Private Confession and Shame: A Medieval Perspective

Or… Ash Wednesday with Aelfric.

Remembering that Aelfric had written a bit for Ash Wednesday in his Lives of the Saints (i.e., devotional readings for literate nobles that consists mostly of monastic saints plus some additional seasonal material), I thought I’d give it a look over. There are several interesting items in this piece, some of which I’ll just note briefly before moving to my main topic…

  • For Aelfric, like most liturgies up to Vatican II, “Lent” began liturgically at Quadragesima (The First Sunday in Lent) rather than Ash Wednesday. He makes this very clear with his starting section: “This discourse belongs to the seventh night before Lent. In this week on Wednesday (as you well know) is caput ieiunii, that is in English, the head of the Lenten fast.” This, then, seems to be taken from a sermon given on Quinquagesima evening—I’d place it ideally at the Second Nocturn of the Night Office.
  • Aelfric tells three local stories concerning people who despised the Lenten fast and then died (or almost did—illustration 2 survives just barely) in unfortunate “accidents”. Not a theology I agree with, but Aelfric is clearly exhorting that God’s commands are to be obeyed at the risk of serious repercussions which, after these bodily examples he moves into a spiritual realm: “Every man who eateth or drinketh untimely in the holy Lent, or on appointed fast-days, let him know in sooth that his soul shall sorely suffer for it, though the body may here live sound.” Personally, this is the social control ascesis which I think we need to reject while still embracing the practices rightly understood.
  • Section on the joys of heaven is predictable in an early medieval kind of way.

Then we get to what I consider the most interesting parts—his discussion of repentance and the psycho-social dynamics of confession. Let’s actually give his whole bit on penance. (N.B. I’m using Skeat’s translation here; volume 1 is here and volume 2 is here.)

Now every man is baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity, and he may not be again baptized, that the invocation of the Holy Trinity be not contemned ; but true contrition, and penance with abstaining from evil, washeth us again from the sins which we have committed after our baptism. The merciful God speaketh, concerning all sinful men, two very profitable words, ‘Declina a malo et fac honum’ that is, ‘Turn from evil, and do good.’ It is not enough that thou turn from evil, unless thou ever, according to thy measure, do good. Penance, with abstaining from evil, and almsdeeds, and holy prayers, and faith, and hope in God, and the true love of God and men, heal and cure our sins, if we diligently use those medicines, God said that He desired not the death of the sinful, but He willeth rather that he should turn from his sins and live.

Couple of notes… See, he starts with baptism which is where all proper teaching on penance must begin. Nice use of Scripture. The ascetical theologian in me likes the nice blend of outward and inward action in penance, but I’ll admit the Lutheran in me wants to see the word “grace” in the mix. I think the concept is certainly implicit here.

Again saith the Almighty God, ‘ If the wicked man, and the sinful do penance for all his sins, and keep my commandments, and follow after righteousness, he shall live, and shall not die an evil death, and I will not remember any of his sins which he hath committed.’ There is no sin so great that a man may not atone for it if he cease from evil, and with true contrition repent of his guilt, according to the teaching of the doctors. The man who desires to weep for his sins, and make satisfaction for them with good, then must he diligently beware that he repeat not afterward the evil deeds. The man who after his penance reneweth his evil deeds, he so angereth God, that he is like the dog who spueth, and again eateth that which he before spued up. Nor must any man delay to amend his sins, for God hath promised to every penitent the forgiveness of his sins, but He hath promised to no procrastinator certain Hfe until to-morrow.

Good stuff, here, and very fitting for the season. I’m not even going to try to source all of this material but Aelfric ends with one of my very favorite lines from Gregory the Great’s Homily 12: “The One who promised pardon to a person who repents did not promise us a tomorrow.” Now the turn promised by my post’s title…

Let no man be ashamed to make known his sins to a teacher; for he who will not confess his sins in this world with true contrition, he shall be shamed before God Almighty, and before the company of His Angels, and before all men, and before all devils at the great doom, where we shall all be gathered. There shall all our deeds be known to all that company ; and he who cannot for shame confess his sins to one man, shall then be shamed before the hosts of heaven, and the hosts of earth, and the hosts of hell, and his shame will be endless. Verily, no man gets forgiveness of his sins from God, unless he confess them to some man of God, and by his judgment make satisfaction.

Wow—what a concept…  I think it’s pretty clear that the psychology of aural confession was the same then and now; shame holds us back from doing what we ought to do. But Aelfric takes the Judgment Day image of Matthew 25 and, conjuring it to mind in the context of shame, uses it very effectively. Yes, confessing in secret to a priest may shame you—but it’s better than having it confessed for you before the assorted hosts of heaven, hell, and earth!

That’s all for now—I think I need to get cracking on Martin Smith’s book again…

5 Replies to “Private Confession and Shame: A Medieval Perspective”

  1. Aelred sounds a little like a neo-con: to get what you want, just scare the hell out of everybody, and their fear will win for you what you desire. That is such a pivotal principle in all things medieval. I couldn’t count the churches and monasteries that were built simply out of fear of purgatory/hell!

    Thank God, BCP 79 has started to get us off that wagon! —– But, there are also a lot less churches and monasteries being built these days! (grin)

  2. Well, Aelfric was certainly a person of his time. Fear of hell as a means of motivation is quite a common feature in early medieval preaching. And this is a piece of the medieval heritage I have no problem leaving behind along with Church as agent of social control. Church as agent of moral transformation is related, proper, and important but different in key ways.

  3. In context, it’s more of a carrot and stick approach, and is used from the NT onward: fear of hell/damnation and hope of “bliss”, joy/heaven/eternal life. For antique and medieval preachers, the two go hand in hand, sometimes emphasizing one, sometimes the other, sometimes both depending on the text in hand and the day being honored.

    Penance was a public thing: even if one did not stand in front and declaim one’s sins publicly, there was no such thing as privacy or a confessional in most churches. Thus, everyone knew when you were confessing if not the what necessarily. And that is a shaming experience….and in an honor/shame society like the medieval one (particularly the Anglo-Saxon) meant that confession and its attendant shame was something most wanted to shun….and would confess only under threat and promise. Even then there are statements in penitentials about not allowing upper class folk send surrogates to confess for them—i. e. the lords and nobles wanted the absolution but not the attendant public shame inimical to their place in society.

    Do you know Frantzen’s work on penance and penitentials?

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