2016-06-30
Excerpted from Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness with permission of Orbis Books.

A best-selling book of the 1970s had the title "I'm Okay, You're Okay." One of its readers, a young priest in Boston, gave a sermon which was essentially a rave review. At the end of Mass, standing at the door, he asked one of his older parishioners if he had liked the sermon. The man responded, "I haven't read the book--maybe it's better than the Bible. But I kept thinking of Christ on the Cross saying to those who were watching him die, 'If everybody's okay, what in blazes am I doing up here?'" The problem is I'm not okay and neither are you.

There have been thousands of essays and books in recent decades which have dealt with human failings under various labels without once using the one-syllable, three-letter word that has more bite than any of its synonyms: sin. Actions traditionally regarded as sinful have instead been seen as natural stages in the process of growing up, a result of bad parenting, a consequence of mental illness, an inevitable response to unjust social conditions, pathological behavior brought on by addiction, or even as "experiments in being." Sin, we've also been told, is an invention of repressed, hypocritical clerics who want to keep the rest of us in bondage.

But what if I am more than a robot programmed by my past or my society or my economic status and actually can take a certain amount of credit--or blame--for my actions and inactions? Have I not done things I am deeply ashamed of, would not do again if I could go back in time, and would prefer no one to know about? What makes me so reluctant to call those actions "sins"? Is the word really out of date? Or is the problem that it has too sharp an edge?

"We're capable of doing some rotten things," the Minnesota storyteller Garrison Keillor notes, "and not all of these things are the result of poor communication. Some are the result of rottenness. People do bad, horrible things. They lie and they cheat and they corrupt the government. They poison the world around us. And when they're caught they don't feel remorse--they just go into treatment. They had a nutritional problem or something. They explain what they did--they don't feel bad about it. There's no guilt. There's just psychology."

So eroded is our sense of sin that even in confession it often happens that people explain what they did rather than admit they did things that urgently need God's forgiveness. "When I recently happened to confess about fifty people in a typical Orthodox parish in Pennsylvania," the Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote, "not one admitted to having committed any sin whatsoever!"

It is a striking fact about our basic human architecture that we want certain actions to remain secret, not because of modesty but because there is an unarguable sense of having violated a law more basic than that in any law book--the "law written on our hearts" that St. Paul refers to (Rom 2:15). It isn't simply that we fear punishment. It is that we don't want to be thought of by others as a person who commits such deeds. One of the main obstacles to going to confession is dismay that someone else will know what I want no one to know.

Guilt is not quite the same thing.

Guilt is one of the themes of Walker Percy's "Love in the Ruins." The central figure of the novel is Dr. Thomas More, a descendent of St. Thomas More, though the latest More is hanging on to his faith by a frayed thread. He isn't likely to die a martyr. Dr. More is both a physician and a patient at a Louisiana mental hospital. From time to time he meets with his colleague Max, a psychologist eager to cure More of guilt.

Max tells More,

"We found out what the hangup was and we are getting ready to condition you out of it."
"What hangup?"
"Your guilt feelings."
"I never did see that."
Max explains that More's guilt feelings have to do with adulterous sex.

"Are you speaking of my fornication with Lola...?" asks More.
"Fornication," repeats Max. "You see?"
"See what?"
"That you are saying that lovemaking is not a natural activity, like eating and drinking."
"No, I didn't say it wasn't natural."
"But sinful and guilt-laden."
"Not guilt-laden."
"Then sinful?"
"Only between persons not married to each other."
"I am trying to see it as you see it."
"I know you are."
"If it is sinful, why are you doing it?"
"It is a great pleasure."
"I understand. Then, since it is 'sinful,' guilt feelings follow even though it is a pleasure."
"No, they don't follow."
"Then what worries you, if you don't feel guilty?"
"That's what worries me: not feeling guilty."
"Why does that worry you?"
"Because if I felt guilty, I could get rid of it."
"How?"
"By the sacrament of penance."
"I'm trying to see it as you see it."
"I know you are."

Percy's novel reminds us that one of the oddest things about the age we live in is that we are made to feel guilty about feeling guilty. Dr. Thomas More is fighting against that. He may not yet experience guilt for his sins, but at least he knows that a sure symptom of moral death is not to feel guilty.

Dr. Thomas More--a modern man who can't quite buy the ideology that there are no sins and there is nothing to feel guilty about--is battling to recover a sense of guilt, which in turn will provide the essential foothold for contrition, which in turn can motivate confession and repentance. Without guilt, there is no remorse; without remorse there is no possibility of becoming free of habitual sins. Yet there are forms of guilt that are dead-end streets. If I feel guilty that I have not managed to become the ideal person I occasionally want to be, or that I imagine others want me to be, then it is guilt that has no divine reference point. It is simply me contemplating me with the eye of an irritated theater critic.

A blessed guilt is the pain we feel when we realize we have cut ourselves off from that divine communion that radiates all creation. It is impossible not to stand on what Thomas Merton called "the hidden ground of love" but easy not to be aware of the hidden ground of love or even to resent it.

Like Dr. Thomas More, we may find ourselves hardly able to experience the guilt we know intellectually that we ought to feel not only for what we did, or failed to do, but for having fallen out of communion with God.

"Guilt," comments my Romanian friend Ioana Novac, "is a sense of fearful responsibility after realizing we have taken the wrong step and behold its painful consequences. In my experience, unfortunately not many people can tolerate this insight. My hunch is that many people these days experience less and less love, less and less strengthening support from their families and communities. As life gets more harried and we become more afflicted, the burden of guilt increases while our courage to embrace repentance--to look ourselves straight in the mirror and face the destructive consequences of our blindness and wrong choices--decreases."

It's a common delusion that one's sins are private or affect only a few other people. To think our sins, however hidden, don't affect others is like imagining that a stone thrown into the water won't generate ripples. This is a topic Garrison Keillor addressed in one of his Lake Wobegon stories.

A friend--Keillor calls him Jim Nordberg--writes a letter in which he recounts how close he came to committing adultery. Nordberg describes himself waiting in front of his home for a colleague he works with to pick him up, a woman who seems to find him much more interesting and handsome than his wife does. They plan to drive to a professional conference in Chicago, though the conference isn't really what attracts Nordberg to this event. He knows what lies he has told others to disguise what he is doing. Yet his conscience hasn't stopped troubling him. Sitting under a spruce tree, he contemplates his neighborhood:

As I sat on the lawn looking down the street, I saw that we all depend on each other. I saw that although I thought my sins could be secret, that they are no more secret than an earthquake. All these houses and all these families--my infidelity would somehow shake them. It will pollute the drinking water. It will make noxious gases come out of the ventilators in the elementary school. When we scream in senseless anger, blocks away a little girl we do not know spills a bowl of gravy all over a white table cloth. If I go to Chicago with this woman who is not my wife, somehow the school patrol will forget to guard the intersection and someone's child will be injured. A sixth grade teacher will think, "What the hell," and eliminate South America from geography. Our minister will decide, "What the hell--I'm not going to give that sermon on the poor." Somehow my adultery will cause the man in the grocery store to say, "To hell with the Health Department. This sausage was good yesterday--it certainly can't be any worse today."
By the end it's clear that Nordberg decided not to go to that conference in Chicago after all--a decision that was a moment of grace not only for him, his wife, and his children, but for many others who would have been injured by his adultery.

"We depend on each other," Keillor says again, "more than we can ever know." Far from being hidden, each sin is another crack in the world.

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