It is cold and grey, this day before Thanksgiving, in the last waning week of the liturgical calendar—just a few days now before we will flip the page to Advent and begin the church year again. The winds are dangerously high, shoving my car down the interstate along with the chaotic swirl of late-season oak leaves. I am heading to a small Michigan town, to a church I have never seen before, to meet a priest I do not know. Forty-five miles from home. It seems far enough–far enough away to do what I have come to do.

        I am going there to make a private confession to a fellow Episcopal priest. In our tradition, this is not a regular, or even an expected, practice. “Many should, some will, none must,” the saying goes. In my own ordained ministry, I have heard only a few confessions. Usually, it’s because someone has done some singular, horrible thing that has seared them with shame. Receiving formal, sacramental forgiveness helps the person move from horror and self-loathing into a place of hopefulness. After the two of us have gathered in the chapel, with the liturgy of the Prayer Book to hold us up, it seems that the penitent one then discovers a way forward into the future, a re-entry into a blessedly ordinary life. 

        I have heard others’ confessions, but I have never made one myself. Although we were trained in seminary in the practice of this “minor rite,” as the Episcopal church calls it, none of us were expected to make our own confessions first, before we could hear anyone else’s. I have been ordained for almost twenty years, proclaiming God’s forgiveness to others, while never actively, formally–apart from regular Sunday worship–seeking it out for myself.

        But something inside me has moved me to this moment…or Someone. For weeks I have been compiling a list of sins that will not leave me alone—old grudges, repetitive and destructive behaviors, people I have neglected. People I can’t stop hating. They are not all the sins of an entire lifetime–I am willing to assume that kneeling every Sunday with my congregation and saying the prayer of confession along with them has managed to help me access God’s forgiveness. But this list is about things more stubbornly persistent, even things I did as a child that I never said “sorry” for. Even though now I am very sorry, and I can’t apologize because the people I hurt are long ago scattered and lost from my life.

        As my list grew longer, I decided to find a confessor, a priest who could listen to my list of sins and tell me God would forget every single item written upon it. I decided to stay within my own tradition—the Episcopal Church. I decided not to ask a friend or a familiar colleague. No, it must be a stranger. It has to be no one I will ever bump into at a clergy conference, only to lock eyes and think, he knows what I have done. So, I started reading the websites of churches fifty miles or more away, wondering if there was anyone out there who I could trust enough to do this. At last I found a website that said, “contact the priest for information about weddings or baptisms or” … there it was… “reconciliation/confession.” The friendly biography of the priest convinced me that she wouldn’t be judgmental or curious or offer that kind of sanctimonious preciousness that I most fear. I reached out. We made an appointment for this grim Wednesday morning, right before Thanksgiving.

        And here I am.

        I ease off the highway, sliding in the rain along narrow streets, past historic gingerbread-trimmed houses and high-end, farm-to-table restaurants, until I pull into a worn parking lot behind a solid, red-brick, Victorian-era church with a square bell tower. I sit there in my car without moving for some time, considering and reconsidering. Why have I come? I have nothing cataclysmic to confess. I pull out my list of lingering sins. There is nothing here that would shock my congregation or disappoint my husband. But as I read the list, I feel a sense of weight, a kind of grief over some of the items written there, and also a peculiar resentment, as I re-read the names of people whom I have not been able to forgive.

        Reading it over again, the list feels like a catalogue of wounds, the kind that don’t heal properly. The kind that keep oozing and swelling, no matter how much antibacterial ointment you spread upon them. They don’t close up and fade away. They don’t scab over and seal up into scars. And really, that is why I have driven fifty miles on a dismal day to kneel in a cold church and speak each one out loud.

        Because I want healing. Because each sin, each open wound, is holding me back from God. Because I can’t let go, haven’t let go, even over fifty years in some cases. I want to let go. I want to be healed. I want to be reconciled.

        I have come for the rite that the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer calls “Reconciliation of a Penitent.”



        Reconcile. From Latin–re-conciliare, to unite again, to bring together, to restore. 

        Penitent. Not adjective, but noun—A penitent, The penitent. A singular thing. A singular person. From the Latin also, paenitere, which means repenting–a recursive definition. A recursive definition that blossomed in medieval times, in Old French, with expressive force, the re grabbing the pentir by the throat as if to say, “This is serious business, buddy.”

        Reconciliation of a Penitent is a short liturgy performed by a person and a priest (generally a Catholic, Episcopal, or Orthodox priest) to help erase those sins that have driven a wedge between a mortal human being and the vast infinity we address as God. It is not designed to deal with all the daily wedges that clog the lines of divine-human communication–like being too busy, or needing more sleep, or having to answer just one more email, or contributing to global warming simply by sitting in a heated home. 

        Reconciliation of a Penitent imagines a wedge larger than the separations caused by simply trying to live your life. Reconciliation of Penitent is designed to heal persistent breaches in one single relationship—the penitent’s relationship with God.

