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The Confession of the Saints | by Adrienne von Speyr

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Chapter 11 of Confession, by Adrienne von Speyr

Holiness is found at the Cross. It is actually the preeminent holiness, of which the dying Son of God offers a final, comprehensible proof. There he is both the God who left his own glory with the Father and the man whom God made holy in every respect. Every element of holiness comes from and is of the lineage of the Cross, even that of the untouched and innocent ones, the ones who, if it were possible, would have endured nothing of the Cross.

All holiness comes from the Cross and returns to it–not to the empty Cross, but rather to the crucified Lord who on that Cross summarizes in himself his entire earthly life and everything constituting holiness and the life of faith of the Church.

Confession is the fruit of the Cross, and the moment this fruit becomes accessible to the Lord he passes it on. When he mandates confession he is pointing out his possession of this fruit that only now really has become his own, visible and tangible, as he distributes it. We can contemplate this fruit in confession just as we behold his flesh--indeed, himself--in the transformed Host. The difference is that we view the confessional fruit of the Cross not as something existing but as something to be accomplished. Though momentarily visible when Christ gave up his spirit, it remains comprehensible for us only in its application.

Every saint will confess in the communion of all believers in order to receive a share in it--though the saint will perhaps do so not so much in order to hear the absolution of his own sins as to come to the place where the fruit of the Cross becomes visible. He confesses in order to reveal the form of grace, to lend that fruit greater visibility, to participate, indeed to share the burden of the Cross by means of his own confession, and by means of his own confession to let the Lord's word of grace become incarnate once more in the mystery of holiness he instituted. He confesses in a great nearness to communion; he actually confesses eucharistically.

The saint gives confession a certain quality that it receives only through him, a quality so precious that one might believe the Lord had precisely this quality in mind when he instituted confession. Precisely the saint who has sinned least could make the perfect confession: the confession of his distance from God, a confession that also includes all sinners. The confession of the saints, more than any other, is ecclesial and social. It is that confession in which the other sinners participate. It is a fruit so pure that it may not be consumed by one person alone.

We can differentiate three groups of saints: those who have sinned and know from experience what sin is; those who have not sinned and do not know from genuine experience what sin is; and those who have not sinned and yet know what sin is. As representatives we can list these three: Francis, the little Thérèse, and Aloysius.

Francis has sinned. He no longer views his sins individually; he views them as a sum of offenses to God. He loves the Lord ardently, ever more ardently. He is consumed by this love. The more truly, profoundly, penetratingly he loves, the more true, profound and penetrating his sensitivity becomes to the offense that sin causes the Lord. This holds true both for his own past sins and for all the others he comes to know. Whenever he hears that something evil has happened or that others. have committed sins similar to those he once committed in the same mixture of knowledge and ignorance, whenever he sees how they prefer sin to love, he confesses, and his confession stands at the burning focal point of the offenses to the Lord; the more his love grows, the more burning this focal point becomes. It becomes the focal point of the focal point.

Somehow he confesses in timelessness. The more his love consumes him, the more he senses how much more consuming it should be. In this heightening he also sees the offenses to God become heightened, and sin is subdivided for him into areas characterized by the sins he himself has committed. In one way or another he confesses distance from God, and every saint in this group does this. Although he no longer is deceitful, he loves truth too little. Although he no longer hurts his fellow human beings, he does not give them nearly as much as he could, as much as pure love wishes them to have. He confesses, as it were, a kind of reflection of his sins. Since he sees the offense to God better now, his earlier sin shows him how little his present virtue is actually fulfilled. He does not see it theoretically, but rather as a pure, pressing reality. He is the one who today has replaced his former sin with tepidity, the one who in spite of knowing better does not respond to the burning demand.

Hence it seems as if he is always confessing his former sins, which appear in a continually new light the more he becomes aware of his responsibility. Precisely because he no longer is deceitful, he should possess a consuming love of truth. Every confession refines his insight and increases the feeling of his own unworthiness, but by no means drives him to despair; for he feels grace, and feels it all the more strongly the more unworthy he feels. God's mercy accepts this wretched sinner!

Little Thérèse possesses a peculiar manner of confessing, just as she has a peculiar knowledge of sin.

