The following was delivered at the Image Seminar in Charleston, SC, on November 6, 2010. The theme of the event, which featured novelist Bret Lott, was “Risking the Heart: Telling True Stories in an Age of Irony.”
Confessionals have always fascinated me: the photo-booth dimensions, the heavy red drapes or wooden doors; the imagined intimacy of a close, grated space where another’s breath is audible, but his face obscured.
I have never stepped inside a confessional, either to inspect or to partake, but I can conceive of the slight warmth, the achy give of the kneeler, the shadow on the screen of another face, another life.
I have only gone to confession once, about two years ago, in the home library and study of Bill Haley, the Anglican priest who has been my pastor during my decade-long sojourn in Washington, DC. On the appointed Saturday morning, I drove to his family’s home in Northeast DC, knocked on the front door, and entered without escort into the chaos of toys, tiny shoes, and the scattered debris of his three young children.
As I climbed the stairs to the second-floor study, I called a greeting to Tara, Bill’s wife. But she couldn’t hear me; she was in the living room offering a stern reprimand to their oldest, strong-willed daughter, for running into the street. I thought again that I should have brought a loaf of nice bread with me, or some winter fruit, a small token to acknowledge that Bill’s time was a gift given to me both by him and by his family.
In the study, there was no scrim or grate. Winter sun, with its silver glaze, poured into the room. Bill and I sat face-to-face, knee-to-knee, a few feet apart. The confession I offered was a difficult one, and as I spoke my eyes roved to the counterpane of his books and the bold titles on their spines: novels, biographies, and spiritual treatises I have always meant to read. His eyes remained on me.
When I finished confessing, we talked briefly about how close I had come to a more grievous choice, one that could have upended my life. The physicality of fear and relief, of public acknowledgement and absolution, felt as sheer and violent as vertigo. There was also relief in confessing to a priest who is a friend, whose counsel aligns with his own life’s hopes and struggles. The penance he gave me was simple and direct and it made sense, given what my sin could let me learn.
That single experience of confession was very powerful for me. Offered in the context of a long-term friendship, it deepened both my life with God and my relationship with a spiritual mentor. It was wholly un-anonymous; it was emphatically personal and yet, at the same time, it pivoted on our essential separate-ness: only I could make a full and complete confession of my sin, and only I could choose repentance.
I have been thinking recently about the difference between confession—which, clearly, with my one-off experience, I don’t know all that much about—and counseling—which, as a child of the psycho-pharma-therapeutic era, I know a good deal about. I have been thinking about this because I recently concluded a three-year counseling relationship in which, without any intention of deceit, I obscured my deepest personal challenges from my counselor and, in many ways, from myself.
Those three years now stand as squandered time: not a tragedy, but a waste. I compare its wheel-spinning to the intense month of pastoral counseling that bookended it, a kind of emergency stop-gap during which Bill and I took stock of all the messy fruit, both worthy and rotted, that my life had borne in those years.
Our pastoral friendship—built and bolstered through time, community, and shared relationships with my husband and my sisters—required a more scrupulous honesty than had the isolated relationship with my counselor, who knew me only through the odd prism of my stories about myself.
Our lives are built on our stories about ourselves—our stories of failure, triumph, belovedness, shame—and we have to be careful how we tell them. If we examine our lives with humility and all the fruits of the Spirit, hopefully our stories about ourselves will harmonize with the stories that our most trusted friends tell about us.
When I say harmonize, I mean to say: they will make a harmony together, they will strike a chord perhaps as rich and contrapuntal as those maudlin, arpeggiated chords of the Brahms intermezzos, which are some of my favorite chords in the whole universe of sound.
In my three squandered years, it was relatively easy for me to see in my life the kinds of stories catalogued in my Good Letters blog posts about my time in Africa: the comedy of D.C.’s Forgotten Quadrant, the obvious sorrow of barrenness, the delicate work of a white American woman attempting to befriend black Ghanaian women.
The one story I could not see about myself—but a story that my husband, sisters or parents easily could have told—was the story of the sad habits and compulsions at the heart of my despair and spiritual bewilderment. I think this may be true for almost all of us, whether our addictive behaviors revolve around food, money, anger, cleanliness, sex, or any good gift that can be perverted for our ill. Addictive behaviors are hard to see because we are ashamed of them and because we grow accustomed to their dull, tinny taste and to the frantic hunger they stoke, so that we can’t even imagine the richness of the Psalmist’s fat and marrow.
In our age of irony, a peculiar emotional detachment demarcates class and strength, and wealth’s independence segregates the young from the old. We are learning to merge a kind of meticulous vanity with the unsleeping feed of electronic communication. It is hard to be still. There are so many things to touch and see.
Yet it remains that the hardest things to see clearly are the very lives we live. As Donne says in his famous sonnet “Batter My Heart”: “Reason” is God’s “viceroy in me,” but “is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue,” and so we are barely able to glimpse, let alone scrutinize, the half of what we do.
As maddening as it is, we must live closely enough to others that they can see us and report back to us—tenderly, resolutely, if we are lucky—on some of the mysteries and oddities of our hearts. If we listen to them and to the Holy Spirit, we differentiate ourselves from the trees of the field and the birds of the air, in that we yield not only to instinct but also to conscience.
It is a great risk. There is life to gain and lose. We have been invited to a wedding feast, and we are weaving our fine garments on the warp and weft of our lives together. To risk and believe that love is worth our whole body, as Christ’s love for us was worth His whole Body, is a rash gamble in an ironic world, and a strange grace in a Created one.