        It is rare in my Episcopal tradition for someone to learn about this rite and then respond, “Yes. That’s just what I need. God and I have been on the outs lately, and it’s all my fault. Reconciliation sounds great. Let’s get started!” More likely, they will say, “I’m not a bad person. What would I confess? I cheated at golf?” Or, “Why should I go tell all this to a priest? Can’t I just talk to God directly?” Or, “I confess my sins in Sunday worship. That should be enough.”

        Even Catholics say these sorts of things. Maybe fifty or sixty years ago, Catholics made regular, weekly private confessions. But modern Catholics, by and large, shun the confessional. In 2005, Georgetown researchers reported that three-quarters of Catholics never participate in private confession, or they do so less than once a year. Fewer than two percent make a confession at least once a month.

        Perhaps this is because in general—modern American Catholics included–most of us would describe ourselves as “good people.” Or at least people who try to be “good people” in a general sort of way. The idea of exposing our human failings out loud to another person, and then asking that person to proclaim God’s mercy and forgiveness seems unnecessary at best, outlandish at worst. Most people want God to believe that they are doing the very best they can. They don’t want to believe that their persistent cruelty, snarky judgments, bad attitudes, or careless neglect are significant enough to deserve God’s sorrow, God’s wrath, or God’s condemnation. 

        After all, you only have to enter the Twitterverse or turn on the news to see that many, many people around the world are doing very, very cruel and evil things. Surely—the reluctant penitent might argue—it is those sins deserve God’s sorrow, wrath, and condemnation. “Why not those people?” this penitent might ask. “Why me? I’m not a bad person.”



        For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. – Romans 7:16, 19-20.

        Why make a confession at all then, if we are basically good people, each of us doing the best we can to get through the day, to get through our lives? Well, Saint Paul, writing to the Romans, understood well enough why one might need to come face to face—now and then—with one’s fallen and sinful self. Because you simply can’t avoid the fact that you are, I am, we all are fallen and sinful selves. Even though we try to be good. Even though we are doing the very best that we can.

        Saint Paul understood something profound about human nature because it was written in his DNA, in his cells, proteins, and lymphatic system, in his organs, glands, and brain cells. It came to him from his culture’s expectations for a nice Jewish boy, a Roman citizen, a human man locked into a patriarchal world, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, trained in classical rhetoric, with a personality hard-wired to demand the last word. When he was first converted, Paul’s experience of the resurrected Christ convinced him that the New Creation was breaking into the world, that the power of Sin and Death had been crushed forever, and that he could live a new life according to the self-giving way of Christ.

        Except he couldn’t. He wanted to. He was chock full of advice on how to do it: how to live in love and embody the fruit of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. He even found himself living that way—from time to time.

        Except he couldn’t do it all the time. Yes, he was a new man in Christ, but that old man– the biological man, the culturally-constructed man, was still in there. As long as he was alive in this world—in the flesh, Paul would say—he was trapped in this dilemma.

        The good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.

        Poor Paul. Poor us, who are actually no different from–and no better than–Paul. 

        Why do I do this? That is perhaps the best place to start if one is to consider that there may be things that need confessing, that a wedge has been driven between a “good person” who can’t be good all the time and the love of God. Why do I do this? Why do I hurt people I love so much? Why do I lash out? Why do I fall into this same, repetitive behavior, over and over and over again? Why do I do the things I do not wish to do? Why am I still holding this same old grudge against this same old person? Why don’t I do the things that I actually wish for and pray for and plan for?

        As Paul would say: Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?



        I fold the list, slip it inside my small Book of Common Prayer, tuck the book inside my purse, and snap the purse shut. My peculiar sins are buried for the moment, and I look like any other person on the rainy street. Not like a penitent. Like a person.

        The priest I have never met before welcomes me into her office. The woman I have been emailing with turns out to be a real person, with a soft, greying pageboy and bright, hazel eyes. Her office is small and warm, with a periwinkle wall covered in twenty or more different kinds of crosses. The wall gives me a place to direct my gaze; the crosses give me a topic to launch our conversation. I feel incredibly shy and awkward, as though she can see that I have a scribbled-on, folded-up list of sins stuffed inside the prayer book that is stuffed into my purse.

       But there is no rush. We chat for fifteen minutes or more about all the things two colleagues chat about when they first meet: about congregants and churches and other priests we know in common, and Rite I eucharist versus Rite II eucharist, and bishop transitions until we run out of topics. Eventually, she leads me into the chilly church, where the grey November light shines dimly through pearly stained glass, and oak beams disappear high above us into the shadows of the vaulted ceiling. She puts on some lights. She asks if I want to sit or kneel. I decide to kneel, there in the front row of pews. She stands before me. We begin.


        The Reconciliation of a Penitent is found on page 447 of the Book of Common Prayer.

Form One

The Penitent begins

Bless me, for I have sinned.

The Priest says

The Lord be in your heart and upon your lips that you may truly and humbly confess your sins: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 


(“Amen,” I say. My eyes are closed. I do not know if she makes the sign of the cross or not. But I must open my eyes now because my moment has arrived.)



