Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Anything to Confess?

Today is Shrove Tuesday.  Later this evening, in the undercroft, Father Anonymous and the people of God will eat pancakes and sausage and other things both sweet and fatty, perhaps even to slight excess.  

In other places -- somewhere near the young lady to the right -- many people will drink far too much, and from that proceed to greater excesses, some of which (for all we know) will grieve the Holy Spirit.

Far be it from us at the Egg to criticize these traditional observances.  On the contrary, when they accompany the primary observance, i.e., of Lent, they are (reasonably) wholesome.  If one will be fasting for forty days, it may be best to rid the house of meat and fats.  

It is somewhat more difficult to justify the excesses of drinking, breast-flashing and what-all else that accompany a Latin Carnival.  Forgive us our middle-aged Anglo-Saxon clerical prudery, but those are things from which it might be best to abstain altogether, regardless of the season.   Still, there's something to be said for getting it out of the collective system, so that we can all turn toward more virtuous pursuits.

But really, people, the idea behind Shrove Tuesday is to be shriven -- that is, to confess and hear the words of absolution.  After all, we won't hear them again until Maundy Thursday.  

So intent upon this is your overearnest correspondent that he began his workday this morning with a simple Facebook status update:  Ready to shrive!  Sadly, the waves of penitents have not materialized, and much of the day has been spent assembling newsletters, coin folders and other folderol.  Sic transit poenitentia mundi.

Still, seeing the update, our beloved godfather was moved to suggest that we "first (re)read the Parson's Tale."  The parenthetical (re) had us huffing in umbrage.  Honestly?  Do we seem like the sort of blog which hasn't read the Parson's Tale?  Still, we are nothing if not dutiful and obedient, so we took time between the newsletters and the coin folders to revisit the "tale," which as most readers will already know isn't a narrative at all, but rather a treatise on penitence.  Some scholars think it may show Lollard influnece, which -- if true -- speaks well of the Lollards.  While by no means the most entertaining part of the Canterbury cycle -- by which we mean "easily the least entertaining" -- it is not uninteresting theologically.

Here's a bit we consider especially appropriate for the day, with our own comments:

Therof seith Seint Augustyn that ...
The speces of penitence been three. That
Oon of hem is solempne, another is commune,
And the thridde is privee.

(1)(a) Thilke penance that
Is solempne is in two maneres: as to be put out
Of hooly chirche in-Lente, for slaughtre of children
and swich maner thyng.[The bad side of the Middle Ages:  you had to hear swich maner of confession.  Brrr.]

(1)(b)  Another is,
Whan a man hath synned openly, of which
Synne the fame is openly spoken in the contree,
and thanne hooly chirche by juggement
Destreyneth hym for to do open penaunce.[The good side of the Middle Ages, inherited from the patristic era:  public sin was dealt with using public rituals, so that people knew the Church was serious, not only about discipline but about virtue.  Contrast the tendency of bishops -- including the Papists, but not only they -- to hide clerical misconduct from public scrutiny.]

(2) Commune penaunce is that preestes enjoynen
Men communly in certeyn caas, as for to goon
Peraventure naked in pilgrimages, or barefoot.[The REALLY good side of the Middle Ages:  people would do *anything* to hear that they were saved.  Fr. A. would have been tempted to ask that people talk like Donald Duck for a week, just to see how far they'd take it.]

(3)  Prevee penaunce is thilke that men
Doon alday for privee synnes, of whiche we
Shryve us prively and receyve privee penaunce.
Now shaltow understande what is bihovely
And necessarie to verray perfit penitence. And
This stant on three thynges: (a) contricioun of
Herte, (b) confessioun of mouth, and (c) satisfaction.[Luther argued that there were only two parts: our contrition and God's absolution.  But in retrospect, we wonder if he wasn't trying to take all the fun out of it.  And we mean that semi-seriously; we have often felt that the typical Lutheran service of confession and absolution is emotionally unsatisfying, because while penitents are encouraged to live better lives in general, they aren't specifically directed to make right whatever they have done wrong.  Luther is surely correct theologically, but Lutheran liturgies seem naive psychologically on this point.  Any takers?]

[F]or which seith Seint Crisostomz: 
Penitence destreyneth a man to accepte benygnely
every peyne that hym is enjoyned,
With contricioun of herte, and shrift of mouth,
With satisfaccioun; and in werkynge of alle
Manere humylitee.

As we think of penance this season, it may be useful to remember these distinctions -- solemn, common and privy. Or perhaps we should simply thank God that we are so rarely invited to hear confessions involving the slaughter of children.

1 comment:

mark said...

Did I say happy birthday? I meant to. Happy Birthday, Fr. A!