I have been thinking a lot lately about the words of the General Confession used in Rite II of the Book of Common Prayer. I know, strange words for someone who insists that she continues to identify as with the Baptist distinctives as a format building block of her faith. But, despite the fact that Episcopalians everywhere often begin each morning with these words (as they are the opening corporate prayer of the Morning Prayer discipline), these are words (and sentiments) which belong to the whole Body of Christ.
Let’s read together these words of confession, and then I’ll share what I’ve been thinking:
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.
Always, always when I read this prayer, the line that sticks in my heart (and a bit in my throat as well) is the greatest sin: “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”
I will admit that I feel the pang of sin most strongly on the statement of the first failure, because I always believe that I could learn to love God more fully. I could learn to open my heart to that mystical presence, I could be more accepting of what I cannot understand, I could merge more completely with the divine, I could be less distracted by the shiny world around me. And while I feel a slight twinge of my failing as I read the second phrase, “…we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves,” and while I might spend a moment rehearsing the broken relationships in my life that need healing or the stranger whom I did not adequately welcome or the person in need I failed to help adequately, I somehow am more forgiving of my own failing. Somehow, in the face of this statement of confession, I expect myself to fail and I am therefore, well, not as concerned when I do.
Yesterday, however, I had a new thought. What if the real sin here is this: that we do indeed love our neighbors as ourselves and what we manifest all around us is our own inability to offer God’s love to understand and embody God’s love for our own person? What if the state of our relationships and of the world around us is not a statement of our failure to love our neighbors as we would love ourselves, but a statement of our total inability to understand the enormity of the love that God offers to us and to all the world.
We cannot love ourselves as God loves us, we therefore cannot love others with something we do not understand. Brother Emmanuel of Taizé refers to this human foible as “love, imperfectly known.” In fact that is the title of his book that I began to read after I had the opportunity to meet him and worship with him recently at the Virginia Theological Seminary. The result of our inability to know God’s love for ourselves is, for Brother Emmanuel, the root cause of all our failings, all our sin, and in his words, all the evil of the world. In his book, also titled Love, Imperfectly Known: Beyond Spontaneous Representations of God (2011), he suggests that we free ourselves to know our loving God more clearly, without the filter of the types of psychological and theological conditioning that keep us separated from God, from ourselves, and ultimately from one another (Kindle Edition, LOC 152). According to Brother Emmanuel, we must…
…quest for the ultimate meaning of life, the ultimate meaning of love. That will have repercussions on daily life, particularly the loving words and actions that may take place in it (Kindle Edition, LOC 163).
So, I have changed my mind. You see, the words of confession that I have not loved my neighbor as myself may or may not be reminding me that I should forgive more, complain less, and help more people more often. These words are most assuredly reminding me that I must learn to love better, learn to love more like God loves me. And, the hidden meaning in those words? Before I can do any of these things with any authenticity at all, I must learn that I, too, am worthy of love because I am already loved with a love that exceeds all my human ability to comprehend.
I have indeed, loved you, my neighbor, as I have loved myself. And for that, I am sorry and I humbly do confess.