the idea, the sacred idea, is to step out of and away from the worldly, the den of sin and brokenness, the everyday landscape where we knock around and are knocked around, where some days we haul ourselves to bed only after rinsing off the scrapes and skinned knees and slapping on a slew of bandaids.
the idea is that for one cycle of darkness to light to star-salted dusk, we burrow deeper and deeper into a journey of the soul. to scour every last particle of grit and grime that gets in the way of the blessedness we are, the blessedness we might have forgotten long, long ago. to emerge into a radiance that matches the heaven’s-on-fire setting of the sun.
one great rabbi taught that on yom kippur, the holiest of holy days in the jewish calendar, the day of deep atonement, we are to stand in front of the great mirror, to see ourselves as the divine sees us, stripped of our excuses and rationalizations, our denials and self-trickeries: to see our brokenness, our bumps and our bruises, the hurts we’ve held onto long after expiration date, and, too, to see fully and in fine grain all the tender places and the faintest stirrings of our hopes and dreams, the inkling that we do have the courage — and the grit (the good kind) — to put muscle to the blessedness we’re called to be.
we begin with confession. vidui, the hebrew word for confessing. we confess in short form (vidui zuta) and, because that would be short-shrifting our fumblings and failings and only half doing the job, we do it again in longform (vidui rabbah), poking around in all the places where we pretend we’ve hidden what hurts, scrubbing out each and every crevice, spilling all our secrets and the moments when we know we’ve stumbled and precisely how we’ve done so.
we live in an age without much confession. extreme defensiveness seems to be the preferred posture, the safer stance, necessary armor in the rough and tumble of this gory global moment. i’m sorry’s are mumbled or slurred. we sneak one in, if at all, and hope it doesn’t halt the proceedings, call too much attention to itself, to our admitting how far we sometimes fall.
but from the start, the jews — a people with whom i’ve been practicing now for more than three decades, along with my practices catholic and anglican, my practices in all paths toward a life that is holy (and by practice i mean not only the noun but also the verb, to try again and again) — they’ve set themselves apart. they see themselves as a people commanded to strive for holiness, not just individually but collectively. as a people. as a nation. a people with whom God has chiseled out a covenant; follow me and my ways, and I will harbor you and bring you abundant fruitfulness.
and with a nuanced grasp of the innermost self, fluent in the light and shadow of the soul, daring to stand naked, to wrestle and argue with God, jews erect a tabernacle of confession into the holiest of holy days. traditionally, it’s an acrostic, an accounting of sin in alphabetical inventory, spoken aloud and collectively, in the third person. ashmanu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi…kizavnu, latznu, maradnu, niatznu…we betray, we steal, we scorn, we act perversely…we have deceived, we have mocked, we have rebelled against God and his Torah, we have caused God to be angry with us.
in a commentary on the acrostic confessional, known as the ashmanu, one rabbi (Alan Cook) writes of how, over a lifetime, he’d squandered his once-innocent alphabet, the 26 letters he’d learned as a child, hardened it, allowed A to stand for apathy, B for brusqueness, C for coarseness, and he prays: “Help me, then, to return to that innocence. / Let the letters be letters once again, / And let them rise to the heavens / And form into the words / That You know I wish to say.”
the words that You know I wish to say…acknowledging how, even before God, it is so, so hard to admit our sins, to put breath to the naming of each and every one.
it’s that breathtaking truth-telling at the foot — or in the face — of the divine that arrests me. stops me in my pilgrim tracks. draws me deep into the embrace of this ancient people who so profoundly and poetically unspool the most intimate utterings of the soul. makes me certain we are meant to lean on and learn from each other’s most finely, surely trod paths to the mountaintop, the place where the Holiest of Holy dwells.
i might not make it through the whole alphabet, not in one sitting anyway, but it seems right to try to insert an act of contrition, confession, into the public square of the 21st century in the midst of pandemic, and flood and drought and fire, and never-ending vitriol.
