I have to own to feeling discomfited by the Catholic sacrament of confession. As a Jew, I’ve always believed that repenting my sins was a private affair; except for on the Day of Atonement, when a public element of purging comes into play with fasting, the maintaining of a clear conscience is pretty much a matter between me and God.

But it’s not just that. In a climate where the act of confession has been hi-jacked and devalued by popular culture; where over-sharing has reached epidemic proportions, and where the path to absolution is littered with histrionic, Reality-TV inspired self-excoriation, I find myself longing for the privacy that would result from a confessional shut-down. The worst offender against the dignity of confession is surely The Jeremy Kyle Show, with its sado-masochistic dance around the poles of blame and culpability – as if contrition had no place among these showy exertions?

So, yes, I’m awkward about disclosure. Resistant to TMI. Leery of Facebook and texting and Twitter – and every other laxative tool that encourages such an ease of communication that you’re lured into giving too much away.

When I find myself standing in front of a confessional, wafts of aromatic wood and incense catching in my throat, and an unreasonable fear of dark interiors building into a pervasive claustrophobia, all these anxieties rise to the fore. I can practically hear the whispering disclosures that are a necessary step towards absolution, and  feel the spiraling up of release that accompanies the penitential rush of self-incrimination.

Perhaps I’m just allergic to the naming of sins, to the listing and counting and parsing of them as matter of record ? Or perhaps I’m simply confused by that fact than in building the case against oneself, one becomes, in confession, both accuser and accused?

Imagine then the contrarian pleasure I took in stumbling upon Michael Mack’s poem about confession and warming to his sense of  impatience to enter the box, and his longing to ‘close the door to a silence absolute, like going deaf and blind at once’. He desires nothing more that to be alone in the dark and the quiet with just his thoughts echoing round his head.

Mack was a victim of abuse and, as a good Catholic, he has spent decades blaming himself for what happened to him. Not surprisingly, his poem exults in expiation: in the knowledge, as it were, that any punishment that ensues will be easier to bear than his guilt, however misplaced it happens to be.

But more than this, it elevates the act of atonement to a kind divine surrender, as he sinks to his knees in the confession box’s ‘velvet abyss.’  The velvet abyss. So plush, so sensual. So protectively maternal.

Most of the group loved this poem for its evocations of the smell of Pine-Sol on paneling, of ‘kneelers lush as wine’, and ‘ancient hunch-backed women’ whispering in the pews. Most of all they loved the fact that we don’t know what Mack says inside the box. Gently, disarmingly, he leads you into its darkness and brings you to the brink of your own confession.

This poignant image of voluntary surrender contrasts starkly with the humiliating experience that Karen Armstrong relates in her memoir Through the Narrow Gate. In the 1960s, as a novice among the Sisters of Charity, she participated in a weekly spectacle of public self-accusation, where the penitent was literally placed under spotlight.

Blinking against a glare so bright she could neither see her sisters, nor feel them in the surrounding dark, Armstrong recalls how she would begin: “I accuse myself to you, dear mother, and to you all, my dear sisters…’ Novices were not meant to confess sins of the heart, only sins of behavior that might have been clocked by the other sisters. And so the litany of accusations that followed might include, showing impatience to a sister, expressing an opinion too strongly, walking noisily, smiling unkindly when another sister made a mistake, and attempting to justify herself when a sister corrected her.

It is as hard to take such trifling slip ups seriously as the proper stuff of confession as it is to overlook the extraordinary cruelty of this confessional circus. Even Jeremy Kyle could not have invented something so Byzantine. It seems to me to set up in the place of forgiveness a kind of sneering pity for the penitent, who is too feeble, too wanting, too selfish to exert even the most basic command over her self.

Of course, Armstrong found the experience utterly crushing. She had aspired, like the saints of old, to ‘grind herself to power,’ to be pulverised in order that her self-love would crumble away by a slow process of attrition and she would be made worthy of accomplishing God’s will. It is a noble aspiration. But if her memoir teaches us anything, it is how distant and alienated religious idealism can become, when such principled goals get entrenched in ritual practice.

Next to Armstrong’s account of her ‘chapter of faults,’ confession’s cycling through contrition to disclosure to satisfaction seems like a walk in the park.

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