Basically it never becomes clear to her what sin is. She learns by way of suggestion that people do things that offend God, and that those things have certain names which exhaustively define them--falsity, theft, murder, hatred, pride, self-love. But these things and their names have no essential relationship to her. Evil is for her simply the opposite of good, but this oppositional relationship remains somehow vague and abstract. Everything that is sin is somehow terrifying to her; she thinks about sin, she speaks about it, but in the way that one speaks about things which one really does not want to be explicit about.

This relationship to sin is reflected clearly in her relationship to what has been called her "night". In her suffering she gets to the Mount of Olives; she also gets there with her insight, knowledge and burden of sin. Yet one really cannot know clearly and specifically what the suffering on the Mount of Olives is without knowing equally about the Cross of Golgotha. Hence Thérèse never gets beyond a kind of groping and furtive circling around sin. On the "Mount of Olives" one cannot evaluate fully just how sin offends God. Confession is a matter of Thérèse accusing herself of small and ever smaller things, but she never reaches the point at which Francis confesses. She is infinitely happy that she has not committed a mortal sin, but this knowledge inhibits her confession. It remains at the stage of preparation, just as the Mount of Olives is a preparation for the Cross. There are various beginnings, steps are made, but they never reach the end. There even occur a few excuses in the midst of her accusations. And yet she would be prepared to bear more and would be glad to be in the communion of those who confess.

Here the accent on smallness can occasionally have a trivializing effect. Both her confession and her knowledge of sin lack full transparency, the light of day and realism. Saints in this group, too, could offer full confessions if the saint were seeking to be led all the way to the Cross, not by anticipating things the Lord does not give, but rather through a passivity that at the decisive moment not only passively forgets itself but also actively accepts what is revealed. Even he who has not committed sin should be familiar with it. It can be a matter of Christian courage that is not satisfied with what is vague, a courage that knows that after the "Mount of Olives", as painful as it may be, the real cross comes.

Aloysius is quite different; he is more like Catherine of Siena. He suffers from sin, and he does not withdraw from this suffering. He is able to view sin objectively and realistically. He has no share in it and is not bound to sin by sin, but he is familiar with it. He wants to know what it is, and what is unbearable for him passes over immediately into what is unbearable for the Lord. He is not bent on drawing and seeing his own boundaries or seeing to what extent he shares in it or does not. His past plays no great part. He is grateful to be allowed to do that which God expects of him right now. If he had committed a mortal sin, then he simply would have committed it; it would seem terrible to him, but he would confess and then carry on.

If, on the other hand, he knew he had not committed one, perhaps he would quickly thank God, but he would not give the matter any lasting significance. He, too, confesses his distance from God, but without really concerning himself with the source of this distance. He looks closely at the Ever-More of God and his grace, and he confesses what he himself lacks. None of this is theoretical, and therein he resembles Francis. Neither does he develop any theology of the sins he sees others commit. In his opinion they are believers just as he is, even fellow religious, who do not love enough; but neither does he love enough. Hence, although he can identify their sins with certain suitable names, he is one with them in this lack of love. It is not important to him whether their lack of love occasions those specific sins, or, as in his case, hinders a more intense ardor. His contrition arises at the point where he recognizes his distance from the demands of love.

Hence one cannot say that for him and those like him confession has no "content" and therefore no absolution. He senses the grace of absolution intensely, more than does little Thérèse. It gives him a new impulse for love.

The Mother of God does not feel excluded from the communion of those who confess, because she participates to the highest degree in her Son's confessional attitude. She participates in the confession of all sinners at the point where the Son as a man is completely transparent before the Father, where he lends his divine transparency to his own humanity. His Mother sees this infinite transparency, and in spite of her perfection she is always striving to attain that unattainable transparency. She strives without concerning herself with results. The essence of the confessional attitude for her is to become more like the Son.

There is no absolution for her; instead, she enjoys the closest proximity to the Son as the Redeemer and purifier of all sinners, and she pours out this proximity in a eucharistic spirit.

Adrienne von Speyr was a 20th century Swiss convert, mystic, wife, doctor and author of numerous books on spirituality. She entered the Church under the direction of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Her writings, recognized as a major contribution to the great mystical writings of the Church, are being translated by Ignatius Press. Read about her life and work on her IgnatiusInsight.com author page.

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