Upon assuming the crown, Queen Elizabeth I, famously told her subjects, “I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls.” Like so much of Europe in the sixteenth century, England had been violently divided over the question of religion. Many of Elizabeth’s subjects didn’t think that reform had gone far enough; others couldn’t understand why their Catholic faith should be abandoned. No one in the sixteenth century believed a religiously divided nation could prosper.
Elizabeth wanted to impose a common prayer book upon all of her subjects and yet leave the interpretation of its words to the individual. Hence her declaration, “I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls.” Opinion is still divided on whether or not that worked, but almost everyone today would subscribe to Elizabeth’s intent, that no government should intrude into the conscience of the citizen.
Some would even hear those words as closing the modern conscience to outsiders. They would argue that the soul stands before God alone, that it needs answer to none but itself. Granted, no one should force entry into another’s soul, yet freely opening one’s conscience can be life-giving.
Indeed, it’s an important way to encounter God, who isn’t confined to any individual’s purview. In fact, if you’re not willing to look outside the confines of your own soul for God, how would you ever know that the God whom you worship is anything more than the creation of your own mind? Doesn’t the soul expand when it freely opens to others? “Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths” (Is 2:3).
One practice that many of Elizabeth’s reforming subjects found abhorrent was the confession of sins to a priest. It certainly is a window into the soul, but, freely chosen, is there a better way to encounter the God beyond one’s own creation?
Simply to prepare for confession, by examining one’s conscience, is already to have recognized that each of us answers to something higher than ourselves. And the mere attempt to explain one’s self to another is insightful. We can’t tell our stories without drawing them into a pattern. In speaking to another, the scattered begins to take shape.
Yes, some confessions are mechanized. We’ve taught too many simply to ennumerate, but that doesn’t mean that those souls aren’t sincerely seeking the Lord. Sadly, a couple of generations have almost absented themselves from the practice, but the sacrament is powerfully reviving.
As someone who listens to confessions, what do I see in this window? Some might think that it’s scintillating, hearing all those sins. It’s not. Sin is sad. Recounted, it loses it lustre.
The hardest part of listening to confessions is hearing hearts break. So many souls struggling to go on after a great sorrow or striving to be faithful under heavy stress. It should drive a priest back to prayer, lest the sheer sorrow of the world overwhelm him.
But there is also the sublime. The world may be full of wounded souls, but it is also suffused with grace. Saints walk among us. They see the sin that has brought them to confession. The confessor can see the light in which they walk, the Spirit who has given them the grace to humbly confess their sins.
The Church opens her new year where she left her old: gazing into the future. “Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come” (Mt 23:42). Why expend so much energy over a future we cannot know? One we can scarcely imagine? Because looking ahead reveals the present. Where we are in life is always a question of where we are going. Confession is a graced moment, when, looking back, we see the dark vales through which we’ve passed and, looking to the last, the distance we must yet travel before the dawn. “Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom 13: 11-12). Confession is a window into the soul. It not only allows the confessor to see in. It allows the soul to see out. “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” (Is 2: 5)
Isaiah 2: 1-5 Romans 13: 11-14 Matthew 24: 37-24