Friday, 20 January 2012

The Merciful Penance of Silence

I am sure I have blogged two or three times on this before, but I had a question the other day that has inspired me to blog on it again.

The topic is "Assuaging Feelings of Guilt by Blabbing."

Now, I will be the first to admit that talking makes me feel good. If I feel badly about something, I want to talk and talk and talk until I feel better. This is often at one in the morning, so it is fortunate that most of my female friends live in a different time zone.

However, over the years, I have learned what to tell my friends, and which friends to tell, and when I absolutely must keep my mouth shut and just suffer in silence. And when it is something that is clearly my fault and I feel guilty about it, even though I have made amends to whomever (if applicable/wise) and gone to confession, then I know that suffering in silence is part of my penance. And it is a merciful penance.

It is a merciful penance because although God forgives, the world does not. And if you don't forgive yourself enough to keep your own counsel, what makes you think the world will forgive you when you don't? And I'm not just talking about the world's delight in humiliating its enemies--look at all the mud it slings at Sarah Palin. I'm also talking about the actual harm public confessions can do to innocent people in the world.

For example, recently in Canada, the lawyer of a bishop caught with child porn on his computer explained to the court that the bishop was not a pedophile, really, but a homosexual who had had a series of homosexual one night stands and been in a secret homosexual relationship for ten years.

Maybe the court was, like, "Aw. Poor guy. Time served. Send him home." But Canadian Catholics were, like, "Say WHAT?! Our bishop also WHAT?!"

There are some sins that just grab the imagination of even very easygoing, very live-and-let-live, very kindly people and don't let go. Sexual sins are big on the list, thanks to the power sex has over the human imagination. Sacrilege is a biggy because of our passionate feelings for the sacred. (And combine sex with sacrilege--like having an affair with a priest--and blam! No Catholic who knows will ever forget.) Killing people or even family pets: yikes. Beating up people who were smaller than you at the time: ouch.

If you have committed these kinds of sins, no matter how sorry you are and no matter how much you have changed your life, they can colour other people's perceptions of you in ways you probably will not like and in ways that are not good for them.

St. Augustine, one of the most important Catholic Christian thinkers ever and writer of almost countless homilies and treatises, is unfortunately most famous for saying "Make me chaste, but not yet."

Thomas Merton, who wrote many beautiful books, was famous at my Canadian theology schools for having had an affair with a nurse. One elderly student proclaimed aloud that this should be evidence towards his canonization.

A much more likely candidate for canonization, a woman, was a modern-day St. Francis in her love for the poor, but it turns out she had an abortion before she became a Christian. She regretted this terribly and, as I suspect she knew perfectly well, if this had been widely known in her lifetime, she would not have gotten an iota of support for her sometimes controversial work. It is still not widely known, which is why I have not mentioned her name. I once read that someone justified her abortion by saying that this woman had had one; and all I can say is that the probable-saint would have been in agony had she heard that.

Before this talk-show, reveal-all age, people crept off timidly to confess their sins to priests, confident in the seal of the confessional, and to doctors, confident in doctors' codes of confidentiality. The seal and the codes are there for a reason, which is that there is a danger that people will be terribly hurt if their sins become common knowledge. Other people will be hurt, too. You think the other boys at school never told Princes William and Harry what the tabloids were saying about their parents' sins?

We are all sinners, and it is good to remember that, but it is not good to air to the whole world the exact particulars. So if you are feeling particularly badly about stuff you have done, even after going to confession, I recommend talking about it again to a priest in the confessional or to a therapist bound by a professional code of confidentiality. I absolutely beg you not to write about it on the internet, where it would remain forever. Such silence is not cowardice; it is prudence. And prudence is the "cause, measure and form of all virtues."


The Crescat said...

I've heard from several friends that because I got a divorce they had the strength to end their marriages too.

This kills me because I hate divorce and it assumes their reasons where similar to mine.

So I see your point about the would-be saint who had an abortion.

So then, should we never speak of our divorces, you and & I?

Seraphic said...

Divorce is not necessarily a sin. A divorce is a legal agreement with the state. It has little bearing on the validity or invalidity of a Christian marriage (although it must have some, as you can't get an annulment before you get a civil divorce).

In general, nobody will be so entirely shocked that you are divorced that it will ruin how everyone sees you. And if someone leaves an unhappy marriage bolstered by the thought that you did too, that is not bad in itself.

If, however, someone goes into a bad marriage, figuring that they can, like you, "just" get out of it again, that's not good. I have blogged and published in print how I do not appreciate being made a poster girl for lukewarm-marriage-leading-to-divorce

Buy the way, I said in general. As a matter of fact, divorced women are judged rather severely by whomever--unless we get married again, when then you can guess pretty well who it is who is going to have kittens. In my case, as a divorced-annulled-remarried Catholic, I have to assure Catholic media figures all over the world that I actually had a really truly Church annulment and got married the second time in a really truly Catholic church by a Catholic priest, all serene.

In short, you have to pick who you tell. At best you'll get snide comments of "No wonder you're divorced..."

The reason why I don't talk that much about my divorce is that it would be very unfair to my ex-husband, now in his late 30s and presumably having changed quite a lot. I don't feel comfortable writing anything about the divorce I wouldn't want him to read, umpteen years on, should he stumble upon what I write, or have it sent to him by (ahem) "kind friends".