Confession and Demons and Hagar

Reflections on Holy Solitude this Second Week of Lent

Dear Readers,

Heidi’s book was so rich this week that I cannot decide where to start, and I can’t write about everything because this letter would be too long, plus it’s already almost Friday afternoon! So I will focus on three things:

(1)   The practice of confession. Heidi recommends choosing a practice each week of Lent. This week she wrote about the sacramental rite of confession. I was taken by this because last Sunday before I had read the Sunday section of Holy Solitude, I spoke to the kids of my congregation about confession in a children’s sermon (via live stream, as we are not yet back to in-person worship). I’ve delivered children’s sermons for almost fourteen years but had never mentioned this rite to them. The adult sermon that day was Jesus saying to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” I couldn’t figure out how to make that work for a children’s sermon, so in desperation, I stuck my purple stole in “the box” minutes before the service.

The box was a long-ago ordination gift to use for children’s sermons. Over the years I have sometimes wanted to set it aside to preach children’s sermons without a prop, but the kids in my church would be too disappointed if I showed up to meet them without something in the box. When I set the stole in the box I figured I could talk about Lent, but as I drew it out, the purple stole made me think about confessions, so that’s where I went. I have yet to hear a child’s confession, but at least I introduced the concept. Maybe the adults listening to the live stream will think about confession, too.

I made my first confession shortly before I started hearing them, back when I was a new priest. I underwent the rite with the rector of the church where I was an associate, and we set up the same way I do when listening to confessions: that is, sitting side by side facing the altar. In seminary practicum, an instructor suggested that the priest sit with her back to the penitent, but that seemed too weird to me even though I understood the concept of confessing being easier when not looking someone else in the eyes.

I was surprised by the power of my first confession. Hearing God’s forgiveness formally declared to me by another priest in that context vs. the way we do it weekly as a group was incredible. I sobbed. I moved on from sins I had carried for many years.

Every confession I have ever heard has been powerful. Not many in the Episcopal church take on this practice. The adage is “All may, none must, some should.”

Lent is an ideal time for confession, although masks and physical distance might add difficulty, as one may have trouble expressing one’s sins loudly enough for the other person to hear through those constraints. I cannot envision Zoom confession, especially since you can’t both stare straight ahead. Still, individual confession is a powerful practice I recommend everyone try at least once, but maybe not this pandemic year.

(2)   Demonic voices that assault us. Monday’s section was devoted to the hermit Antony the Great, who irritated me when I studied him in church history in seminary years ago, but I enjoyed Heidi’s passage about him, particularly her reflection questions. (She is so gifted with question creation!) This question resonates with me: “What are the demonic voices that assault you most regularly or vigorously? They may try to shout you down in the form of setbacks, despair, boredom, distraction, numbing, procrastination, peer pressure, and so on” (Holy Solitude, p. 32).

I can name three such demons in my life and ministry, and I’ve made them alliterative: Impatience. Inattention. Internal nos.

Impatience: I get impatient not only when trying to be intentionally alone and prayerful, but almost constantly. I want people to talk faster. I want books to be over. When anything does not start or end on time, I feel tightness in my chest.

My tiny Lenten practice I wrote about last week—that is, not having my laptop when I eat breakfast--helps manage this demon. Just this morning I impatiently considered bringing the laptop to the table since I had written little for this letter and did not have to go to the church office today so was not going to be late if I wasn’t fed, dressed, and out the door by 8:55; but I resisted and ate alone in silence, watching the morning light change on the table and dance on the pond beyond our backyard. My intent for this practice is to spend time with God, but sometimes an unexpected result of the silence has been an insight for a writing project. Which makes me a few minutes late for work, but somehow calmer.

Inattention. My beloved former boss, the one who heard my first two confessions, pointed out once how distractible I can be. My inattention is related to the impatience demon mentioned above. I am constantly tempted (Antony would say by demons) to inundate myself with multiple tabs open on the computer which results in nothing getting the attention it deserves. My quiet solitary breakfasts, though brief, enable me to focus my attention. And when my husband sometimes joins me, I actually engage with him instead of grunting as he interrupts me while I’m skimming Twitter.

Internal nos. I hope that everyone doesn’t know this about me, so I labeled it as “internal,” but: my first reaction to almost anything is “no.” My husband calls me Dr. No. As a parish rector, as someone who tries to be led by God, I need to be open-minded. I need more yeses. Yes, God, maybe that is the right person for this volunteer job. Yes, God, maybe I need to stop and engage with this person even though it will make me late. I’m trying to tame this demon.

(3)   Hagar. Hagar was the topic of Heidi’s Tuesday meditation. In the Book of Common Prayer, Eucharistic Prayer C lists three great patriarchs of the faith: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When I first came to St. David’s ten years ago, I noticed that a previous priest had penciled in “and mothers” after “God of our fathers” and had penciled in “Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel” next to the men’s names. I figured that’s what the congregation was used to and read those names when I prayed prayer C but eventually learned that actually, the last several priests had not used that altar book, so my new congregation thought I was being innovative by adding those women’s names. Or taking liberties, depending on how strict one was about reading the liturgy.

As Episcopalians, we are supposed to be strict about reading only what’s written in our Book of Common Prayer, but a few years ago at General Convention, the problematic patriarchal language was discussed, and I have played around with what names of women I want to pray aloud ever since. Sarah was Abraham’s wife, but before he had a child with Sarah, Abraham had Ishmael with Hagar, a slave, and Sarah and Abraham treated Hagar badly. Once she escaped to the desert, and another time she was banished to the desert. Both times, Hagar was seen by God. So now, when I add women’s names to Prayer C (which I don’t always do), I use Hagar as one of three names, along with Shiphrah and Puah, who were the subversive Hebrew midwives who saved many babies in the opening of the book of Exodus.

I need to send this email out because it’s almost afternoon! Blessings to everyone, and please engage in the comments. I love to hear from you.



What I’m Writing:

Last Sunday’s sermon

What I’m Reading:

Holy Solitude by Heidi Haverkamp

Exiles by Ron Hansen. I read a lot less this week than previous weeks, and I’m not sure why. I spent most of the week with this fictionalized account that weaves the life of Gerard Manley Hopkins with five nuns who died in a shipwreck Hopkins wrote about in his poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”

Two Truths and a Lie by Ellen McGarrahan. Just started this last night. Gripping read so far. Now that this newsletter is out, maybe I can get back to it!