Today, Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, I respond to the challenge not to give up something, but to take something on – a discipline of some kind. A way forward might be to begin a daily reflection according to my spiritual tradition. This Ash Wednesday, my guide requires me to write a prayer of confession for use throughout Lent.
A resistance arises within me, for the traditional rubrics of confession across the spectrum of Christian traditions are rooted within the Augustinian notion of original sin, by no means a universally accepted Christian understanding of the human condition. The moulding of my understanding has been more influenced by Abelard, or even Pelagius, eschewing the notion that we are driven by an innate corrupt nature from birth, but acknowledging the freedom of choice in our moral judgements and expressions.
Psalm 51, set for the beginning of Lent, nevertheless says:
5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
In isolation, it is a favourite proof text for the notion of original sin. The very event of being conceived and born into the human race seems to doom us to passive perdition. Our being is forged and lived out in this experience of corrupt alienation from the source of life for which we must continuously beg forgiveness and receive absolution. The dispensation of such absolution is institutionalised in systems open to manipulation and control by fellow human beings who are similarly blighted, no matter how sanctified. The fact that I rebel against the injustice of this might simply prove the point! On the other hand, I might be drawn to argue against such a defeatist notion of the human condition by focusing on the celebrated maxim of Augustine’s fellow great Doctor of the Church, Irenaeus: “The glory of God is humanity fully alive.”
The prooftext for so-called “original sin” is not the whole of Psalm 51, which pointedly, is not a treatise on systematic theology. Rather the Psalm in its fulness is the cry of a contrite heart, aware of falling short of one’s innate purpose and identity. The psalmist is aware of the way forward, and it is in the direction of awakening awareness:
6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
It is the psalm of someone who is aware of the choices and decision making pertaining to their destiny, and their willingness to steer the course that will take them there. The poet has a growing self-awareness of the traps and snares that lead to deviation from the way and his own susceptibility. He seeks to focus on the tradition, values and relationship that keeps him on a true path.
The psalm indicates no final arrival at a resolution to the disquiet it expresses, but confidence that contriteness and desire is benevolently received.
17The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
If one can confidently embrace one’s own brokenness and dissatisfaction at being “not yet there,” perhaps one is well oriented to begin the Lenten journey.
Oh, the prayer of confession I’m supposed to write?
Let the above words lead me to a place of stillness and quiet that, this day, reveals the opening of the way further forward.