Create in me a clean heart, O God

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 on March 30, 2023

A Mr. Perkins story

On Ash Wednesday, our old friend Mr. William Perkins, the rector of that little fictional town of Hampton’s Corners, had preached on the subject of “confession” and how an Anglican might make their confession. Now, you might think this an odd subject for a sermon from an Anglican pulpit. The concept of making your confession, at least privately, strikes many as a very Catholic notion, but in truth, confession has always been permitted and even encouraged for Anglicans. It’s just that most Anglicans have allowed the General Confession, said together during the liturgy, sufficient to meet their needs.

Confession was a practice very dear to the heart of our Mr. Perkins. It was something he had adopted in his early days as a churchman, when with youthful zeal he had considered himself a member of the “Anglo-Catholic party,” those zealous Anglicans who loved all things catholic and ritualistic, and devoted themselves piously, perhaps even slavishly, to a catholic rendering of the Anglican liturgy and, of course, held a deep fondness for things like incense and lace. But after a short sojourn in that country, Mr. Perkins had left that all behind him, at least most of it. That was back in the day when Mr. Perkins liked to be called “Father”; now, “Mister” sufficed. Back then he reveled when he “put on Christ” in the form of a beautifully brocade silk chasuble to celebrate the sacred mysteries of the Holy Eucharist; now, he was just as happy with his black cassock and white surplice, and a simple stole or even a black preaching scarf. With age and maturity, his outward zeal had become less ostentatious, and as with many of us, as age softens our sharp edges, the simpler things had begun to prevail for Mr. Perkins.

Mr. William Perkins, country parson.

The one thing, however, that he clung to from his Anglo-Catholic youth was the idea of private confession. He really did believe it was good for the soul. He felt strongly, both for himself and for others, that one should make their private confession from time to time as a sort of spiritual housecleaning, to cast off the things that stood in the way of a deeper, closer, more intimate relationship with the loving God. And what better time to encourage confession than the beginning of Lent? Without fail, Mr. Perkins preached about confession on Ash Wednesday. Every year he reminded his congregation of that old Anglican adage about private confession: “All may, none must, some should, few do.” And every year his congregation would dutifully chuckle at this pithy aphorism, very few taking him up on it, but every year at least a couple people gave it a try.

Like many Anglican clergy, Mr. Perkins would hear a very small number of confessions over the course of the year. Occasionally, someone who had been brought up a Roman Catholic or who, like Mr. Perkins, had once had Anglo-Catholic leanings, would come for private confession. For the most part, though, those who came to confess did not really set out to make their confession, but came to Mr. Perkins with a heavy heart about something that was troubling, some way they had treated friend or neighbour, some mistake over which they had great regret, something wrong they had done and the guilt they bore that they could not shake – these are the things that brought folk to Mr. Perkins for counsel.

As they would sit in his little study and unburden their souls to him, they were, in fact, making their confession. Mr. Perkins would offer them spiritual counsel, encouragement and love, and would finally say, “it sounds to me as if you have just made your confession,” and when they acknowledged that perhaps they had, he asked “would you like me to pronounce priestly absolution?” They would often pause for a moment, consider it, and many would say yes. And so, either right there in his little study or at the altar rail in the church, he would put on his stole, make the sign of the cross over them, and offer the words, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice to the Father, and who conferred power on his Church to forgive sins, absolve you through my ministry by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and restore you to the perfect peace of the Church. Amen.” Mr. Perkins would invariably see the burden lift from his parishioner. It was as if Jesus himself were present and taking the weight away. Mr. Perkins really had nothing to do with it. His task was simply to be a witness to the pain of his brother or sister in Christ, to reassure them of God’s grace (for that is really all that priestly absolution is – it is not magic), and then to forget everything that he was told, keeping what was spoken between the penitent and God alone. The little ritual would always conclude with Mr. Perkins saying, “the Lord has put away all your sins, now go, and pray for me, a sinner.” Mr. Perkins was invariably reminded of his own need to unburden himself.

As hard as Mr. Perkins worked each Lent to help his little congregation understand confession and even encourage them toward it, there were some who never really got it, in spite of their best efforts to please him. Would I be breaking the seal of the confessional if I told you about the old woman at Christ Church who used to come annually to Mr. Perkins at the beginning of Lent for him to hear her confession? She was a pious old dear who was convinced she never sinned, and yet she knew that it was incumbent upon her, as a pious Christian, to make her confession from time to time. So, every once in a while, she would throw a bag of garbage over her neighbour’s fence so that she would have something to confess to Mr. Perkins, in order that she might receive the soothing and holy balm of priestly absolution. Mr. Perkins would gently counsel her that perhaps, just perhaps, her sin was rather one of spiritual pride, and perhaps, just perhaps, she might do some self-examination in this area. But she was adamant – she had not a proud bone in her body.

