Thursday, June 20, 2013

"The purgative way"

Here's an excerpt from Habits of Devotion: Catholic Religious Practice in Twentieth-Century America. There are four chapters in this book, covering Prayer, Marian Devotion, Confession, and the Eucharist; this excerpt is from the chapter titled "In the Court of Conscience: American Catholics and Confession 1900-1975," by James O'Toole.  I added the bolding.
For many, the familiar phrases of sermons they had heard on the subject [of Confession] rang true, and they described in glowing terms the sense of relief and joy that followed a visit to the confessional.  Dorothy Day - not, to be sure, an "ordinary Catholic" in any sense of the term, but a woman who, by her own account, had had some considerable experience with sin - remembered affectionately the "warm, dimly lit vastness" of the church as she waited her turn and the welcoming, "patient" attitude of her confessor.  Another mid-twentieth-century penitent said that he genuinely enjoyed going to confession because he found it an "individualized" procedure, in which the priest was "less interested in the guilt of the penitent than he is in helping the latter to avoid sin in the future."  Still another enthused over priests who "give you the impression that they have all the time in the world, that the only thing that matters is for you to  ... unburden your heart."  A woman who mentioned that there was a long line waiting behind her got a soothing response.  "At this precise moment," the kindly priest replied, "you are the only person in this church who matters."  Experiences of this sort could have a powerful emotional impact.   A character in a 1950 short story about a long-delayed confession left the box so moved by the feeling of "complete forgiveness and gentleness" that "his throat was choked and he felt close to tears."

The anonymity of the transaction appealed to most penitents and enhanced its potency.  In fact, parishioners probably worried more than they had to about the possibility of being recognized in the confessional.  Individual traits were masked by the darkness and by the whispering tones in which the sacrament was usually conducted.  Even more effective in obscuring the identity of penitents was the sheer number of confessions priests heard.  A confessor could not possibly remember particular people, a diocesan liturgical commission newsletter pointed out in 1966, "when he is faced with one hundred or more confessions" at once.  "you don't have much capacity for remembering the sins of any individual," another priest said frankly; "all the stories blur together" and all the voices "are like the one great voice of humanity."  A lay woman from Louisiana in the 1970s found all this "a great comfort," since she knew that she could say anything without fear of embarrassment.  A woman in Maine agreed:  "I feel shy and uncomfortable discussing my faults face to face with a fellow human being," she said, even a priest, and the darkness of the confessional was thus very welcome.  The clergy were no less glad to be spared having to see their penitents.  "It is much easier to avoid embarrassment in dealing with people outside of confession," said Gerald Kelly in his advice to "good" confessors, "when we have no confessional knowledge of them."

The salutary impact of confession may also have derived in part from the very fact that it was a difficult and serious business.  "Confession gives you that little rush," one appreciative lay man said, "that bit of fear that keeps you on your toes."  Fear had its uses, and many found in the sacrament echoes of familiar devotional themes.  The "purgative way" in the American Catholic spirituality, which Joseph Chinnici has described, stressed the benefits of doing things that were difficult, and many thought confession worthwhile for just that reason.  The priest who had encouraged the men of his parish to "do the manly thing" by going to confession was tailoring his message particularly for them, but priests often stressed the value of "heroic virtue" of penitents of any gender or age.  "Get the habit of doing things because they are hard," a counselor to teenagers said in 1949; "it will be difficult at first, but they will become easy as time goes on." .... The language of jails and trials proved remarkably resilient, and this reinforced both the sense of dread a penitent might feel before entering the box and the feeling of relief on leaving it.  The force of such imagery might even be missed if an individual abandoned the sacrament.  The narrator of John R. Power's Last Catholic in America gave up going to confession, but he was nonetheless wistful whenever he recalled the last time he had done so:  "I was never again to feel ... the exhilaration of rising from the spiritually dead.  Never again to be free from sin, free from sin, free from sin."

Perhaps because of its inherent difficulties, confession served as a badge of honor for American Catholics, one that stood out in sharp relief from non-Catholic alternatives.  In particular, it offered a striking contrast to Protestant and other "peace of mind" movements in the middle of the twentieth century.  For years, Catholic writers continued to trumpet remarks by Harry Emerson Fosdick in 1927 that Protestants should consider reviving a form of confession, not as a sacrament but rather as a system of counseling in which "the confession of sin and spiritual misery is met with sympathetic and intelligent treatment."  Catholics had no need of such a revival, since they were sure they already had it a purer and better form.  Other writers pressed the same point.  Without mentioning Norman Vincent Peale by name, the Paulist John Sheerin took on the best-selling author in 1951 and scoffed at those who thought that they could find a "rosy way of the Cross." Peale's techniques for self-realization and harmony with the divine were "religious in tone," Sheerin said dismissively, "but how soft and namby-pamby."  Others agreed that there was no getting around the "brutal and humbling" fact of human nature that confession underlined:  sometimes, it was necessary simply to admit "I have sinned" and to take the consequences.  Confession was "not a pleasing prospect; but then, the sacraments are not devices for making us pleasing to ourselves.  They make us pleasing to God."

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