his livestock died as a result of disease epidemics.
Astonishingly Hammond was so self deceived that he couldn’t see the error of his ways. After many of his slaves and livestock had died from disease this is what he wrote in his diary:
“It crushes me to the earth to see every thing of mine so blasted around me. Negroes, cattle, mules, hogs, every thing that has life around me seems to labour under some fated malediction…Great God, what have I done. Never was a man so cursed…what have I done or omitted to do to deserve this fate?…No one, not one, exercises the slight indulgence to me. Nothing is overlooked, nothing forgiven.”
Source: Reported in John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted. Ortberg sourced the information from historian James McPherson’s Drawn With the Sword (Oxford University press, 1996)
Held in the United States Army of Military History are four watercolours by a soldier-artist of the early twentieth century. In the opinion of most art critics these wartime scenes are unexceptional. Historian William Shirer described them as “crude, stilted and lifeless”. Their value lies in the name of the artist in the bottom left hand corner: “A Hitler.”
Adolf Hitler’s name is synonymous with evil and brutality. Yet most people are unaware that before he became a dictator who menaced the world Adolf Hitler made his living selling his own paintings. When he was 18 years old Hitler even applied for admission to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He dreamed of becoming a great painter, but despite a flair for drawing, failed the entry tests.
Marylou Gjernes is the former curator of the US Army Art Collection. Reflecting on Hitler’s artworks she says, “It’s a side of him that no-one expects. You don’t expect to see an artist. It’s very incongruous and, in a way, it’s frightening. If someone who can perpetrate such evil can also have this softer side, then who’s to say that possibly isn’t in all of us?”
Source: Reported in The Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine June 1, 2002
In the movie Godfather III aging mafia chief Don Michael Corleone seeks to disentangle his family from its life of crime and and remove them from the violent criminal underworld. Despite his best efforts however the rising generation of mafia criminals keep pulling him back into this underworld. Exasperated by it all, at one point in the movie Don Corleone lets out the anguished cry: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”
Do we not often find ourselves letting out the same cry. We struggle to break free of some habit or sin from which we long to be rid, only to find ourselves drawn back in.
In September 2001 the New York Times Magazine published an article under this heading: “How Did a Rwandan Convent Turn from Sanctuary to Slaughterhouse?”. The article went on to describe the trial for crimes against humanity of two Benedictine nuns, Sister Gertrude and Sister Kisito. In 1994 Rwanda experienced a terribly violent period in its history. Conflict between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority flared into genocide. The Hutu government went on a rampage of violence and murder, slaughtering Tutsi’s on a massive scale. Many Tutsi people fled to the churches, believing that there they would find sanctuary. And so, thousands of people fled to the Benedictine convent headed by the Hutu, Sister Gertrude. But rather than providing shelter, Sister Gertrude went to the Hutu militia and asked them to “clear” the convent. The militia promptly obliged, beginning an indiscriminate shooting. 7000 Tutsis were killed. When some 500 fled to the convent’s garage Sister Gertrude and Sister Kisito provided the gasoline the militia used to burn them to death.
The New York Magazine article is dumbfounded by this evil. How is it that two angelic looking nuns could perpetrate such evil? The journalist ends with these questions: “The picture is not an allegory of innocence, after all, but a study in the unimaginable disguises of evil. What mixture of terror and hatred led these nuns to betray the promise of their faith? The Rwandan massacres left in their wake hundreds of disturbing questions like that one – How does mass violence suddenly erupt? Are we all capable of murdering our neighbours? Where does evil come from? – but none of them were resolved by the … court. Justice is built to establish the facts of evil. It cannot explain them.”
Source: Reported in New York Times Magazine, September 9, 2001.
In 1505 21 year old Martin Luther walking toward village of Stotternheim when sky became overcast. Raging storm blew up and a bolt of lightning lit the sky with a flash, knocking Martin to the ground. “St Anne help me!” he cried “I will become a monk.” Martin had grown up in a medieval culture filled with talk of devils and demons and angels and heaven and hell and the great judgement day. Culture of great fear. He thought the lightning had been launched at him by God as a message, a glimpse of the terror of Judgement Day. Martin knew he needed to preserve his soul and the best way to do that was to become a monk. So off to the monastery he went to seek God’s grace and mercy. At the end of his first year he was made a priest and invited to celebrate his first mass. Martin’s family came for the occasion, the chapel was filled, the psalms were sung. Then Martin took his place behind the altar and began. But just moments in he was struck by sheer terror – here he was, in his own words, “a miserable and little pygmy…dust and ashes and full of sin” daring to speak to the living, eternal and fearsome God.
Martin got through the mass and kept going as a monk, but those experiences capture his terrible internal burdens. He got to the point where he was convinced that God was so pure and holy no-one could ever hope to be saved. All would be abandoned to the torments of hell. “More than once (I) was driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!”
And then in 1513, 8 years after that thunderstorm, 7 years after that terrible mass, Luther had a third great religious experience. He was lecturing on the book of Psalms at the University of Wittenburg, then in 1515 on Romans, then in 1516 on Galatians. It was during those studies Luther discovered a life transforming insight from the gospel – that God’s requirement for us is not perfection but faith. “My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him…Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith…whereas before the ‘justice of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love”
Source: Reported in Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther
The movie Casualties of War tells the true story of a squad of soldiers which fought in the Vietnam War. While there they both saw and participated in some terrible crimes. One of their crimes was to abduct and rape a young Vietnamese girl. The lead role in the film is played by Michael J. Fox. He takes on the character of a Private Erikson, a soldier who is part of the squad but didn’t join in the abduction and rape. As he struggles with what has happened, he says to the other men in his squad, “Just because each of us might at any second be blown away, we’re acting like we can do anything we want, as though it doesn’t matter what we do. I’m thinking it’s just the opposite. Because we might be dead in the next split second, maybe we gotta be extra careful what we do. Because maybe it matters more. Maybe it matters more that we ever know.”