Ah, confession. I admit I never really much understood the Catholic practice of confession to a priest; as a United Methodist growing up, the idea of confession – while challenging – nonetheless seemed to belong squarely between myself and the (supposedly male) God that (apparently) loves and forgives us while still calling us to live into a more perfect vision of our individual selves and of the kin-dom. But to confess things to a minister? In a little booth? The very idea gave me the heebie-jeebies. Probably even more so since my father and/or stepmother were usually said minister. Well, that wasn’t a common Catholic thing either, I suppose.
I took confession very seriously, however. I firmly believed that we have all sinned and fallen short, and that we can and must do better – for our own lives and wellbeing, for our loved ones, for humanity, and for the whole Creation. Confession was like the first step toward healing – like a diagnosis; without admitting what was going wrong – or what was inadequate – how could we take steps toward what was right?
Well, my experiences both in seminary and in a queer outreach ministry changed my relationship with the way churches usually handle confession. Not only did the concept start to sound awfully male and punishing – I am a worm… I can never be good enough… but Grace has saved a “wretch” like me? – but the beloved yet bruised and hurting members of my queer church needed welcome and solace, not more haranguing about all their supposed (and inherent) faults and failures. I was increasingly drawn to Wesleyan understanding of sin as disease, brokenness, hurt. I felt myself and particularly other women around me literally feeling like we are never enough – enough to our church, our partner, our children, our society, our Earth.
So much of our society speaks to this constant, nagging narrative. Many women I know need to learn not to care more about others but to believe they have the right to have needs and boundaries, and that they deserve to have their boundaries respected and their needs met. If Wesley defines perfection as being perfectly grounded in love, that love must include love of self.
In short, women beat themselves up quite enough, thanks, without needing a male deity to finish us off. There was just no way a theology of Grace that has already ‘forgiven’ all my sin – even before I ask – could compete with the cacophonic litany of self criticism constantly running through my mind. Could it be, I wondered, that the concept of liturgical confession needs to die? And can it be reborn into something genuinely healing?
In the midst of this theological musing, I was also falling increasingly in love with both the Creation – the divine incarnate and amazing foundation of all theology – and with some of the ancestral traditions of my partner’s Korean heritage. The Koreans show respect by bowing – to one another, to their elders, and historically, to their ancestors as well. It is not intended as a sign of worship or idolatry; it is an acknowledgment that age brings wisdom and that our ancestors gave us our lives – they are our Source of Life. On the New Year, one kneels to elders and bows all the way down with the forehead touching the ground or floor; then, elders give blessings and gifts. For ancestors, this dramatic bow is repeated three times. As I began to incorporate rituals that honor my beloved ancestors as well as the sacred Earth, I came to realize that the soil itself actually is our Great Ancestor – literally – the precious bodies of our forbears that have gone back to dust, to nourish new generations of all forms of life in a beautiful and holy resurrection. And yet, truly, we have sinned against the Creation. That started to sound like Confession again.
I am lucky to have many well ancestors, elders I never knew but who were always spoken of with deep love and joy; and grandparents who, despite their quirks, loved me so fiercely that I carry the power of their pride and joy deep inside myself. When I set photos or mementos of them on my ancestor altar, and I bow with my forehead to the blessed Earth, I experience the commandment to Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother in an almost magical way. And my relationships with my parents were not always easy or even healthy; but now, they, too, have become honored ancestors who grace my ancestor altar. So on holy days, birthdays, death days, and other days, I come and sit with my ancestors; sometimes I bow; sometimes I weep; sometimes I laugh; sometimes I talk; and sometimes I listen.
This brings us back again to Confession. Sometimes, as I sit with my ancestral elders in a sacred Communion of Saints, I feel the need to say, “I’m sorry.” I am not sure where this sentiment first came from. Perhaps it was after my Nana was killed suddenly and unexpectedly, and I wished I had spent more time with her. I have many regrets. Even though my father often failed, he worked as hard as he was able to be the best father he could, and I did not always understand or appreciate how hard he tried, and how much brokenness he carried. But the most – surprising? – powerful? – part, is that when I try to confess, before I can even think or speak the words “I’m sorry,” I already feel a tidal wave of Grace, Love, and Pride, just pouring out all over me and through me from this Ancestral Earth Altar of Death and Life.
Everyone has well ancestors, somewhere in their past, whether through ties of blood or love; and everyone has the holy ground, our common Earth Ancestor and the Source of Life and Resurrection. Through ritual and my altar, so much of the theology of my own tradition finally makes sense. We don’t need to beat ourselves up – but great, self-sacrificing love inspires remorse, repentance, and inspiration. This healing stream from Calvary’s mountain gives us the strength to live into our call. Thanks to my ancestors – and our common Great Ancestor – I think I finally, finally understand the value of Confession and the power of Grace.
 For a great analysis of this general phenomenon more recently, see “Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink,” by Katrina Alcorn (Seal Press, Berkley, CA: 2013).
 While Korean Catholics still use ancestor veneration rituals, Protestants (who also do not venerate saints) instead tend to venerate ancestors in more general ways, rather than with bowing rituals. See Ancestor Worship and Christianity in Korea, edited by Jung Young Lee; Lewiston, N.Y., USA: E. Mellen Press, 1988.
Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee recently earned her Ph.D. in social and ecological ethics from Boston University School of Theology. She continues to study intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in central Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.