Deathbed Confessions

I want to think about “deathbed confessions” today. I am going to imagine for today’s purposes that they are fraudulent. The reasons for starting there will become clearer as we go.

deathbed 1In order to use that frame of reference with a clear conscience, I am going to try to imagine what a genuine deathbed confession might be like. There is nothing about the word that requires its most common current meaning. Confession simply means “to acknowledge” or “truly avow. [1] One may “truly avow” one’s deepest convictions, which is what “confession” means in the phrase “confession of faith,” or in the “confession of sins,” both of which are regular parts of the liturgy of my church.

The real power of the notion of “deathbed confession” comes from the idea that you are confessing them to someone who is able to forgive them, to absolve you from the guilt that belongs to you because you committed them. So let’s say that you have been terminally ill for awhile and you have been thinking long and hard about how guilty you are because of your misdeeds. Someone you believe can absolve you from that guilt, a Catholic priest, let’s say, comes to visit you on Fridays and on one Friday, not your last one, your remorse overflows and you confess sins you have been longing to confess for years. You confess them sincerely and the priest, who has the authority to remove the guilt of them (but not their consequences) does so and before the next Friday, you die—guiltless.

I think that is the best I can do. [2] I have nothing bad to say about such a scenario, however emotionally remote it may seem to me.

Beyond the scenario I just sketched, I’d have to say that I am not a fan of “deathbed confessions,” and particularly I am not a fan of postponing “confessions” until the last possible moment. Here’s why. Let’s imagine that I am thinking of my sins as the great pleasures of my life. They are wrong, of course, but hey, cheating on my wife, “borrowing” money from the pension fund, holding a grudge against my brother…what’s life about anyway? Those are just “human” things to do. [Editor’s note: They are indeed “just human.” The whole theology of grace takes that for granted.]

And I’d really like to keep doing them until right up to the moment of my death. This isdeathbed 5 like falsifying the books right up to the moment of the audit, I guess. God is the Great Auditor and you have milked the system for everything you can get out of it and now you are dying so now is the time to admit that you cheated a lot of people out of money that was rightfully theirs and you pay no price for it, being, you know, dead. Doesn’t sound quite right, does it?

Or, since you might not have a deeply personal relationship with the accountant, let’s go back to the “cheating on your wife” part of the scenario. You know that your sexual misadventures are painful to your wife. The dilute the relationship. [3] They are violations of promises you both have made and which she has kept. Your wife is deeply in love with you—the neighbors all wonder why—and would forgive you anything. But…what would it mean to “confess” your infidelities of the previous week if you were still hoping to continue them next week. This brings us to how much more weight “confess” carries than a lighter word like “admit.”

deathbed 8Would such a man say to his wife, “I have every intention of making a deathbed confession of my many infidelities, but I don’t want to confess them before that because I still enjoy them and want to continue them.” That doesn’t sound quite right either. If “confess” carries the notion of “renounce” and of “desist,” then grieving his wife with a painful but meaningless confession every week is just brutal. On the other hand, how would the wife understand his assurance that her husband intended to fully renounce such behavior and to display sorrow for all those hurtful episodes…but only when there is no further opportunity of continuing to do them? A more grievous violation of relationship can scarcely be imagined.

Ordinarily, a deathbed confession is understood as a confession to God—mediated by a religious official in some traditions, not so mediated in others—and a plea for mercy. The plea for mercy doesn’t fit all that well with the intention to continue sinning as long as the opportunities continue to present themselves. We’re going to get to God momentarily, but let’s pause briefly to examine the differences between squaring things with the Auditor, who has your errors and eventually jail time in his armory and the Wife, with whom this man has had a relationship characterized by generosity and patience, and, on her side, complete trustworthiness.

This man has every reason to fear the sanctions the Auditor wields, but no other reason todeathbed 3 take the impending audit into account. He has every reason to trust and honor his wife and to build on that foundation a relationship that will sustain them both for their whole lives. Postponing any change in his financial practices until he is forced to confess them to the Auditor might not be all that smart, but it is fully in keeping with the kind of relationship he has with the Auditor, which takes into account only the punishments the Auditor can inflict. Postponing any change in his life of recurrent infidelity in not in keeping with the kind of relationship he could have with his wife and which his wife deserves. [4]

The relationship with the person who is to be feared only because of the hell he can bring into your life is structural and narrowly defined. It is structural rather than personal; he doesn’t care who you are, only what your status is (responsible for finances) and whether he needs to report you. It is narrowly defined because it is only the condition of your books that concerns him

The relationship with your most intimate friend is another kind of thing. It is the most personal relationship you have. It is precisely “knowing who you are,” rather than anything about your status that gives the relationship meaning. It is not the hammer, divorce, let’s say, that she holds that makes the relationship one to be cherished, but the whole range of shared experiences and commitments. It is a relationship always to be cherished, always to be nourished, never to be abandoned.

Which brings us back to God and to the deathbed confession. If you understand your deathbed 9relationship with God by close analogy to your relationship to the Auditor, then continuing to “borrow” money from the pension fund until the last possible minute is a thinkable thought. People who think of God in terms of Hell and Heaven—God is the Ultimate Carrot as well as the Ultimate Stick—are thinking in the Auditor mode. “Doing it” until you get caught is a practice with a long history; moralists note it and shrug.  This is not really a shrug.  This is Michelangelo’s picture of a guy who is just getting it.

If you understand your relationship with God by close analogy to the relationship with the Wife—by the most common analogy, we are the wife and God the husband, but I’m not writing this from God’s point of view—continuing to violate the relationship as long as possible, hoping for a last minute reprieve, makes no sense at all. If the relationship is always to be cherished, the regular and casual violation of it, cannot be seen as part of that cherishing. You can imagine a God as forgiving as you like, nothing will square your casual violation of the relationship with an intimacy that makes sense and that makes sense of everything else.

No one who imagines his relationship with God as a relationship to be achieved by a final accounting coup is thinking of the relationship at all except in the crudest and most instrumental sense. And that is why the deathbed confession, conceived of as a strategy for avoiding punishment has always seems to me the profoundest sacrilege.

[1] The Latin prefix con- is often used to intensify the meaning of the verb. The prefix is attached here to fatari, part of the very large family of fari, which means only “to speak.” More serious notions like “truly avow” come from the effect of the prefix.
[2] Which, I have to say, is considerably better than Danny Devito does in David Mamet’s 2001 movie Heist. Joe Moore (Gene Hackman) has just shot Mickey Bergman (Danny DeVito) in an extended gun battle and goes over to finish him off with one last shot. Mickey says, “Don’t you want to hear my last words?” Joe responds, “I’ve just heard them.” and pulls the trigger.
[3] That is what the word “adultery” means. You can adulterate whiskey, too.
[4] Andrew Greeley mourns, in his wonderful book, Sexual Intimacy, that “sexual fidelity” is an expression saved for what people don’t do. That seems an unnecessarily pale use of the word to Father Greeley. He would mean by it, “failing to do everything within your power to give your marriage a powerful and gracious erotic relationship.” Failing to do what the relationship requires is what Greely thinks ought to be called “infidelity.” Good advice from a priest; from anybody, actually.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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