this tiny pebble i will try to cast, may it ripple at least as far as across this old scarred table. and in the spirit of the ancient peoples who do not flinch, may it plumb true depths and stirrings.
i begin with these words from the prayer book of Yom Kippur: You know the secrets of the universe and the secrets of the human heart. You know and understand us, for You examine our inner lives. Nothing is concealed from You, nothing hidden from Your sight. Eternal One, our God and God of our ancestors, we pray that this be Your will: forgive all our wrongs, pardon us for every act of injustice, help us atone for all our moral failures.
for these sins, our God, we ask forgiveness:
for the times we avoid and evade, because we’re too afraid to put breath to truth. for being ashamed of who we are, or how we look or think or act, for allowing the self-criticism to serve as excuse for retreat.
for betraying the ones we love, and all who need an ally.
for calculating kindness, measuring it out for motive, rather than its own unfettered sake. for cold shoulders when we couldn’t — or wouldn’t —muster warmth.
for denying what we believe in, too spineless to stand with our convictions.
for eclipsing the words, or thoughts, or gestures of those who share our space, in those moments when we fail to simply listen, to turn the stage to those whose voices aren’t so loud, so certain.
for falling short a hundred times a day — or hour — because we sell our own selves short; the sin of false modesty, a sin of not stepping up to the plate for which we’re made.
for going with the crowd when we know we’re meant to go another way, a lesser trod way, simply because we shy away from stirring any sort of friction.
for hurling hateful, vengeful thoughts at those we deem “against us,” those who overpopulate the public square, who by their words and actions seem hellbent on inflicting pain. and so we justify our sin by deeming them deserving of every vile drop. because we pretend we’re holier.
for ignoring muffled cries from those who are hurting, are lonely, are cast aside, those who seek the simple solace of one warm soul to walk beside. and for inflexibilities, when we can’t bend to whatever life is asking of us, even if it’s the merest accommodation, one that might make another’s day just a little easier.
for jealousies in all their bitter poisons. for judging far too swiftly with far too little evidence or reason.
for kindness we were too lazy to extend.
for love we withhold, a self-righteous tax we convince ourselves is ours to dole out or deny as we so choose.
for mindgames we play, locking ourselves inside cages of our own making.
for not noticing the quiet hurt our words or inattentions inflict.
for obstinance, the rigid stance of non-surrender, when simple empathies would unblock a holy current.
for pretense and prejudice, thinking somehow we’re superior in any way, shape, or form.
for quietly shuffling away from rough spots where we might otherwise leave a mark of reconciliation or compassion, or simple healing.
for refusing to unclench our tightly-furled fist, for thinking that to let go is to tumble down a precipice rather than realizing that in releasing we just might catch an updraft.
for sleepwalking through too many days of our lives.
for time and again falling into the same traps, the ones that hold us back from those tiny fuels that might propel us.
for underestimating ourselves and those who surround us, for not giving the benefit of the doubt and banking on our better instincts.
for venomously casting stones on those who think or see the world in ways other than we do.
for wasting precious, precious time.
for xenophobia, of course, the scourge of casting “other” as “less than.” and turning our backs, closing our doors and our borders, to their agonies and sufferings.
for yoking ourselves to old rhythms that only serve to hold us back, for a stubborn resistance to letting go of anxieties and quirks that chain us to a hollow past.
for over-zealously chasing after whatever in our lives feels out of reach: be it love or attention, or the peaceful coexistence chiseled out of old animosities.
Avinu Malkeinu, almighty and merciful God, hear our voice, wield compassion, renew us for a year of goodness, let our hands overflow with Your blessings.
i have to wonder if the constraints of A,B,C, eclipsed a more nuanced confession, or if the alphabet nudged me toward nooks and crannies i might have overlooked. but more importantly:
what alphabet letter, what frailty or failing, might you step forward to confess, to form the words so hard to say?