Next Sunday’s service is a service of contrition and reconciliation. It’s my experience that you can’t have the latter without the former, and yet our Unitarian Universalist tradition dropped even a private prayer of confession from its services long ago. We want to be better people–to reconcile ourselves with those we’ve wronged and re-commit to our ideals–but judging from our liturgy, we would prefer to skip the step of acknowledging what those wrongs are. In a workshop he led in Palo Alto last month, my colleague Mark Morrison-Reed proposed a new UU ritual, that of confession, and both I and most of the attendees thought he was really on to something.

So I’ve encouraged members of my congregation to spend time–not just in the service, but in the days leading up to it–in reflecting, as I’ll be doing, on the occasions over the past year when we have done wrong in our own eyes, and to fast overnight, starting after dinner next Saturday. We’ll break our fast together during the service, after a service that offers private periods of contrition, confession, reconciliation, and recommitment.

I promised I would suggest some aids to the process of contrition, and here are two to start with.

If you’re like me, when you set out to reflect on the ways you’ve done wrong, you tend to think of the things you already know about. You know you’re impatient, that you picked a fight with your brother, and that you ought to call your parents more often. So you reflect on those, and feel sorry for those, and maybe even tell people that you’re sorry, but what about the ways you’ve strayed that you haven’t even noticed? For those, what you need is a list of possible faults that you go down, item by item, so that you notice: oh yeah, I also don’t listen very well or give away much money.

The Jewish tradition, in its wisdom, came up with just such a list long ago. It was so long ago, in fact, that the language is a little obscure. The prayer, the Al-Chayt, lists 44 ways one might have sinned, with a noticeable emphasis on the many ways to do someone wrong through spoken words. I’ve looked at several versions and come up with this one that leaves the question of a deity open, uses the term “wrongs” (I’ve seen “sins” and “mistakes” elsewhere), is in first-person singular, and takes a somewhat-educated guess at what the obscure expressions might mean.

For all of the wrongs I have committed, source of forgiveness, pardon me, forgive me, and make my atonement possible.

For the wrongs I did under duress and those I did willingly,
For the wrongs I did through having a hard heart,
For the wrongs I did without thinking,
For the wrongs I did through things I blurted out with my lips,
For the wrongs I did in public and those I did in private,
For the wrongs I did by abusing sexuality,
For the wrongs I did through harsh speech,
For the wrongs I did with knowledge and deceit,
For the wrongs I did through my thoughts,
For the wrongs I did to friends,
For the wrongs I did through insincere confession,
For the wrongs I did together with a group of others,
For the wrongs I did willfully and those I did unintentionally,
For the wrongs I did by degrading parents and teachers,
For the wrongs I did through the ways I exercised power,
For the wrongs I did through desecrating things that are holy,
For the wrongs I did with foolish speech,
For the wrongs I did with vulgar speech,
For the wrongs I did by listening to my evil inclination rather than my good inclination,
For the wrongs I did against those who know I hurt them, and those that do not know I hurt them,
For the wrongs I did through bribing or flattering others, or accepting bribes or flattery myself–
For all these, source of forgiveness, pardon me, forgive me, and make my atonement possible.

For the wrongs I did through denial and false promises,
For the wrongs I did through hurtful words,
For the wrongs I did through scoffing and being scornful,
For the wrongs I did in business,
For the wrongs I did with food and drink,
For the wrongs I did through exploiting others’ financial needs,
For the wrongs I did by being arrogant,
For the wrongs I did purely with my eyes,
For the wrongs I did through meaningless chatter,
For the wrongs I did through having haughty eyes,
For the wrongs I did by refusing to feel shame–
For all these, source of forgiveness, pardon me, forgive me, and make my atonement possible.

For the wrongs I did in throwing off the yoke of my responsibilities,
For the wrongs I did in the way I judged,
For the wrongs I did through violating a friend’s trust,
For the wrongs I did through the begrudging eye of jealousy,
For the wrongs I did through taking lightly what deserves to be taken seriously,
For the wrongs I did by being stiff-necked,
For the wrongs I did eagerly,
For the wrongs I did through passing along gossip,
For the wrongs I did through vowing in vain,
For the wrongs I did through baseless hatred,
For the wrongs I did through reaching out to take what was not mine,
For the wrongs I did through confusion of the heart–
For all these, source of forgiveness, pardon me, forgive me, and make my atonement possible.

The other Jewish source I recommend is Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s personal Al-Chet, from her terrific blog Velveteen Rabbi. She grants permission to use it–of course, if you use it elsewhere please credit her.

AL CHET SHECHATATI L’FANECHA…         …על חטא שחטאתי לפניך

I need to speak these words aloud and to know that the universe hears them.
I get caught in old patterns and paradigms; I am stubborn and hard-headed.
In the last year I have missed the mark more than I want to admit.
Forgive me, Source of all being, for the sin I have sinned before you

By allowing my body to be an afterthought too often and too easily;
By not walking, running, leaping, climbing or dancing although I am able;
By eating in my car and at my desk, mindlessly and without blessing;
By not embracing those who needed it, and not allowing myself to be embraced;
By not praising every body’s beauty, with our quirks and imperfections.

By letting my emotions run roughshod over the needs of others;
By poking at sources of hurt like a child worrying a sore tooth;
By revealing my heart before those who neither wanted nor needed to see it;
By hiding love, out of fear of rejection, instead of giving love freely;
By dwelling on what’s internal when the world is desperate for healing.

By indulging in intellectual argument without humility or consideration;
By reading words of vitriol, cultivating hot indignation;
By eschewing intellectual discomfort that might prod me into growing;
By living in anticipation, and letting anxiety rule me;
By accepting defeatist thinking and the comfortable ache of despair.

By not being awake and grateful, despite uncountable blessings;
By not being sufficiently gentle, with my actions or with my language;
By being not pliant and flexible, but obstinate, stark, and unbending;
By not being generous with my time, with my words or with my being;
By not being kind to everyone who crosses my wandering path.

For all of these, eternal Source of forgiveness
Help me know myself to be pardoned
Help me feel in my bones that I’m forgiven
Remind me I’m always already at/one with You.

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