I confess to Almighty God, to his Church, and to you, that I have sinned by my own fault in thought, word, and deed, in things done and left undone; 


especially ___________________________.


(The blank line is for me to fill in. This is what I have come for: my confession. I unfold the creased and worn sheet of paper. I have sorted the sins by category. I have scribbled them in the margins. I have drawn arrows connecting one to another. I begin to read, to read, to name, to speak aloud, to list, to bring into the light things I have never shared with another living person, to get it all out there, to be done, to be done, to be done at last with all of it. To be done with it. At last.)


…for these and all other sins which I cannot now remember, I am truly sorry. I pray God to have mercy on me. I firmly intend amendment of life, and I humbly beg forgiveness of God and his Church, and ask you for counsel, direction, and absolution.

Here the Priest may offer counsel, direction, and comfort.


(She offers counsel. She zeroes in on those people I can’t forgive. I have held grudges for years, like Stephen Crane’s poem about the man in the desert, chewing and chewing on his heart. The poet asks, “Is it good, friend?” The man answers, “It is bitter—bitter. But I like it because it is bitter, and because it is my heart.” Do I want to let go of those people I cannot let go of? I do, I do. I am tired of bitter chewing. Tired. I have been hurt and I haven’t let it go.  Some of the people on this list have even apologized, and still, I chew on bitterness. Some of them will never apologize, because how can they know enough to be sorry, sorry that they are broken, or disordered, or even dead now? “Is it good, friend?” Not anymore. No more. I am done. I give up, give over–all of them, all of myself.)


The Priest then pronounces the absolution


(She has taken a tall glass flagon from a shelf near the altar. It is filled with oil, blessed oil, oleum infirmorum for anointing the sick, the sorrowful, the dying, the repentant, and the reconciled. She removes the glass globe of a stopper and slides her thumb into the neck of the flagon until it is coated with oil. She draws a cross upon my forehead in fragrant slickness.)


Our Lord Jesus Christ, who offered himself to be sacrificed for us 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 in the perfect peace of the Church.

The Priest adds

The Lord has put away all your sins.

Penitent      Thanks be to God.

The Priest concludes

Go in peace, and pray for me, a sinner.


(She kneels down in front of me as she says this. She points to the last prayer on the page. “Say this,” she asks. “Say this for me.” I look at her, there on her knees. There is no one over and above anyone here. We are only two women in an empty church, two human beings, two sinners. So I say it, looking right into her eyes.)


Our Lord Jesus Christ, who offered himself to be sacrificed for us to the Father, forgives your sins by the grace of the Holy Spirit.


(Together we say ….)




        In James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the hero, Stephen Dedalus, wracked by a host of appropriately adolescent sins, confesses to a lackadaisical Capuchin priest in a dismal chapel. The experience is completely transformative for him. Afterward, he feels his prayers rising to heaven like “perfume streaming upward from a heart of white rose.” He heads for home, “conscious of an invisible grace pervading and making light his limbs.” His soul feels so pure, so holy, so happy, that he thinks, “It would be beautiful to die, if God so willed.”

        I cannot say that I am in a state of grace, with perfumed prayers and a desire to die, shriven and at peace. But as I drive back in the encroaching darkness of late afternoon–taking the two-lane country highways this time, around lakes and past farms–I feel clean

        I have left my sins behind. Literally. The priest had suggested burning my list when I got home. But once I finished reading every note on the grubby page, I wanted nothing more to do with that scribbled-over piece of paper. I shredded it in the parking lot, tearing it into flakes like sooty snow, then I stuffed the shards into a blue recycling canister at the edge of the parking lot. My sins would be pulverized into some coffee cup or paper bag. They would not return with me in any form.

        So I drive home unburdened. Clean. Where those grudges and old memories and tiny, insignificant cruelties had been, there is now an empty space, like summer sunlight shining on a blank page of paper. Whatever has happened in that moment of honest speech, in the living presence of another human being, the presence of a woman wearing a clerical collar and a purple stole—those visible signs of the companionship and prayers of the Church—has shifted everything. 

        I had done those things, yes. Thought those things, yes. Clung to those things over decades. Yes. They were bitter…bitter fruit for bitter chewing. But in this strange encounter, this exchange of honest, apologetic truth for God’s forgiveness, I have come face to face with my own self–as stumbling and petty and hopeful as it has ever been. And I am not condemned. “Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus said to the woman taken in adultery. 

        No one is throwing stones here.

Kit Carlson

Kit Carlson is an Episcopal priest and a life-long writer with work appearing in publications as diverse as Seventeen Magazine and Anglican Theological Review. She has been a Pushcart Prize nominee, recently published in Rock and Sling, Burningword Literary Journal, Little Patuxent Review, and The Windhover. She is author of "Speaking Our Faith" (Church Publishing, 2018). She lives in East Lansing, Michigan, with her husband Wendell, and Lola, a nervous rescue dog.

A Library of American Dreams