Private Confessions and Public Movies

In the movie Sleepers young teens sneak into the priest=s side of the confessional to hear a nice looking woman=s confession.  They are astounded when she acknowledges that they are not the priest but confesses her sins anyway. She unburdens her soul to these naive teens. She, of course, received no absolution from the boys, yet she goes forth from the confessional feeling better for having talked about it.


How pathetic we might think at first.  The movie endorses the psychological understanding of the confessional, i.e. people feel better when they get what=s ever bothering them off their chest.  This is woefully inadequate understanding.  It is akin to thinking prayer is like walking through a dark forest talking to yourself to calm your fears.  No, Someone is really hearing you when you pray.  There is real communication going on.  Likewise, in private confession it is not the unburdening that is therapeutic but the AI forgive you@ of absolution which puts away sin right then and there.


So Sleepers missed the boat.  We in the Missouri Synod have not only missed the boat but have landed in the water, are thrashing about, and some of us are all but drowned.  At least this women had a place where she could get her confession heard.  We in the Missouri Synod either do not or are afraid to avail ourselves of this grand blessing.  How is this for irony?  The church that has Luther as a church father has given up the Sacrament Father Luther said he would let no man take away from him.


Another movie will illustrate our plight.  The 1991 movie The Plague is based on Albert Camus= novel by the same name.  (This is one of the few movies based on a novel that is a legitimate interpretation of the original.  It does not make all the same points, but it makes some good ones of its own.  I commend both.)  


While the city is being ravaged by plague, the bishop holds forth in a rather sanctimonious way against it. When one of his beloved altar boys succumbs to the disease, the bishop is driven to extremes. ( I won=t tell you what so as not to spoil the movie.) In the depths, the good bishop resorts, as any catholic Christian would, to the confessional. He is shown kneeling in the penitent side of the confessional fervently pouring out his soul and his sins.  The man is in agony, hands firmly clasped together in a death grip, sweat beading all over his brow, and his face moves from one contortion to another as he speaks. Slowly the camera pans to the other side of the confessional, the priest=s side, and there is no one there!


This really is talking to yourself.  At best it amounts to self-absolution which is no absolution.  How much to be preferred is the case of the woman in Sleepers.  She at least put her sins outside of herself.  Even though she was not absolved, for a few brief moments her sins were somewhere else other than on her conscience.  This is a joy all too few of us are experiencing.  Father Luther would have died in such a church as ours.


He might have been like the man in the Graham Green novel Stamboul Train which became the film Orient Express.  Whether the scene is in the movie or not I can’t remember; it is in the book. A man is returning home to face charges for crimes he had committed as a well intentioned patriot. He will surely be convicted and sentenced to death.  He meets an Episcopalian priest on the train. Seeking some place to bare his soul, to prepare himself for the judgment of men that is coming, he brings up to the priest the matter of Private Confession asking if he still has it.  The priest replies in a flippant, condescending way, “O we still have it for the weak souls who still need it.”  The man is crushed going away unconfessed, unabsolved.  Like Judas, he has gone to the church of his day and been told, “What is that to us?  See to it yourself.”


Frequently people (pastors included) who have this blessed Sacrament available to them (Theoretically everyone in the LCMS does.) don’t avail themselves of it because they feel funny about confessing their sins to someone else.  The woman in Sleepers settled for boys; the bishop in The Plague settled for no one.  The man in Stamboul Train would have settled for anyone.

About Rev. Paul R. Harris

Ordained pastor of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod
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