Shrift and Housel

I quite often look at Fr Ray Blake’s blog, and found What have we come to? Fr Blake is a Roman Catholic priest in Brighton and shows a considerable amount of pastoral insight for his long experience in his parish.

How did the Church in the past deal with sin and sinners? We are all in the same boat. After having read this article and thought about the possibility of having ordinary lay folk receive Shrift (medieval word for confession)and Housel (medieval word for Communion) only once a year, then what about us priests who celebrate Mass each day or at least every week on Sundays and feast days? What degree of sinlessness if required of priests?

Obviously we priests are called to holiness and asked to do all we can to live an honest Christian life.

A just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again: but the wicked shall fall into mischief. Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth.

A priest will go on serving his people, celebrating Mass and receiving the Sacraments. Fr Blake seems to be making the point that churches in the past were full of all kinds of people, from the grenouilles de bénitier to people struggling with drugs, alcohol and their sexual instincts.

I remember being taught as a seminarian that the Cathars had two levels of membership of their community: the uninitiated and those who had received the Consolamentum and had to remain absolutely pure until death. I think the history of the Cathars was certainly much more subtle, a reaction against the laxness and hypocrisy of wealthy bishops and abbots, but we are confronted with a shocking excess of rigour of which none of us is capable.

We read Evelyn Waugh about the diversity of people in the parishes in the “old days”. Sebastian Flyte is described as a person with no will or “moral fibre”, but described by his sister as someone approaching holiness. This is the paradox many of us today cannot understand in our Cartesian rationalism of sorting every person into types. I am thinking about studying and writing something on Personalism, a philosophy of thought found with some Orthodox writers and with existentialists like Heidegger and Pope John Paul II. I’ll return to that subject later. The longer I live, the more I find that no two human persons have anything in common or can understand the other!

I notice the changes in the way priests are dealt with when they fall short. In the old days, they were sent to a monastery for a while and then served as an “auxiliary priest” in a big city parish. Nowadays, they are simply eliminated, laicised and cut off, lest legal action should be taken against their diocese – and not merely for child sex abuse.

Should we revive Jansenism and reverse the “other excess” of people being too familiar with the Sacraments, return to Shrift and Housel once a year after a very uncomfortable time in the confessional? If so, priests ought also to be bound by such a discipline. Then it is good night and close the remaining churches down… The salt lost its savour decades ago, perhaps many centuries ago. We know the arguments of the rigorists, and those of the anti-Jansenists (seventeenth-century Jesuits), and the arguments seem to have little to do with our own experience.

Jesus came as a doctor for the sick, which is the natural reaction on reading the Gospel and trying to understand the character of Christ contrasted with that of the Pharisees. Hate the sin but love the sinner. Sometimes the distinction is not so easy. Did Christ come for the strong or the weak? Can humanity hope for its survival if weakness is tolerated? I went into this when discussing politics a couple of days ago. Can we give the Sacraments to those who don’t care about them and who seem to care about nothing other than entertainment and pleasure? Do we give the Bread of Angels to dogs?

I appreciate Fr Blake trying to find a personal way to see this conundrum and avoid coming up with worn-out clichés. Priests certainly need an antidote to clericalism, and this is to have the experience of living like ordinary people, faced with the same temptations, addictions, weaknesses – so that he can develop empathy and compassion.

Another one of my favourite films is Nosso Lar, a Brazilian film about death and the afterlife. Despite its being somewhat influenced by New Age, we find a common theme: souls being in a hell-like place and being rescued by light-bearing people when they are ready to see beyond their own misery and wretchedness. It seems to be a portrayal of purgatory, where no one is left entirely without any hope, except it be through that person’s own fault and refusal of the light. The souls are then taken to a hospital and healed with tenderness and devotion. What strikes me most is that we are all in this state of wretchedness in this life, and we all need healing. The merciful shall obtain mercy. The message might not be very “orthodox”, but is Christ-like.

The Sacraments are pledges of Christ’s mercy and tenderness for us.

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5 Responses to Shrift and Housel

  1. Neil Hailstone says:

    I have read Fr Blake’s blog and the comments, some 43 in all which appeared in response. I have also read and carefully considered Fr Anthony’s comments. It may surprise some readers to note that Pope Francis expressed views in an address given in Santa Maria Del Fiori in Florence on the 9th of this month in which he made impassioned statements against fundamentalism and clericalism making it clear that the Church is to welcome all of humanity whatever their spiritual condition. I very much agree.

    We are there for people who struggle in this life. I want to see drunks, adulterers, paedophiles, non celibate people with same sex attraction, drug addicts and criminals in our midst. Especially I hope to see the smug self righteous, especially Christians who fall within that category, coming to hear the message of love, hope and forgiveness. I write as one only too aware of my own sins and failings.

    May I close with recommending a read of a recent post by Fr Munn on the blog ‘Warwickensis’ in the matter of repentance and forgiveness which was a commentary on the Collect for the 21st Sunday after Trinity. It is reassuring about old sins which come back to haunt us even after receiving Absolution in the Sacrament of Confession.

