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Hearing Confession

by on October 13, 2016

                                                           Hearing Confession

                                                            by Marco M. Pardi 

“Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.” Mark Twain. Following the Equator: A Journey around the World. 1897

All comments welcome.  To those readers who have been hesitant to comment or ask questions, please be assured you may do so freely. In recent days several new people have signed on as followers, enabling them to comment freely, and it is hoped they will. All previous posts are open for comment by clicking on “uncategorized”. Reader participation keeps this site vibrant. MMP

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I was raised in a strict Roman Catholic setting until, nearing sixteen, I decided I had seen behind the curtain enough times to leave the theater.  Those years were memorable for many things, confession being one.

The concept of confession is basically wholesome; it’s the execution of it that often goes awry.  Of course, the ability to confess hinges on a knowledge of the do’s and don’ts.  And it must be said that monastic, then parochial, and a return to monastic schooling left no unknowns to chance. Still, the early years seemed a litany of mundane, everyday sins.  And the matching  penance seemed straight from the playbook: Two Our Father’s, five Hail Mary’s, and ten laps around the church.  Okay, I added the laps just now; I needed a standout performance.

In my “tween” years my brother, two friends and I engaged in BB gun fights.  One Saturday I nailed my brother right in his belt buckle. So, at confession that evening I hit the opening stanzas: “Bless me Father for I have sinned. I shot my brother.” “YOU DID WHAAAATT!?!?” the priest screamed.  I quietly explained our BB gun fight but I knew my audience out in the pews was waiting to see the miscreant, surely shrouded in the opaque blackness of MORTAL SIN. Years later Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder captured the moment with a strut and a “We bad, we bad.”

As I grew older, watching relationships and forming some of my own I found myself on the other side of the equation.  Coming back from years in the military I heard people ask, “How many did you kill?” I always viewed that question as naive and immature.  A person involved in actual combat can truthfully say, “I don’t know.” The reasons are simple: with several people firing at multiple targets it’s often difficult to know which hit was yours, and no one goes around after action to do ballistics tests on corpses.  Furthermore, there is often no way to know if the wounds you inflicted had fatal outcomes later.  Single, one on one encounters are of course different, but they by no means provide a final tally.

But being exposed to what amounted to a request for accounting, or a confession of sorts, opened a realization into the downside of the romanticized “completely open with one another” relationship concept. What may now seem like a well intended compliance with a request for information can be turned into a hammer with which to beat you for the duration of the relationship.  As with unkind words, once something is said it cannot be unsaid.

Even before the lunatic fundamentalist sexual abstinence movement a common question arising in developing relationships was, “How many sex partners have you had?” Among the many, many lies the movement told, and still tells, were such things as, Abortion causes breast cancer. And, When you have sex with someone you have sex with everyone they have ever had sex with.  A normal seventh grader could see through the second one. But the larger issue is why it matters in the first place. I always favored the position that if someone really needs to tell me they will do so without my asking.  In fact, I’m convinced any truly aware person will find information coming to them, desired or not. The issue is not whether one will obtain the information, it is what someone will do with the information. The age in which we now live, wherein information electronically provided can suddenly attain world wide publicity, should provide a stimulus toward caution.

As I moved into the field of what was then called death counseling I sometimes found myself in the role of the confessor, listening to people in their final days “unburden” themselves of secrets they had carried in many cases for decades.  Since it was very clear from the outset that any and all conversation with me was confidential I became a kind of burn box for the things “I’ve just got to get off my chest.” While I never heard anything significantly criminal, and wouldn’t have had the protections of the priest in such a case, I did hear confessions of extra-marital affairs and some activities or decisions I thought at the time were rather petty – reminding me of what those grade school priests must have heard hour after hour. But there was no denying the apparent value the person seemed to experience in disclosing these things to another person. 