Perhaps it is like those folk who never really get the purpose of Lent altogether. Lent is a solemn time, and for 40 days the liturgy is built around penitence, self-denial, purity of heart and the sufferings of Christ. As a consequence of this, Mr. Perkins, like most other clergy, always made a point of ensuring the music in Lent was suitably solemn, to assist worshippers in assuming a suitably solemn mood in their devotion. By about his third year at Hampton’s Corner’s he could predict the individuals who would start coming to him by about the fourth week in Lent to complain that we were singing too many dirges. One well-meaning soul would always ask, “can’t we have something a bit more upbeat? The last few weeks all the hymns have been such downers.” Mr. Perkins was tempted to reply, “Yes, and so was Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, and his betrayal by Judas, and his trial before Pilate, and his crucifixion.” But being nicer and less sarcastic was one of Mr. Perkins’ regular Lenten disciplines, something he had to regularly confess to his confessor, and so with difficult restraint he refrained from berating the person, and simply responded cheerily, “Easter’s a-comin’!”

And so, you may ask, did Mr. Perkins practice what he preached? Did Mr. Perkins make regular, private confession? Yes, he did. From time to time, not on any particular schedule – although almost always around the beginning of Lent – Mr. Perkins visit his confessor, a cleric of another denomination. During this particular Lent, Mr. Perkins had gone to see his confessor about a matter that had taken place many years ago, during his early days in priestly ministry. It was a matter that he tried again and again to put out of his mind, that he was successful in ignoring and forgetting a good deal of the time, and yet it would return again and again, weighing heavily on his conscience. And what was this matter that so plagued our diminutive priestly friend, that most pious of clergymen, whom anyone could scarcely believe had ever sinned?

When he was a very new priest, he was out celebrating with friends – I think it may have even been Mardi Gras. As often happens when Anglican clerics gather, and as 40 days of self-denial were about to unfold, a certain Scottish elixir was flowing most freely. The little gathering itself was most uneventful, and in fact rather jovial. The event that was to come to plague Mr. Perkin’s consciousness and trouble him for many years took place on the way home. As he and a couple of his fellows were walking through the city streets (for Mr. Perkins was but a lowly curate in a city church in those days), they passed a man lying outside the entranceway of an apartment. They conferred amongst themselves, and Mr. Perkins was elected to investigate. Now, Mr. Perkins, who we might say was “well beyond the legal limit” in terms of what he had imbibed, approached the man. He was breathing but quite still. When Mr. Perkins was sure that the man was alive, he returned to his comrades and pronounced with no sense of irony, “he’s just drunk.” And so they went on their way, each making their way home on foot or by cab.

Two mornings later, as Mr. Perkins was drinking his coffee and reading his paper, he came across a small item about a man who had been found dead the previous morning outside that very address that Mr. Perkins had passed. Doctors suspected that he had had a heart attack while trying to unlock the outer door of his apartment. A feeling of dread came over Mr. Perkins; dread and guilt. Was this the man that Mr. Perkins had encountered and so readily dismissed as drunk? The irony was not lost on him now, for as a result of his own intoxication that evening, his memory of the event was somewhat foggy.

Mr. Perkins had a busy day ahead and tried to put the thought of the man behind him. Eventually, as the days went on, his worry and guilt about what had transpired began to recede, as is often the case in such matters. His busy life pushed away the memories, only coming to the surface from time to time in the years ahead. When they did, he would box them up in some dusty corner of his mind (or heart?) and pretend the whole incident never happened… until several years later he began to dream about the man. The man began to haunt his thoughts and would come to him at unexpected moments. He never accused Mr. Perkins, but in Mr. Perkin’s mind’s eye, he just looked at him sadly and then would disappear. The truth was, Mr. Perkins had no idea what he looked like, for he had never even seen his face. Mr. Perkin’s subconscious would conjure up a withered, sad-looking visage of someone in need, someone whom he had passed by. Perhaps this is really why Mr. Perkins had such an uncomfortable relationship with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The man would haunt Mr. Perkin’s dreams on and off for years, and Mr. Perkins would push him away and try to forget. How foolish we are when we think that pushing down something deep inside will make it go away.

Back in the present, as Lent rolled around again, the dreams had returned, and added to it was Mr. Perkin’s wondering about the man’s family. What must it have been like for them to hear their loved one had died this way? Or perhaps one of them had even discovered him, cold and lifeless. And what if they learned that someone, a priest of the Church, who was drunk, had passed him by? The burden, after all these years, had become unbearable. Thus, after Mr. Perkins had preached his annual Ash Wednesday sermon on confession, he got immediately into his car and headed to the convent.

Within an hour he was kneeling before his confessor and tearfully making his confession. He let it all flow out – his shame over his drunkenness, his failure to see Christ in the man who lay dying on the pavement, his guilt over keeping it hidden so many years, his unworthiness of the mantle of priest, and especially his unworthiness to exhort others to confession and pronounce priestly absolution.

After his confession, there came a long period of silence in which he wept. After what seemed like an eternity, he looked up and his confessor was looking down on him, with gentle, loving eyes, and she said, “William, I am a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the one who died for our sins, that we might live. For what you have done, you are forgiven, and for what you have not done you are forgiven. In the name of Jesus Christ, the God of love.” And these words followed intentionally, and slowly: “You are forgiven.” The weight began to lift, and she extended her hand and helped him gently to his feet. With eyes at level, she concluded, “The Lord has put away all your sins. Now go, and pray for me, a sinner.”


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