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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 world, such as wars, terrorist attacks, or even natural disasters, have some kind of analogy or even augury in people’s inner world and are presaged long in advance by changes in the spiritual lives of many individuals and the “mood of the times.”
In that sense, therefore, my very extensive, although also limited, “confessional experience” colors my view of contemporary society. I constantly compare it with what is written by my professional colleagues: philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, and theologians, as well as by historians and journalists, of course.
At a time when evil is becoming globalized in a striking fashion—its most blatant manifestation being international terrorism, although natural disasters also constitute one aspect of it—and our human intellect is incapable of sufficiently grasping these phenomena, let alone averting them, there seems little chance of resuscitating the optimism of the modern era. Our epoch is definitely a post-optimistic one.
Optimism, as I understand it, is the conviction that “everything is OK,” and a naïve tendency to trust that something will ensure that things will get better and better—that if, at this moment, we don’t happen to be living in “the best of all possible worlds,” we shall soon achieve that optimum. That redemptive “something” that optimism relies on can be scientific and technological progress, the power of the human intellect, revolution, social engineering, various schemes dreamt up by “engineers of human souls,” or pedagogical and social experiments in social reform—this is the secular version of optimism. But there also exists a religious version of optimism, which consists of reliance on a consecrated stage director who extricates us from our problems like a “deus ex machina,” because, after all, we have reliable tools (all we need is to “believe with all our strength” and hold “prayer crusades”) whereby we can induce Him to satisfy our requests infallibly.
I reject secular and “pious” optimism alike, on account of both their naïveté and their superficiality, and because of their unavowed striving to make the future (and possibly God) fit into our limited visions, plans, and perceptions about what is good and right. Whereas Christian hope is openness and a readiness to search for meaning in what is to come, I sense at the back of this caricature a cockeyed assumption that we always know in advance, after all, what is best for us.
Much has already been written about the naïveté of secular optimism (an Enlightenment faith in “progress” as the panacea) and its failure. However, I would like to take a stand against “religious optimism”—facile belief, making use of people’s anxiety and suggestibility for a manipulatory “bargain with God,” and providing simplistic “pious” answers to complex questions.
It is my deeply held belief that we must not conceal our crises. We must not evade or elude them. And we must not let them scare us. Only when we have passed through them can we be “remolded” into a state of greater maturity and wisdom. I would like, in this book, to show that the crisis of the world around us, and also the “crises of religion” (whether that is taken to mean the decline in the influence and stability of traditional religious institutions, the dwindling persuasiveness of existing systems of religious interpretations of the world and faith, or personal crises in “spiritual life”) are enormous windows of opportunity opened to us by God. These are challenges for us “to put out into the deep.”
I regard the awakening of just such an attitude to life—not avoiding crises but taking up one’s cross—to be one of Christianity’s most valuable contributions. Christianity is not primarily “a system of dogmatic texts,” but instead a method, a way, a route.3 Following the way of the one who did not evade the darkness of Gethsemane, Good Friday, or the “descent into hell” of Holy Saturday.
Every Christian has heard plenty of reflections and sermons on the theme of the Easter events, but has Easter really become the key to understanding our life and the present situation of the Church? For many of us “the cross” tends to evoke purely personal problems, such as illness and old age. I fear that the notion that a great deal within ourselves, within the Church, within our faith, and within our certainties has to “die off,” to be crucified, in order to make room for the Resurrected one is quite alien to many of us Christians.
When we confess the Easter faith, at whose center is the paradox of victory through an absurd defeat, why are we so afraid of our own defeats—including the demonstrable weaknesses of Christianity in the world of today? Isn’t God speaking to us through these realities, similar to the way He did when He spoke through the events that we commemorate when we read the story of Easter?
Yes, the form of religion that we are accustomed to is truly “dying off.” The history of religion and the history of Christianity consist of periods of crisis and periods of renewal; the only religion that is truly dead is one that does not undergo change, the one that has dropped out of that rhythm of life.
It is not by chance that the Christian thinkers whom we might term “theologians of paradox”—such as Saint Paul, Augustine, Pascal, or Kierkegaard—all lived at crucial moments in the history of faith, and through their interpretations they were able to indicate “the signs of the times” and open up new scope for the life of faith: Paul at the moment when early Christianity parted ways with Judaism, Augustine amid the turbulence after the fall of Rome, Pascal in the upheavals that gave rise to the modern world, and Kierkegaard when this world of mass civic Christianity of modern times was finally beginning to fall apart.
At the present time, as I shall try to show in several places in this book, we are witnessing the withering away of a type of religion (and Christianity) that came into existence at the time of the Enlightenment—partly under its influence and partly in reaction to it. It is withering away with its epoch: “modern times.” As on many occasions in history, this situation of faith can be interpreted “optimistically” or “catastrophically”: the “optimistic” interpretation offers various “technical solutions” (a return to premodern religion or a facile “modernization of religion”). The catastrophic vision speaks (yet again) of Christianity’s final demise.4 What I’m attempting here is a totally different approach to “our present crisis”: I shall endeavor to interpret it as “an Easter paradox.” The mystery of Easter forms the very nub of Christianity, and precisely within that I see a method of dealing with the present “problems of Christianity,” religion, and the world in which we live.
The deliberations in this book seek to take the theology and spirituality of paradox a step further. What I describe as “the theology of paradox” can be traced throughout the tradition of Christian thought from the apostle Paul, Tertullian, Origen, and Augustine, then on through Dionysius the Areopagite and the whole tradition of “negative theology” and the philosophical mystics, from Meister Eckhart to John of the Cross, and from Pascal and Kierkegaard to today’s “postmodernists,” John Caputo and Jean-Luc Marion, or my favorite author Nicholas Lash. It is evident also in Jewish mysticism and theology from the earliest times up to modern Jewish thinkers, particularly Martin Buber, Hans Jonas, and Abraham Heschel. Analogously with “deep psychology” and “deep ecology” we might perhaps speak about deep theology—that is, the kind that emphasizes “the hiddenness of God.”5 My reflections seek to demonstrate that the paradox of faith is not simply a topic for theological speculation; it can also be “lived” and become the key to understanding the spiritual situation and challenges of our times.