    • These are issues of conscience. For this or that reason, I have sometimes judged that it was best not to say Mass on a given day (not having parish duties). For your list of sinners, you can go and find them in London’s West End on a Saturday night. Just watch your pockets and your wallet, and don’t get mugged. The great slum priests set up their parishes in the poorest parts of London, and many were attracted by the priest’s humility, simplicity and empathy. To this day, there are priests like Fr Guy Gilbert with his long hair (a little more straggly than mine) and his motorcycle jacket. It is a very special vocation like Fr Charles de Foucault in Algeria among the Muslims. Those priests are (are) holy men.

      We are all a part of that morass of sinful humanity like all those people in the Holy Land who went to hear Christ’s words from mountains, boats and even in the Temple of Jerusalem. The more we recognise that we are not above them, the more we will make place for Christ.

      • ed pacht says:

        They accused Him of being ‘a friend of sinners’, as if that were an insult. They thought it was, but it wasn’t, and it was true. It is the reason He came into the world in the first place.

        It was the love of sinners that motivated His entire ministry, including its ending. He accepted them, but did He accept their sins? If He had accepted them as OK, it would have been foolishness to go to the Cross for their remission – but He did accept them as a burden sufficient for the price He would pay. ALL sin is horrible in God’s sight, and the wages of sin (all sin) is death. Yet He loves sinners and died that they might be forgiven.

        Is one sin greater than another? If so, which? Is homosexual practice, for example, a greater sin than self-righteousness? The practice of the former is definitely sinful, Scripture is clear on that, but He Himself never specifically spoke of it, while He devoted a large part of his ministry to condemning the latter. How does our sense of priority stack up against that? Just something to think and pray about …….

      • I would like to quote Oscar Wilde from his De profundis. He was someone who had sinned and suffered, yet was capable of expressing himself sublimely;

        But it is when he deals with a sinner that Christ is most romantic, in the sense of most real. The world had always loved the saint as being the nearest possible approach to the perfection of God. Christ, through some divine instinct in him, seems to have always loved the sinner as being the nearest possible approach to the perfection of man. His primary desire was not to reform people, any more than his primary desire was to a relieve suffering. To turn an interesting thief into a tedious honest man was not his aim. He would have thought little of the Prisoners’ Aid Society and other modern movements of the kind. The conversion of a publican into a Pharisee would not have seemed to him a great achievement. But in a manner not yet understood of the world he regarded sin and suffering as being in themselves beautiful holy things and modes of perfection.

        It seems a very dangerous idea. It is—all great ideas are dangerous. That it was Christ’s creed admits of no doubt. That it is the true creed I don’t doubt myself.

        Of course the sinner must repent. But why? Simply because otherwise he would be unable to realise what he had done. The moment of repentance is the moment of initiation. More than that: it is the means by which one alters one’s past. The Greeks thought that impossible. They often say in their Gnomic aphorisms, ‘Even the Gods cannot alter the past.’ Christ showed that the commonest sinner could do it, that it was the one thing he could do. Christ, had he been asked, would have said—I feel quite certain about it—that the moment the prodigal son fell on his knees and wept, he made his having wasted his substance with harlots, his swine- herding and hungering for the husks they ate, beautiful and holy moments in his life. It is difficult for most people to grasp the idea. I dare say one has to go to prison to understand it. If so, it may be worth while going to prison.

        There is something so unique about Christ. Of course just as there are false dawns before the dawn itself, and winter days so full of sudden sunlight that they will cheat the wise crocus into squandering its gold before its time, and make some foolish bird call to its mate to build on barren boughs, so there were Christians before Christ. For that we should be grateful. The unfortunate thing is that there have been none since. I make one exception, St. Francis of Assisi. But then God had given him at his birth the soul of a poet, as he himself when quite young had in mystical marriage taken poverty as his bride: and with the soul of a poet and the body of a beggar he found the way to perfection not difficult. He understood Christ, and so he became like him. We do not require the Liber Conformitatum to teach us that the life of St. Francis was the true Imitatio Christi, a poem compared to which the book of that name is merely prose.

      • ed pacht says:

        Some years ago, when I was a Pentecostal pastor, I made a ministry decision that was drastically wrong, that hurt an already hurting soul. Later I was sitting at my kitchen table with my Bible open in front of me, half praying but mostly feeling sorry for myself. I spotted Romans 8:28 on the page before me. “… all things work together for good to them that love the Lord …” I said, “ALL of them? — even my mistakes and my sins?” and I seemed to hear Him respond, “ALL of them!” And it’s true, as Wilde said. The ugliness of our sin is conquered by the beauty of what God does through it. That error, the sins of my active homosexual days when I was in beds where I didn’t belong doing things God did not allow, and all my other sins and errors, right up until today, are not only forgiven, but transformed, made over into things of beauty by being put to use in His service. The sins that died with Him on the Cross also rose with Him and were taken up to glory, and by his grace, in ways I simply cannot understand, have become instruments in His hands for salvation. If I do not repent, I claim the sins for my own, with all the consequences that entails. They do not become part of Calvary. If I do repent, they are no longer my own, but His, and are carried by Him to that one eternal Sacrifice, and, swallowed up in holiness, show forth eternal beauty. I can only praise Him, dumbfounded at His mercy.

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