Archive for January, 2010

The Sacrament of Penance and Therapy

Monday, January 4th, 2010

I have been reading a little book of essays by writers who are Catholic. In Signatures of Grace: Catholic Writers on the Sacraments each writer was commissioned to write about one sacrament while including personal experience and the history of the sacrament as context.

Author Patricia Hampl wrote the essay “Penance”. In reflecting on the history of Penance, Hampl draws our attention the communal nature of the sacrament in the early church and its essential communal function for all time. “It is strange”, she mused, “that the sacrament of Penance should be so thoroughly associated with privacy, even secrecy.” This is certainly the experience of many baby boom Catholics christened with pre- Vatican II sensibilities (many of who have never darkened the door of a confessional in their adult life.) The fear and shame of our own sins told to God as represented by our parish priest were mercifully covered with a prescribed privacy. This was followed by the relief in stepping out of the ordeal with a child-like joy at being made anew. The prelude of fear and shame have been transformed into awe and humility, the most basic religious dispositions.

This, Hampl points out, was not always so. The “felt need” for the sacrament she writes was at the beginning “rooted in the ancient world’s elemental commitment to the community, not in modernity’s abstract concern for the individual.” Yet she acknowledges a sort of paradox in the birth of this deeply communal sacrament “the individual counts- counts absolutely.” She refers to Luke 15:4-7 (e.g., …I tell you there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner repenting than over ninety-nine people who have no need of repentance.”)

It is here in her essay that Hampl refers to therapy, with its modern orientation toward the individual, as a counterpoint to Penance with its ancient orientation to the community and the importance of the individual to the whole.

“The joy in finding the repentant sinner is not the kind of satisfaction to be found in the therapist’s office, where the lost and scattered shards of a life are excavated and carefully pieced together to form the essential thing: a life worth living bred of a life story worth telling. “Penance”, she continues, “was intended to heal a different wound- not the break between a person and individual consciousness (or a personal past), but that between the self and the community, which for the ancient, was the core of existence”.

To really understand another’s religious experience or world view we must understand how their disposition is shaped by the forms they have inherited. In the case of a Catholic, the sacrament of Penance holds the memory of a time when to not be part of the tribe was to die. Nomads, in the arid wilderness, living a fragile tightrope between survival and death, could easily be shattered by the selfishness of one of its members. Fear of separation, guilt for failed duties and shame for putting self before the group were necessary and adaptive attitudes of survival. Superficial pop-psychology portray fear, shame and guilt as enemies of self-actualization imposed on the individual by conventional society. But in the context of a loving community they are the cornerstone of the most beautiful aspects of religious sensibilities. Fear, shame and guilt play, in ones family and communal life, the same role that pain plays in ones bodily experience, as a warning signal that something wrong needs to be made right. Fear, then, becomes awe, shame becomes humility and guilt becomes the impetus for reconciliation and restoration of ones place as a contributor to the welfare of the community.

To be communal is also to communicate something important between the individual and the community- that is, it is insufficient to be contrite, confess to God and oneself internally as part of healing because it is incomplete if one is not reconciled to the community. The communal aspect may not be so obvious in the actions- the actual confession may be an quiet encounter between penitent and priest- but the act of “going to confession” is communal and is expressed in many churches in communal penance services particularly offered during Advent and Lent- times set apart in the seasons of the church for prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Hampl points out that the references to sackcloth and ashes comes from the church as it entered the third century AD. “Though the modern mind”, she acknowledges find this image “histrionic or unnecessarily humiliating. The community had to see, in public weeping, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, clear symbols of repentance so that the reclamation of the individual into the congregation could be entire.” Coming out of the therapist’s office in a sack cloth, Hampl acknowledges would be “a strange even sadistic exercise”. But in “the early church the individual was being reunited with the community, not with himself. Penance was not a psychological but a sociological act.”

As Hampl tells her own story the reader finds that she like many of her Catholic peers had left the Sacrament behind- in her case for thirty years. She ends with her experience of the Sacrament in it’s post-Vatican II form while on a silent retreat at a monastery. In her experience of what is now called the Sacrament of Reconciliation, she spoke face to face with an elderly priest. So modern in its intimacy, where one can lower or raise ones eyes in shame or connection, the experience is still ancient with the priest representing Christ and the community with whom she reconciles and in a more “public” way then behind the screen.

As she progresses toward this experience where “you don’t get to understand; you just get to acquiesce”, she becomes more disparaging of psychotherapy. In retrospect the 18 months of therapy she experienced, which she recounts with a touch of comedy, seems self-indulgent, and its self-understanding and reconciliation with the self. Contrasted with the acquiescence of the sacrament, the analysis of therapy was found wanting.

Trying not to be defensive as psychotherapy took it on the chin, I wondered about her journey or in psychological terms, the course of her identity development. Was the casting about the “scattered shards” of her life to form a story, as she described her course of therapy, however incomplete, somehow a preliminary to her later spiritual and communal reconciliation? At ones mid-life there is an opportunity to look back on ones life from a potentially wiser perspective. Wisdom, however, is not gained through age and experience alone. It is gained through self and spiritual awareness often developed through falling apart and struggling to reform oneself. Yet, I and my fellow psychotherapists should take the hit. A little slap in the face is always an opportunity to shake free of the arrogance brought on by taking too seriously the value of ones profession.

Here’s where I agree with Hampl’s critique: One will never, as it were, figure oneself out. And even as a psychotherapist who respects the role of guilt and shame in our interpersonal lives, I must perhaps take some responsibility for the overzealousness of psychology in its brash call to liberate clients from the tyranny of religious legalism. Religion, like any human enterprise, can go awry. Yet religion at its best points to what is best in us and what transcends us. Perhaps it is best in the end to acquiesce and stand “ shivering in the growing cold,” as did Hampl after the sacrament, “unable to make out the hinge of sea and sky, glad of that confusion, glad to give over to the mystery at last.” I, for myself, draw upon one of the fruits of my spiritual formation as a Catholic child: humility- freed now from excessive guilt and shame (with the help of psychotherapy.) As I accompany my clients among the shards it is not so much as a doctor or expert but as a humble companion with some experience. Humility is, in the end, an important disposition for the therapist as well as the client if there is to be healing and growth.