Into the Cocoon of Sorrow

The return of the prodigal son - Rembrandt drawing

The return of the prodigal son – Rembrandt drawing

During seven years as Executive Director of the Legal Rights Center, Inc. a nonprofit public defense corporation founded in 1970 by American Indian and African-American civil rights leaders, there were sacred moments when the lawyers would call me in to meet a suicidal client in a jail cell. Sometimes the person in the cell was guilty of murder or manslaughter. They were beside themselves. All I could do was be there with them as a kind of quiet presence of hope and the possibility of forgiveness and new life.

I knew then that we were sitting right in the middle of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Gospel of Luke 15:11-32). In Jesus’ parable, the son, who has convinced his generous father into giving him his inheritance before his father’s death, has squandered it all, and, after finding himself in desperation, eating the left-overs in the pig sty of “the far country”, he staggers home to his father. He comes beating his breast with remorse and shame. “But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him, and kissed him,” and orders the finest robe for him and a magnificent feast to celebrate his son’s return from “the far country.” When the older brother who has stayed home obediently objects, the father of the two sons declares: “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, but is alive, was lost, and is found!”

Only after returning to parish ministry did I discover The Book of Common Prayer’s rite for the reconciliation of a penitent that is constructed on the story of the return of the son to the father. For those in the bowels of despair, remorse, and guilt, there is no word from inside one’s own self that can crack open the cocoon of horror, self-disgust, and condemnation. When I found this rite, it moved me deeply. I adapted parts of it for the Prayer of Confession in morning worship at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN.

RITE FOR THE RECONCILIATION OF A PENITENT from The Book of Common Prayer (The Episcopal Church)

The priest and penitent begin as follows

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness;
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
Wash me through and through from my wickedness,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions only too well,
and my sin is ever before me.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
have mercy upon us.

Penitent: Pray for me, a sinner.

Priest: May God in his love enlighten your heart, that you may remember in truth all your sins and his unfailing mercy. Amen.

The Priest may then say one or more of these or other appropriate verses of Scripture, first saying:: Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him.

Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. Matthew 11:28

This is a true saying, and worthy of all to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. I Timothy 1:13

If any man sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the perfect offering for our sins, and nor for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world. I John 2:1-2

The Priest then continues:

Now, in the presence of Christ, and of me, his minister, confess your sins with a humble and obedient heart to Almighty God, our Creator and our Redeemer.

The Penitent says:

Holy God, heavenly Father, you formed me from the dust in your image and likeness, and redeemed me from sin and death by the cross of your Son Jesus Christ. Through the water of baptism you clothed me with the shining garment of his righteousness, and established me among your children in your kingdom. But I have squandered the inheritance of your saints, and I have wandered far in a land that is waste.

Especially, I confess to you and to the Church . . . . (Here the penitent confesses particular sins)

Therefore, O Lord, from these and all other sins I cannot now remember, I turn to you in sorrow and repentance. Receive me again into the arms of your mercy, and restore me to the blessed company of your faithful people; through him in whom you have redeemed the world, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Priest may then offer words of comfort and counsel.

Priest: Will you turn again to Christ as your Lord?

Penitent: I will.

Priest: Do you, then, forgive those who have sinned against you?

Penitent: I forgive them.

Priest: May Almighty God in mercy receive your confession of sorrow and faith, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.

The Priest then lays upon the penitent’s head (or extends a hand over the penitent) saying:: Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive you all your offenses; and by his authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Priest concludes: Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go (or abide) in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.

Penitent: Thanks be to God.


The Prayer of St. Francis is a well-known. Here’s the Prayer, followed by a reflection for today (Feb. 20) on “pardon” from a Lenten booklet prepared by members of the United Church of the San Juans in Ridgway, CO.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen

“Part of my job, when I was on staff at First Presbyterian Church in Boulder was to prepare ‘messages’ on a twice monthly basis. These were to be shared in our huge singles Sunday School class. Some Sundays, we would have upwards of 100 single adults in our group; many ere just separated, some post-divorce, others recently widowed. All were seeking advice or encouragement about getting on with life, in most cases a life-style change that had not been chosen by that person. A second part of my job was the coordinator for the Divorce Recovery Program. This is where I ran into the word ‘pardon,’ used differently than the legal usage more familiar in society today.

“I have always loved words; when I run into an unfamiliar one, I generally stop what I am doing and look up the meaning. The computer has made my lifelong affair with words much easier! I used to haul my huge old five pound unabridged version (1940) of Webster’s Dictionary down off the shelf, turn the onion skin tot he right location and study the pronunciation, origin and usage of these unfamiliar words. Some words I managed to remember and use myself to reinforce the memory, but others faded away quickly because they were not that useful. The word pardon has an interesting origin; it stems from the Medieval Lation perdonare, meaning to remit, overlook, or literally ‘to forgive.’ The Latin was then adopted into a Germanic ancestor of our English, where it was translated piece-by-piece. Linguists call this process a ‘calque’, a tracing or copy. ‘Per’ was replaced by ‘for’, a prefix that means ‘thoroughly’, and ‘donare’ was replaced with ‘giefan’ meaning to give. The Germanic result was ‘forgiefan’ which showed up in Old English meaning to ‘give up’ or to allow.

“It isn’t just divorced or widowed parties who might need to deal with the concept of pardon or forgiveness; most of us have experienced hurt, deliberately or not, by the thoughtless or painful words and actions of others. The most difficult concept to explain is that pardoning or forgiving is not about saying what happened was ‘alright’; rather, the act of pardon or forgiveness allows the injured party to let go or give away the hurt and release the hold that kept that person stuck in the past.”

– Member of United Church of the San Juans

Thanks to dear friend, former classmate and colleague Harry Strong for sending “Lenten Devotionals” complied by members and friends of the United Church of the San Juans in Ridgeway, Colorado.

Here’s the entire Prayer of St. Francis: