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This review began as a personal sense of honor since I was asked by the publisher to do it. That gave way, I must confess, to a growing interest in the topic and the manner in which it was presented.
Paul Wilkes has offered the general public a primer on an expanded sensitivity to the importance of confession. I use the word primer seriously, not to imply it is a basic introduction that simplifies the whole idea of confessing, but as one that opens the door to a wider and deeper understanding of the value and crucial nature of becoming increasingly aware of the goodness that happens when we dare to look at ourselves honestly.
The title of the book, “The Art of Confession,” offers the first clue to the essence Wilkes presents. He calls confession an art, not a science. His is not a “how to” manual with specific directions to follow so much as it is a panoply of goodness, a palette of graciousness that allows us to color our life with divinity.
It is not so much an examination of conscience from which emerges a list of faults and failings, as it is an examen of consciousness, an arena of awareness that looks more closely at our attitudes and motivations than it does our actions.
“Confession,” he writes, “is the cornerstone of the intentional life...a realignment of what is best in us. Confession is about truth.”
Practiced as an art, we learn the hazards that accompany a banality of guilt that dulls our sense of right and wrong and skirts the necessity of taking responsibility for our actions and underscores the growing sense of isolation and anxiety that pervades our society.
Wilkes has peppered his work with compelling comments from others who have delved into this subject. One interesting distinction was evoked by Susan Wise Bauer in her work, “The Art of the Public Grovel,” when she delineates, “An apology is an expression of regret: I am sorry. A confession is an admission of fault: I am sorry, because I did wrong. I sinned. Apology addresses an audience. Confession implies an inner change.”
I smiled as I read those words. They reminded me of the frequency with which I demanded that my children repeat their expressions of sorrow over antics that hurt others: “Say you’re sorry like you mean it.” There was to be no personal duplicity.
Wilkes walks the reader through a history of sinfulness, guilt, shame, crime and punishment with stunning conciseness, leading through law to conscience culminating in a quote from Dignitatis Humanae.
“It is through his conscience that man sees and recognizes the demands of the divine law. He is bound to follow this conscience faithfully in all his activity, so he may come to God, who is his last end.”
This coming to God helps us to arrive at a deep understanding, appreciation and gentler conception of God. Divine acceptance loosens guilt’s stranglehold and defies the errant picture of a God who creates humans, gives us free will, and then punishes us for our mistakes.
Carefully leading us through our human need to seek realignment with God by following our inner compass, our informed consciousness of who we are, whose we are, where we are going, and how we are going there, Wilkes offers practical advice.
At the same time, he cautions, “The true home of our conscience is not within our limited rational powers. Its true home is beyond reason.”
He also reminds us that we reset our course in life through the honesty of confession. We must be, not seem to be. To do otherwise carries a price none of us wants to pay.
Peppered with stories that illustrate his various points, Wilkes makes the process as interesting as it is challenging. Change is never easy. Nor is it a “once and for all” endeavor. Confession, the art of living honestly, is enhanced by trial and error. It gains power with each effort.
Wilkes borrows from various traditions, philosophies and psychologies, to give the reader concrete examples of how to achieve a daily examination of consciousness. He repeatedly reminds that his are suggestions to help the reader to begin a personal examen, not commanding lists to check off to underscore achievement or note failure.
The traditional “now I lay me down to sleep” prayer that ends the day is accompanied by a reflective gaze on the preceding 24 hours. Wilkes calls it praying backward through the day so that one can see oneself more clearly, note where we are on track as well as where change is needed.
The second half of the book is replete with a variety of approaches to his thesis that confession is both an art and a process of renewal through the practice of honesty. He includes the possibility that public confession might, in some instances, not be the best route. He does so without precluding the need for private confession to soothe the soul and provide a healing balm that will open one’s heart to transformation.
Were Wilkes to choose yet another subtitle, I suspect he’d choose the wisdom of Paul Tillich with which he ends his own book. Wilkes prays for himself and all whose path crosses his, whether it be by reading or otherwise, when he marvels at Tillich and observes the wonder of being struck by grace.
“Do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted. If that happens we experience grace.” Wilkes adds, “I wish you that grace. That you may be reunited with yourself.”
That’s the heart, and art, of confession, the practice of honesty.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Novant Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at email@example.com.