Sunday, November 13, 2022

Confession, or Manifestation of Thoughts

     I have a confession: I almost never go to Confession. I mean, canon law only requires Catholics to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation (as it's properly called) once a year, but I don't even go that often. I only do it when there's something really serious and sticky on my conscience. Which is rare -- and I think, more than anything, that's because I'm such a big believer in confession with a small “c”: frequent, thorough, routine confession, not necessarily to a priest (though my spiritual director happens to be one), and not limited to “sins.” It is a practice known in the monastic tradition as “manifestation of thoughts,” in chapter 4 of the Rule of St. Benedict. 

    I tell my spiritual director everything. At the beginning, I offered him the password to my journal, and God bless him, he read it all in between our weekly meetings. And having given him the password, I didn't start censoring my journal. On the contrary. The temptation to keep something from him, or to spin it to make myself look better, is one of the most useful flags I have to warn me that I'm in danger of going off the rails. And one of the best, most essential tools I have for getting back on track is to be open and transparent about it, whatever it is. Now we meet monthly, and although he no longer reads my whole journal, he does still have access to it at all times. The frequency is more a matter of how much support we both think I need, and is likely to vary through different stages of life.

    The prophet Jeremiah once wrote (17:9-10): “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it? I, the Lord, test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.” It's true – our minds are devious! And while it's true that God already understands us, we don't understand ourselves. Not until we see and hear ourselves reflected back from another human being, one who is sensitive, wise, and caring but without being emotionally attached to our drama. 

    By which last I mean, we are almost as easily deceived by the cognitive distortions of people very close to us as we are by our own. That means it may require more courage to confess regularly, if the people we already trust enough to tell our secrets to won't do. It can be tough to find the right person to receive our routine confessions. There aren't enough professional therapists to go around, even if we could all afford to pay. And anyway, no amount of training and education guarantees that any given professional is going to be the right person to receive our secrets and help us to make sense of ourselves. 

    But whether we open up to a priest, a therapist, or a stranger on the bus, it's really, really important to open up sometimes, to somebody. I don't mean splashing it all over social media, either. I mean taking off our social mask in a safe context, letting ourselves be vulnerable with someone who will tell us the truth about ourselves. It's really important to reality-check our self-assessment, because it is absolutely 100% normal and natural either to justify ourselves to ourselves, and give ourselves a free pass for bad behavior and stinking thinking, or to beat ourselves up because our messy insides don't match up to other people's polished outsides. 

    Really, I don't think sacramental confession even makes sense until after a regular, non-sacramental manifestation of thoughts. I am a very self-aware, introspective, self-reflective person, but still I'm not always a good judge of my own morals. I need to expose the inside of my mind to someone else's judgment, to be reflected back from another mind. Even if the other person gets it wrong, hearing back something that doesn't ring true may enable me to identify what does resonate within my own heart.

    We like to think of ourselves as really rational creatures, acting from free will. And I'm not saying we don't have free will -- otherwise, why bother trying? But our minds and will are actually really complicated, self-contradictory, self-deceptive, pulled around by all kinds of crazy cognitive distortions. Like "no one will know," "ignorance is bliss," "everyone does it," "just one won't count," "I deserve it." Or, conversely, "I'm such a screw-up," "I never learn," "I just got lucky, I didn't earn it," "nobody loves me," "why do I even bother trying?"

    For me to go to Confession, to the sacrament, assumes that I'm pretty clear on what my sins are, what I want to ask absolution for. And that takes a level of self-awareness and self-honesty that most of us probably have some of the time, but few or maybe none of us have all the time. I know I don't. Guilt is an appropriate response to sin. But it's also very easily confused with shame, which is actually a really common response to abuse, including emotional abuse and, very notably, spiritual abuse. Shame is also mixed up with pride, in that it has more to do with not wanting other people to perceive us as bad than plain healthy guilt does. 

    Let me put it this way: guilt is the sense of cognitive dissonance between my values and my actions (or omissions, or thoughts, or words). Shame is more pervasive. It's a discrepancy between my self-concept and my ideal self, and it goes along with toxic perfectionism, toxic social masking, and manipulativeness. Shame is itself a distortion, because we are all inherently precious, we are all absolutely worthy, we are all beloved of our Creator, even in a state of guilt

    Shame, or guilt distorted by shame, wants to hide at all costs; hiding our guilt also sinks us in shame. Guilt and shame brought out into the light, and confessed to ourselves, to God, and to another human being, has no more power to drag us down. Whichever emotion comes first, it is manifestation of thoughts that defuses the toxicity of shame, clarifies our conscience, and enables us to move through guilt to repentance and conversion. 

    This is long enough for now. I have thoughts on penance and making amends, too, but I'll leave that for another post. For now, peace and grace to all who read these words.

~~~ PEACE ~~~

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