What Are Confessions? The Are’s and the Nots

What are confessions and why do they matter in a world where “religion” has become a dirty word? The word confess conjures images of soaring gothic churches, flickering candles, priests, and closed doors. Or of the latest true crime drama where a suspect confesses to committing a crime.

So, you’d expect to see the same thing in a book with “confessions” in the title, right?

Not true! Confessions, or confessional literature, are most often non-fiction, autobiographical, and depict internal struggles and personal beliefs.


NOT an attempt to preach dogma.

A “confession” to a modern religious person means only admitting when you’ve broken the rules. I.e. You’ve sinned. You didn’t follow all the rules as your organization interpreted them. Now you have to be punished.

From witch burning, to bigotry, closed-mindedness, and more, “confession” has only come to mean a way of brow-beating someone into accepting someone else’s view of God and the world.

If that is your own impression of the word, then read on.

Because it’s dead wrong. Confessions are about discovering and wrestling with yourself. They are not a brow-beating exercise. They are about discovering yourself and your personal beliefs.

For anyone who cares about knowing themselves, that is the primary attraction for confessional literature. Religious dogma provides background to many of these pieces, but it’s not there to preach. It’s a framework to show how these people came to believe what they did and why they believe it.

NOT pure autobiography

The autobiography is a separate genre from the confession. Most confessions have autobiographical elements since the writer uses their own lives to work through their thoughts and beliefs. However, if you are looking for an entire life story, prepare for disappointment.

St. Patrick’s own confession has some biographical detail—some of the only biographical detail available to us, but his primary focus is to convey his beliefs and how he came to have them.

The “how” here is important. Because the journey to the “how” is part of what makes these intriguing centuries after they’re written.

The Are’s

ARE a detailed sketch of a mental state

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions give us a ring-side seat into ADHD and possibly bipolar without either of those diagnoses existing during Rousseau’s own lifetime.

This goes beyond mere autobiography. It gives us a window into how the mind of a particular writer worked. Rousseau, for instance, has highs and lows like those of ADHD and bipolar. He also has a very particular viewpoint of his own actions and holds himself blameless for most of them.

ARE depictions of internal conversations and struggles

We get a very detailed account of St. Augustine’s spiritual struggles in his Confessions. St. Catherine of Sienna’s Dialogue is a conversation between herself and God as she comes to terms with her own beliefs.

These are real people who faced real challenges—cataclysmic challenges. St. Augustine, for example, watched as the Roman Empire disintegrated. I don’t know about you, but watching Rome fall is pretty cataclysmic.

It’s events just like Rome’s fall (or the 2020s pandemic) which make us question our priorities and how we are living our lives.

What would your own internal struggle look like? Do you have negative self-talk, lack of self-discipline or a lack of self-forgiveness? Are you trying to escape from your own depression?

Have you considered what you believe?

Most of us have thought about what we believe in fleeting moments, but we rarely delve as deeply as we should.

As we start the first of two different seasons of self-reflection (Lent and Ramadan), my challenge to you is to look at what your beliefs are and why you believe them.

When you write it down, see you wrestling with yourself. Your negative self-talk, your struggles with self-discipline, your dreams, your depression, and your trauma.

See you escaping from your own mind. See you forming a cogent view of the world and our place in it.

It’s easy to succumb to slogans and bumper sticker theology. Neither of those will help you when you have a dark night of the soul. Neither will help you escape the castle of your mind, improve your mental health, or keep you from reverse placebo affirmations.

So, as we go through the next two months, keep a journal and explore your own mind!

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