Interestingly, the disclosures (I prefer that to confession) were always of things some, or many, would consider negative.  I never heard anyone say, I secretly funded a girl’s school in Saudi Arabia.  As a child I had never had any problem identifying the authority for what was deemed venial sin, mortal sin, cardinal sin, sacrilege, etc.; it was the ever evolving Church and its struggle to remain in complete control of people in the face of culture change.  But so many of the secrets, the “transgressions” being scraped out from their hidden sanctums in everyday people in their last days were windows into the cultural values and mores these people had come to accept as valid.  As an anthropologist, these were far more enlightening than just lists in a textbook chapter.

But in every case I could myself almost feel the grip loosening on the person, the relief at having unburdened, and thus the sincerity of the effort it took to do so. I hope it goes without saying I have never passed any of this information to anyone.  I did not hear of children born who would not know their real parent.  I did not hear anything which would, from disclosure, make the lives of survivors any better. 

This was in sharp contrast to a quite unexpected  experience I had in the early 1980’s.  I left college teaching in 1981, it having served its purpose.  I spent the next two years traveling for various reasons, though I kept a base of operations in the small town hosting the college.  I was in my office at that base one day when a high level administrator from the college walked in with his son.  I did not have to wait long for the reason for his visit.  “Out of the blue” he embarked on what appeared to be a prepared, and previously given, monologue on his drinking history and the many examples of damage he had done to other people, myself included.  I remained silent throughout his presentation and his apologies, sensing my acknowledgement of his contrition was of no importance to him.  On conclusion we wordlessly shook hands and he and his silent son abruptly left.

Having observed A.A. meetings, as I’ve written of earlier, I realized this was one of the famous 12 Steps, though I could not remember which.  As I sat in the office trying to recount the rapid-fire narrative and trying to decipher how it applied to me I was reminded of after-action chatter: “Hey, you got shot.” “Oh?”  I felt I had not been in a position to say, Te absolvo and would not have known exactly to what part of the narrative I should have addressed it. This was not a making of a clean breast of things, it was a pro-forma completion of what must have been an onerous task.

And so I am perhaps overly questioning of the sincerity of the I’m sorrys and the self criticism people only seem to recite, perhaps fishing for contradiction.  And I take offense at the Forget I said that, as if I’m just some tablet to be wiped clean in case of mistake.

I do have things I will take behind Door Number 4, not necessarily because they are too grievous to tell but because they are things a person like me would find too personal to lay on the butcher table of public discourse.  A former colleague, a psychiatrist, told me he frequently burst out laughing at the painful disclosures from his patients.  He was convinced this would help them see the frivolity of those concerns and move on.  I really, really doubted that and wondered how many patients he had damaged and lost in his career.     

Another former colleague, a Catholic priest, said to me, “If you want to know what it’s like to be a priest, dress all in black with a Roman collar and ride public transportation.  It happens almost every time; ‘Father, there’s something I just have to get off my chest.'”

At what point does making a clean breast of it edge over into unloading on someone?  I’m a pretty receptive guy, but I’ve been known to say, We’ve discussed this already, or This is something I don’t need to hear. I hope I haven’t been wrong in that latter response.  At least, not too often.    

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20 Comments
  1. Michael E. Stamm permalink

    The breadth and depth of your experiences continue to impress me. My wife was raised as a Catholic and goes to confession relatively frequently (well, several times a year, I think); I was not raised in any faith, so this idea is emotionally, if not intellectually, foreign to me. I *have* felt the impulse to tell to an understanding listener things that I might not ever tell to anyone else, but I have rarely–and only superficially–given in. Another thoughtful post, on a subject I had not given much thought.

  2. I’m not sure if I find this so excellent because, I have been gone, on top of my computer crashing for some time, and not having read your posts in some time, or it really is as excellent as I think. I’m certain I like it so much because I can relate to so much. I do not regret being raised Catholic, and because I was Catholic feel pangs of guilt my children were not raised with religion. There is something to be said of that shared existence.

