Perhaps more than anything else, we are unconsciously seeking a confessor, someone before whom we can open our hearts, be completely transparent, pour out our confusion, and freely admit our sins. Inside our search for a soulmate is the search for a confessor. But a good confessor isn’t easily found. Colm Toibin, in his recent novel, Brooklyn, gives one of the reasons why:
His main character, Eilis, a young woman from Dublin, moves to New York and falls in love with a man named Tony. But, several months into the relationship, Eilis has to return to Ireland because her sister, Rose, has died. Tony, insecure and fearing that Eilis will not return, talks her into marrying him civilly before she leaves.
Back in Dublin, living with her mother, mourning her sister’s death and having to delay her return to New York because of a friend’s wedding, Eilis is pursued by a young man, Jim Farrell, and goes on a number of dates with him without telling him about her American husband. But she is haunted by her lack of disclosure and agonizes about what to do. What she would most love to do is to share her secret with him, pour out her confusion, make him her confessor, and have him help her sort this out, but his innocence makes her hesitate. As Toibin puts it: Could she possibly tell Jim what she had done such a short while earlier in Brooklyn? The only divorced people anyone in the town knew were Elizabeth Taylor and perhaps some other film stars. It might be possible to explain to Jim how she had come to be married, but he was someone who had never lived outside the town. His innocence and his politeness, both of which made him nice to be with, would actually be, she thought, limitations, especially if something as unheard of and out of the question, as far from his experience as divorce, was raised. The best thing to do, she thought, was to put the whole thing out of her mind.
Doris Lessing once made a comment about George Eliot, suggesting that Eliot would have been a better, deeper, writer, had she not been so moral. Innocence, it seems, can be, as both Eilis and Doris Lessing fear, a limitation, something that blocks empathy and insight. But is this true?
There’s a stream of popular thought that strongly suggests that it is. In its crasser forms, you see this in the cynicism in our culture around virginity and innocence, with both being simplistically identified with naiveté and lack of maturity. Indeed, lack of sexual experience is singled out as being the most suspect of all naiveties. Very common is the algebra which equates experience with “having been around” and equates “having been around” with understanding life. Our old catechisms taught that when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit their minds were darkened. Popular thought today emphasizes instead that their eyes were opened, that experience, licit or not, is what widens the mind. From that it is easy to move to the idea that the ideal confessor, the person who understands life, is someone who “has been around”.
But we don’t really believe this. Why? Because what we unconsciously look for in a confessor belies this. In seeking a confessor (not necessarily a confessor in the sacramental sense) we are not looking for another drinking buddy, a partner in crime, someone who will not judge us because his or her life is as is just as confused and messed-up as our own. In seeking a confessor, consciously or unconsciously, we are looking for someone whose understanding and acceptance will take us to another place, beyond our confusion and weakness. Deep down we know that our sin will not be healed by someone else’s sin, but that it needs to meet instead something more innocent, more Godlike, like the embrace of the father of the prodigal son.
But not every kind of innocence meets this test. Eilis’ unwillingness to reveal her struggles before Jim Farrell’s innocence might indeed have been a wise decision. There is an innocence that, because it is deliberately blind at a certain point, is unhealthily immune to complexity. But there is an innocence too, and that is the kind we unconsciously seek out, that does meet the test.
A young seminarian struggling with sexual issues once wrote to Therese of Lisieux seeking her counsel. He hinted at his issues but told her: “If I shared with you what I am really struggling with, I fear that you would be horribly shocked and scandalized and would not write back to me.” Therese wrote back: “If you think that way, then you don’t really know me!”
The Cure d’Ars was a man of stunning simplicity and utter innocence. Yet he was perhaps the most sought-after confessor of his time. We long for just such a confessor, someone before whom we can freely pour out our complexity, but who doesn’t at the same time share our sin.