Getting Our Stories Straight
Confession is a mixed-up matter for many Catholics. The more we need it, the less we seem to want it. The more we choose to sin, the less we want to discuss our sins.
It's only natural, this reluctance to speak up about our moral failures. If you're the losing pitcher in the final game of the World Series, you're not going to seek out the sportswriters on your way to the locker room. If your mismanagement of the family business has driven most of your kin to bankruptcy court, you probably won't volunteer that information at a cocktail party.
Sin, moreover, is the one thing in life we should be ashamed about. For sin is a transgression against almighty God, which is a more serious matter than a business blunder or a fat pitch down the middle of the plate. When we sin, we reject the love of God, to some degree, and nothing can be hid from God.
Raised from the Dread
So, again, it's only natural for us to wince at the very thought of kneeling before God's representatives on earth, his priests, and of speaking our sins aloud--in clear terms, without whitewash, without excuses. Self-accusation has never been humanity's favorite pastime. Yet it's essential to every confession.
To dread confession is only natural, yes, but nothing that's "only natural" can get us to heaven, or even win us happiness here on earth. Heaven is supernatural; it's above the natural, and every natural happiness is fleeting. Our natural instincts tell us to avoid pain and embrace pleasure, but the wisdom of the ages tells us things like "No pain, no gain."
Whatever we suffer from speaking our sins aloud, it's far less than the pain we bring on ourselves by living in inward or outward denial, acting as if our sins don't exist or don't matter. "If we say we are without sin," the Bible tells us, "we deceive ourselves" (1 Jn 1:8).
Self-deception is a nasty thing in itself, but it's only the beginning of our troubles. For when we begin to deny our sins, we begin to live a lie. In our speech or in our thought, we have broken important connections of cause and effect, because we have denied our own responsibility for our own most grievous faults. Once we've done this, even in a small matter, we have begun to erode the contours of reality. We can't quite get our story straight, and this can't help but affect our lives, our health, and our relationships--most directly and most profoundly, our relationship with God.
That's a big claim, I know, and some people might think I'm exaggerating. The rest of the book, I pray, will bear this lesson out. It's a lesson I began to learn, the hard way, long before I believed in God or saw a confessional.
I have a confession to make. In my early teens, I ran with the sort of crowd that is every parent's nightmare. We did some minor mischief before moving on to petty crime. For a while, shoplifting at the mall was our Saturday afternoon pastime. One day, I got caught stealing record albums. I won't tire you with the details just now. I'll only say that I was more skillful as a liar than as a thief.
Two store detectives, both middle-aged women, hauled me off to the department store's interrogation room. I must have looked pitiful. I was the smallest kid in my eighth-grade class. I was thirteen, but I looked about ten. One of the detectives looked at me and said, "You look too young to steal. . . . Did you steal those albums for yourself?"
She didn't know it, but with those words she had given me my alibi. Working from her mere suggestion, I fabricated a story about how a group of local kids--known delinquents and drug users--threatened to beat up my friend and me unless we stole albums for them.
The interrogator's face flushed with a motherly indignation. "How could they do such a thing? Why didn't you tell your mom?"
"I was afraid," I said meekly.
A Pittsburgh police officer soon arrived, and in short order I managed--with the store detectives' help!--to persuade them that the real guilt lay elsewhere than with me. The police, in turn, helped me to make the case convincingly for my mother.
Soon I was, literally, home-free. When Mom parked the car in our driveway, I mumbled something about being tired. She was sympathetic. I went directly to my room and closed the door.
Immediately I heard muffled conversation from downstairs. I couldn't make out words, but I knew that the soft voice was my mother's and that the voice gradually rising in volume and pitch was my dad's. This didn't bode well.
Soon the sound of heavy feet came padding up the steps and then down the hall to my room. I felt more than heard the knock at the door.
It was Dad, of course, and I let him in.
He fixed his eyes on mine, which immediately shifted to a distant point on the carpet.
"Your mother told me what happened today."
He kept staring at me. "You were made to steal those record albums?"
He looked at me hard and repeated, "You were made to steal records?"
As I nodded again in reply, I could see his eyes shift toward the towering stack of records beside my stereo.
He looked back toward me. "And where'd you drop the records off, after you stole them?"
"At a tree stump," I replied, "in the woods near the mall."
"Can you show me that tree stump?"
I nodded again.
"Okay," he said. "Get on your coat, Scottie. Let's go for a walk."
The woods were about three hundred yards from our house, and the mall was about a half-mile walk through the woods. The foliage was thick, so I was sure I'd see lots of tree stumps. All I'd have to do is choose one.
Sure enough, as we walked, I saw plenty of of trees, plenty of leaves, plenty of twigs, even some fallen branches--but a conspicuous absence of stumps. My dad had let me lead, so he couldn't see my eyes scanning from side to side, with increasing desperation. I felt a certain panic when I saw the clearing ahead. The woods were ending, and I hadn't seen a stump.
At the very edge of the woods, with the mall straight in front of us, I said, "Over there. That's where the guys were sniffing glue."
"OK," Dad replied, "where's the stump?"
"It's that big mound of dirt over there. That clump."
He looked right back at me. "You said tree stump."
I squirmed. "Well, clump, stump . . ."
"Clump . . . stump," he repeated, pausing painfully between the words. I was expecting his temper to explode, for him to turn around in a rage and call me a liar--but all he said was, "Let's go home."