    • Thank you, Mary. I often think of the career you devoted yourself to and the strength it must have taken to face awfully difficult issues every day. The confessional is an interesting phenomenon but you were in more than just a formal position as the intermediary of God; you were THE person to whom people looked for answers. And that is a higher plane altogether. Marco

  3. Thank you, Mike. It is an interesting impulse you speak of, and of course there would be many interpretations depending on the orientation of the reader. Thank you for taking the time to read and respond. Marco

  4. This was a great read, Marco. A couple of points made me chuckle, such as the second-last paragraph.

    What I loved about this piece was how it’s very real and relatable. Also, because I live in Italy, the whole Catholic confession concept is very close to my “reality”.

    It was a bit startling and perhaps shocking to read about your military endeavours and how you engaged in lethal combat. Being amongst the younger generation, I’ve no idea what that must be like, but can imagine how it must’ve had a huge impact on your life and the way you see things.

    Cheers to the Professor. 🙂

    • Thank you, PSY. I do enjoy writing and endeavor to “keep it real.” Yes, I can imagine your surroundings provided context for your reading. My experiences in Italy, with my family or otherwise, often gave me the impression the clergy was not well appreciated. Thanks for reading and taking time to comment.

  5. My Journey Out of Darkness permalink

    As a child, being raised in an Italian Catholic family, great importance was put upon going to confession. Even as a child, I did not agree with this. I felt there is no need for me tell every little thing to another person I barely know. Also, if this “god” they speak of is all knowing, would he not already know my “sins”? Why could I not speak directly to this “god”? Confession was something that made me extremely uncomfortable and I avoided it as much as possible.

    Confessing to someone in you are in relationship with is dependent on the situation. If disclosing something is beneficial to all, and thus the relationship, then it is a good thing to do; however, I do not feel that is always the case. Sometimes it is hurtful to all and destroys a perfectly good relationship.

    I cannot foresee having a problem transitioning with “secrets”. I am the type of person who has had secrets all my life and I have been comfortable with that. I have been accused of being secretive by certain family members, yet I do not see a problem with having secrets. Everyone is entitled to their own private life and this does not make them a “bad” person. I also believe in the concept of “TMI”.

    If I feel something would benefit or help others in some way, then I might reveal it. As for the AA thing, I could never understand that one. Maybe apologies to those closest to, but they seem to force these poor people to go and confess to those who barely touched their lives or would not have awareness of the offense otherwise. I do not see the purpose.

    • Thank you, MJ. As you see, I agree with your sentiment that disclosure is not always a good idea. And, yes, your point about the omniscient “god” not needing to hear confession is a good one.

      • My Journey Out of Darkness permalink

        I also think that asking a veteran how many he/she killed in service is yet another sign of a sick society. I think the person should think about the burden this veteran could be carrying before asking such a question.

      • Thank you, MJ. Even before video games, too many people viewed it as a game.

      • My Journey Out of Darkness permalink

        Sad. It is very far from a game. I cannot begin to imagine the repercussions of having to kill someone.

  6. Julie permalink

    Thanks Marco for another great piece of insightful writing, I always love reading your blog. In reference to your ‘being completely open with each other’ that is a dilemma for lots of people, however my feeling is that it is always best, even though consequences will need to be dealt with – it will open up conflict, however that isn’t always a bad thing and from a personal point of view keeping ‘secrets/feelings ‘ bottled up eventually will take a heavier toll, than being ‘brutally honest ” as I have been accused of more than once. Marco , what an angel you are being there for those people at the end of their life and listening to their private disclosures, you truly are a beautiful and kind human.

    • Thank you, Julie. I always look forward to your comments. I completely agree that secrets can become serious burdens, if they bear on a relationship. I guess having (re) married somewhat late in life, toward the end of a career which was characterized be very grave Non-Disclosure requirements, I separate those things which are pertinent from those which are not. A mate, made aware of that, understands the thinking in the “Right AND the Need to Know”.

      I was very happy to be of what assistance I could for people and continue to this day when asked. It certainly can be tough at times. Your writing suggests to me that you, too, would be of great service in this area.

