I’m only an averagely religious person. I don’t attend church every week. I do believe in God, without having that clear a definition of what/who God is. The nature of God is a rather large subject for research, so large that the result of it may always be pending for me. I can live with that. I also have plenty of doubts on a regular basis.
One thing I find useful in coping with my own limitations is the practice of following the progression from prayer to confession to asking forgiveness. You don’t have to believe in God to follow this practice. It works just as well even if you only believe in trying to take better care of yourself. All prayer is (for me) is a process of trying to quiet my mind and be still before opening myself to contemplation. Then I try to take a second look at what I’ve been up to. That helps me become aware of unintentional mistakes, and makes it easier to face the things I’ve done wrong out of ignorance, cowardice or other weaknesses. I want to be a better, more generous, more ethical, more loving person. So I ask forgiveness for what I’ve done wrong. And I try to forgive anyone who has done wrong to me (intentionally or unknowingly).
For persons of faith, the next step in the ritual is to be granted absolution, which is to say you are granted forgiveness along with the reassurance it won’t cost you in karma/God points, so long as you try and do better from now on. In that intention, you will fail unless you happen to be spectacularly saintly. I am not; therefore it’s a daily practice for me. I do it wherever I happen to be. To wait until I was in church again would be too long a wait. If you follow the three steps, you will feel like you’ve been forgiven even if nobody of official capacity is there to seal the deal. Try it! It WORKS.
Another version of the same process of self-examination, submission and the making of amends is Twelve Step programs, of which there are about 200 types of fellowships. The main difference in these is a greater emphasis upon the inclusion of more experienced adherents as sponsors, and the responsibility of helping others in recovery as you grow stronger. You don’t have to be an addict to see the value of working the steps.
The most important of the three steps I follow is the part where I ask forgiveness. If you happen to be too busy to go through all three steps, fine. Just skip to #3. The effectiveness of this kind of shortcut was brilliantly illustrated in Herb Gardner’s 1962 play A Thousand Clowns. In the play (and 1965 film) an unemployed writer walks up to strangers and tells them, “I’m sorry.” No one asks him what he’s sorry for, and everyone finds a way to say, “That’s ok mister.” Nobody knows the transgression, but everybody has been trespassed against, and they STILL want to grant forgiveness in order to liberate the man who apologizes. In doing so, they also liberate themselves from the weight of whatever injustice was done to them. I love learning this way, from plays and movies. I’ll bet you have favorite scenes from your own experience. Let me know about some.
And since I know I’m going to speak immoderately at times, or in ignorance, or anger and inadvertently cause offense to some of you, dear readers – I ask ahead of time…
Will you forgive me?