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The Confessor’s Night
The faith spoken of throughout this book (and which gave rise to it) is paradoxical in nature. One must therefore use paradoxes in order to write about it honestly and not superficially, and one can only live it—honestly and not superficially—as a paradox.
It’s conceivable that some poetical “religion of nature” of the romantics or some pedagogical “religion of morality” of the Enlightenment might manage without paradoxes, but not a Christianity worthy of the name. At the core of Christianity is the enigmatic Easter story—that great paradox of victory through defeat.
I want to meditate on these mysteries of faith—as well as on many problems of our world, which these mysteries illuminate—with the help of two clues—two paradoxical statements from the New Testament. The first is Jesus’ “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible”;1 the second is Saint Paul’s “for when I am weak, then I am strong.”2
The books that I have written here in the summertime solitude of a forest hermitage in the Rhineland are each of a different genre but they all have something in common: it has always been my intention to share experience from different areas of my activity and thereby also, from another viewpoint, to help diagnose the present-day climate—“to read the signs of the times.”
On this occasion, as the title of the book implies, I wish to share my experience as a confessor. In order to forestall any misapprehensions or possible disappointment on the part of readers: this book will contain advice to neither confessors nor those who confess, and in no way will it lift the veil on what is said in confession, which is safeguarded, as is well known, by a pledge of absolute discretion. What I would like to share is how the present period—this world and its extrinsic and intrinsic aspects—is viewed by someone who is accustomed to listening to others as they acknowledge their faults and shortcomings, as they confide their conflicts, weaknesses, and doubts, but also their longing for forgiveness, reconciliation, and inner healing—for a fresh start.
For many years of my service as a priest, more than a quarter of a century, I have been regularly available for several hours, at least once a week, to people who come to the sacrament of reconciliation, or, because many of them are anabaptized or nonpracticing Catholics, for a “spiritual chat.” I have thus lent an ear to several thousand people. It is likely that some of them confided to me things they had never spoken about even with their nearest and dearest. I realize that this experience has shaped my perception of the world maybe more than my years of study, my professional activity, or my travels around the seven continents of our planet. It has been my lot to have worked in a number of occupations. Every profession involves seeing the world from a different viewpoint. Surgeons, painters, judges, journalists, businesspeople, or contemplative monks, all view the world with a different focus and from a particular perspective. Confessors, too, have their own way of viewing the world and perceiving reality.
I believe that nowadays, after hours of confession, every priest who is no longer naïve and yet not cynical must be tired by the often difficult task of helping people seek the narrow, conscientious path between the Scylla of the harsh and uncompromising “thou must and thou shalt not” that cuts heartlessly like cold steel into the flesh of painful, complex, and unique life stories, and the Charybdis of the wishy-washy, speciously soft-hearted “everything’s OK so long as you love God.” Saint Augustine’s dictum “Love and do what you will” is truly the royal road to Christian freedom, but it is feasible only for those who know the difficulties, risks, and responsibility involved in truly loving.
The art of accompanying people on a spiritual journey is “maieutical,” that is, of the nature of the art of the midwife, as “care of the soul” was described by Socrates in honor of his mother (Kierkegaard adopted the term also). It is necessary, without any manipulation, to help specific individuals, in their unique situations, to find their way and arrive at a solution for which they are capable of accepting responsibility. “The law is clear,” but life is complex and multivalent; sometimes the right answer is to have the courage and patience to keep asking the question.
It is usually late at night by the time I get home after hearing the last of those waiting for me in the church. I have never entirely managed to do what people in the “caring professions” are advised to do, that is, not to bring their clients’ problems home with them. On occasions it can take me a long time to get to sleep.
At such moments, as one might expect from a priest, I also pray for those who have put their trust in me. Sometimes, though, in order to “retune” myself, I reach for the newspaper or the book on my bedside table, or I listen to the late-night news broadcast. And it is at those very moments that I realize that I perceive what I am reading or listening to—all those testimonies to what is happening in our world—in much the same manner as when listening to those people over the previous hours in church. I perceive them from a confessor’s perspective, in a manner that I learned over many years both in my previous profession of clinical psychologist and even more so in my service as a priest hearing confessions. Namely, I endeavor to listen patiently and attentively, to discriminate and do my best to understand, so as to obviate the risk of asking seemingly prying questions that might be wounding. I try also to “read between the lines” and understand what people are unable (and slightly unwilling) to say in so many words, for reasons of shame, shyness, or embarrassment, or because the matter is so delicate and complicated, one that they are unaccustomed to speaking about, and they are therefore “lost for words.” By then I am also searching for the right words to comfort or encourage them, or, if necessary, to show it is possible to look at the matter from a different angle and appraise things differently from how they perceive them and evaluate them at that particular moment. My questions are aimed at bringing them to reflect on whether they are concealing something fundamental from themselves. Confessors are neither interrogators nor judges; nor are they psychotherapists—and they have only a limited amount in common with psychologists. People come to confessors in the expectation and hope that they will provide them with more than is implicit in their human skills, their specialist education, or their practical experience, both “clinical” and personal—that they have at their disposal words whose sense and healing power emanate from those depths we call the sacrament: mysterion—the sacral mystery.
A confessional conversation without a “sacral dimension” would be mere psychotherapy (and often amateurish and superficial to boot). On the other hand, a mechanically performed “sacrament” and nothing more, without any context of human encounter, in the sense of conversation and keeping company in the spirit of the Gospel (as Christ did when he accompanied his sad and confused disciples on the road to Emmaus), could degenerate into something akin to mere magic.
People sometimes come to a confessor, at least to the confessor whose confession this book is, in situations in which their entire “religious system”—their thinking, their experience, and their behavior—is in a greater or lesser state of crisis. They feel themselves to be in a “blind alley” and are often unaware whether it happened as the result of some more or less conscious or self-confessed moral failing or “sin,” or whether it is to do with some other changes in their personal life and relationships, or whether they have only now realized the outcome of some long and unperceived process during which their faith dwindled and guttered out. Sometimes they feel a void, because in spite of their sincere endeavors and often long years of spiritual search they have not found a sufficiently convincing answer in the places they have looked so far, or what had so far been their spiritual home has started to seem constricted or spurious.
Despite the uniqueness of individual human stories, after years of practice as a confessor one discovers certain recurrent themes. And that is the second aspect of the confessor’s experience to which this book seeks to provide a testimony. Through the multitude of individual confessions, which are protected, as has been said, by the seal of absolute discretion, the confessor comes into contact with something that is more general and common to all, something that lies beneath the surface of individual lives and belongs to a kind of “hidden face of the times,” to their “inner tuning.”
It is particularly when you accompany young people on their spiritual journey that you have access to a kind of seismograph enabling you to gauge to a certain extent impending tremors and changes in the world, or a Geiger counter recognizing the level of spiritual and moral contamination within the society in which we live. It sometimes strikes me—even though I’m very rationally minded and have a powerful aversion to the fashionable shady world of occult premonitions and spiritualist table tapping—that the events that subsequently erupt onto the surface and shake the wo...