  7. Very few of us get through life without doing something which we later regret, and I am certainly no exception to this rule. For the most part, I think we should just keep these things to ourselves, and especially when the telling would hurt someone else.

    The burden of guilt created by these actions is mine alone to carry. It is good to have someone in whom one may confide, but no amount of ritual contrition can, or should, lighten the load. If it’s not possible to make things right (and it’s generally not), I take the lesson that my mistake brings with it, vow never to do it again, and then try to find a way to forgive myself. It’s easier than it sounds.

    • Thank you, Rose. I agree that hurtful disclosures which do not benefit the recipient are self serving. And, I’ve found for my self that true forgiveness can come only from the self, and that’s often something that takes effort and, for me, is not a one time thing.

  8. Ray Rivers permalink

    Marco – A great blog and I see you have a lot of great comments. The obvious rhetorical question begged is what about the other religions?

    I wasn’t brought up Catholic nor subjected to the rites of that Church, though I’ve been around religion a bit. I have always found the notion of confession weird and wondered how it was that, tradition notwithstanding, priests were never dragged into court rooms to testify about what they might have heard from some of the despicable and deplorable who must co-mingle among us – why they receive exemption from being a witness above others.

    Where I am going with this is the predatory sexual behaviour that characterized too much of what we have known of that church in North American society. Where does the clerical pedophile go to confess his sins? And what of those secrets? Does the confessor not become complicit after the fact, in the knowledge that someone has admitted to such a vile crime against humanity? Or is there some greater purpose to confession, beyond cleansing one’s soul so he/she can sin again?

    • Thank you, Ray. All great questions. I left all religion in my teen years for logical reasons, and never at the time gave much thought to the “inviolability” of the confessional. I’m guessing that’s yet another hold-over from when Church and State were inseparable, and has not been sufficiently challenged in secular society. Perhaps pedophile priests do not confess their actions, or even see them as sins. But certainly the large and very costly court cases that have been won against the Church are largely based on the presumption that these acts were known and covered up. There is a long history of priests being moved to avoid prosecution, or simply mob action. I would certainly like to see that addressed and cleaned out, and “forgiveness” is not in the equation.

      • Ray Rivers permalink

        Thanks Marco – let me be clear that I think there are huge benefits to people discussing those things which trouble us inwardly…glad to see you helping people with that.

  9. Tamila permalink

    You never cease to amaze. While it took a few attempts for me to thoroughly understand your written eloquence, I finally figured out that it is unjust to assume that the carefully-placed experiences and observations in the text serve more than one purpose. As per usual, the joke’s on me. You’re the alchemist of your students’ lives and I for one am so honored that you always took the time to listen to my burdens and allowed me to unburden my chest. I can say, most confidently, by all accounts, that it has ALWAYS come with the gift of the answer that I was looking for, and I know that 9/10 you don’t even know of the light that you shined on another’s life. That’s the beauty of the paradox– while you may be unamused by the entire situation (which is absolutely your right after hearing so many, I couldn’t imagine), the other person is finding and gaining light in your enlightenment, your aura, your presence, and your effortless wisdom. This passage was yet again another personal one for me. It answered a question I was asking myself this morning… Where has humanity gone? Why can’t people just listen and understand each other– furthermore, why do we speak up when we probably shouldn’t, and then sit silent when we should be speaking up? Oh, the Paradox of Life… It took me more than a week to read this through and understand this because of my mind has been occupied with the things that, true to form– you already know (thank you, for always being a listening ear, and providing words of wisdom for me personally)– BUT now I know why… I wasn’t meant to at that time… I wouldn’t have gotten what I have gotten now. Thank you so much, again for another lesson needed. Thank you for listening.

    • Thank you so much, Tamila. I have, and still do enjoy talking with you as I learn so very much each time. Your great and ongoing success, against odds which would stop most other people, is a statement of your abilities to ask the right questions, recognize the right answers, and put your knowledge to the best uses. I look forward to knowing of your ongoing success. Marco

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