As a former Catholic, I know how to sell confession—confess sinfulness to clear the way for salvation. However, as with many moral compulsions, the negative argument seems more potent—not confessing means you won’t see the sin, you won’t feel it. Not overcoming the sin can seem a reasonable trade-off for comfort.
Iniquity is the human condition. There’s always something to confess.
The confessionals in my childhood church were phone booths—Father Elkins waited on the other side to forward your call to God—and I approached appropriately fearful. I’d been well trained in my wickedness, but, when the moment arrived, I could never recall particular sins, exact circumstances, or detailed actions. So I generally confessed in categories. I must have hit my brother, sassed my parents, and used the Lord’s name in vain; I was safe in saying so. However, one Saturday, I remember reaching the end of my standard list and suddenly confessing, “I made up my sins, Father, because I couldn’t remember anything specific.”
Father Elkins wasn’t happy. The red light outside the confessional blazed as he lectured me on confession. It switched to green ten minutes later when I took my knees off the kneeler briefly in anticipation of escape…but then switched to red again when I asked for my penance all in Our Fathers because I couldn’t remember the Hail Mary.
I wish I could recall what Father Elkins said. Confession seems integral to my writing life, and I’d like to know why.
Oscar Wilde said in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.” Confession didn’t feel like luxury when I was growing up—because the priest compelled me to look for sins after the fact—but now my self-reproach is habitual, conditioned, and prophylactic, for just the reason Wilde says. I mean to escape blame by confessing, to move directly to absolution.
I can explain. Didn’t Socrates say in “The Apology” that the wisest man knows his ignorance? Doesn’t wisdom require an awareness of inadequacy? Really, I don’t mean to escape blame so much as to admit my imperfection and put readers at ease. And I’m never innocent of the crimes I describe.
But I can’t believe myself. Is that too a lie?
I’m not innocent of ulterior motives. I’m trying to make my sins into assets. William Hazlitt, the English Essayist, said most people see confession as less a matter of “Sincerity or modesty than of ostentation,” adding, “it seems as if we thought our weaknesses as good as other people’s virtues.” I think he’s right…and I’m guilty.
So what is the answer to this quandary? How do I get out of Father Elkin’s box?
Dorothy Dix, the American writer and reformer said, “Confession is always weakness. The grave soul keeps its own secrets, and takes its own punishment in silence.”
The only answer is to accept confession itself as sin…and stop confessing.
Silence… okay… but what will I write then?