In the eternity it took us to walk through the woods, my father never said a word. I found myself no longer dreading the explosion, but almost longing for it. His silence was killing me.
We got home. He closed the door. He took off his jacket, took off his shoes, went upstairs.
In a moment, I, too, went upstairs, into my room alone, and closed my door. You'd think that I'd be celebrating a victory. I had managed to keep my crooked story straight enough to fool two store detectives, a town policeman, and my mother! But I was celebrating nothing. I was experiencing a whole new thing. It was at that moment that I began to realize what it meant to have a human heart. I felt such an overwhelming sense of shame because my dad didn't believe my story, because he knew the boy he loved had lied and stolen.
What happened to me was not merely the awakening of a conscience. It was the discovery of a relationship. I had always seen this man in my life as judge, jury, and executioner. Whenever I had done something wrong, I feared getting caught, standing trial, and being punished. But that day, I discovered there was something worse than inciting Dad's wrath, and it was breaking Dad's heart. I had done this, and I hated it.
Setting the Records Straight
My father was not what anyone would call a devout believer. He wasn't even sure that he believed in God. But I would gradually discern, over the course of years, that at that lonely moment when I was thirteen, my dad represented God's fatherhood to me, and he began to set my story straight. I was no longer reveling in my "successful" lies or thefts. I was exposed in my guilt; I was ashamed of myself and more alone than I had ever been before.
I wish I could say that this was the moment of my conversion to Christ--a dazzling and sudden miracle, like Saint Paul's encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus--but that wasn't the case. Still, it was an awakening, a beginning.
My juvenile delinquency sets me apart, perhaps, from most people in their youth. Yet in the making of alibis, I am surely not alone. We've all done it, in every generation since Adam and Eve. Sometimes we do it in small ways, sometimes in bigger ways. We do it in our everyday conversation and in our private reveries. When we tell the tales of our troubles--at work or at home--do we include the details that might cast a shadow on our own responsibility in the matter? Or do we instead portray ourselves as either the hero or the helpless victim in an ongoing office or domestic drama? If you and I think hard about the way we talk about the events of daily life, we'll probably find instances in which we exaggerate our victimhood and magnify the faults of others, even as we ignore our own. We find excuses and mitigating circumstances for all our own blunders; yet we're fairly merciless in recounting those of our neighbors or coworkers. Often, our friends and family members will believe our side of the story. Often, we will begin to believe it ourselves.
All of this, some people will tell you, is--like the aversion to confession--"only natural." But that's not true. It's not natural at all. To falsify facts is actually to destroy nature. It destroys things-as-they-are, along with nature's delicate web of cause and effect, and replaces them with things-as-we-wish-they-were: castles in the air.
Forgotten, Not Forgiven
One of my favorite philosophers, Josef Pieper, wrote that this "falsification of memory" is among our greatest enemies, for it strikes "at the deepest root" of our spiritual and moral lives. "There is no more insidious way for error to establish itself than by this falsification of the memory through slight retouches, displacements, discolorations, omissions, shifts of accent."
Once we do this--and we all do--we begin to lose the true narrative thread in our lives. Things no longer make sense to us. Relationships grow cold. We lose our sense of purpose and our sense of ourselves.
I'll say it again: This is something we all do, though we must never think it is natural. Thus, those symptoms of unease are, perhaps, just as familiar to us all. How, then, can we overcome this malaise, when it's pandemic and yet so subtle that it eludes diagnosis? Even Josef Pieper found the task daunting. "The peril," he said, "is the greater for its being so imperceptible. . . . Nor can such falsification be quickly detected by the probing conscience, even when it applies itself to this task. The honesty of memory can be ensured only by a rectitude of the whole human being."
That's a tall order. It is, however, achievable, as we can see in the lives of the saints. What's more, such total rectitude is what God has asked of each and every one of us. "Be perfect," Jesus said, "as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48). If God has commanded this, He will certainly give us the power to carry it out. Moreover, in that brief command, He even revealed the source of our power: It is the fatherhood of God. "Be perfect . . . as your Father."
If in my teen years I had spent all my time in the sight of my earthly father, I would never have shoplifted; I certainly would never have lied to my dad.
Yet God is our Father, and we live every moment in His sight; and still we sin. We act like toddler children who think that Mom can't see them as long as they can't see Mom. So they turn their back to Mom and reach for the forbidden cookies.
We live always in the presence of our Father, who wishes us to be perfect. If our earthly fathers wish us to complete a task, they will make sure we have all that we need to do so. Our heavenly Father--Who owns all and is all-powerful--will surely do the same.
What is essential is that we recognize His constant presence, so that we realize we are always, in a sense, under judgment. Yet God does not preside in our lives like a magistrate in a court. He judges as a father judges, with love. That's a double-edged sword, of course, because fathers will demand more from their children than a judge will demand from the accused; but fathers will also show greater mercy.
The Road Most Traveled
We long to know peace in our Father's arms; yet something dark within us tells us that it's easier to turn our back to Him. We long to live in the truth, with no secrets to cover up and no lies to protect; yet something dark within us tells us that our sins are best left unspoken.
"There is a way which seems right to a man," says the Bible's wise king, "but its end is the way to death" (Prv 14:12). How can we know this dead-end road when we see it? We can be sure that it is any road--no matter how right it seems at the time--that would lead us away from confessing our sins to God, in the way that He wishes. Sad to say, our ancestors walked such a road, almost from the beginning of their earthly journey.