by Dr. Ken Buckle
I’ll admit right from the start that I certainly don’t have all of the answers on this topic. I’m hoping that if I throw some ideas out there for consideration, somebody will have some good thoughts to add so that we can all learn together. You can add your comments on this blog (down at the bottom), and they are most welcome particularly on this topic. The purpose of this article is to get us all thinking about the topic, and perhaps a little about ourselves.
The topic is psychotherapy and the Sacrament of Reconciliation: why don’t more people make use of them? From time to time I reflect on why this might be. Psychotherapy is one means of healing from mental illness or addiction. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is for the forgiveness of sin in order to reconcile or reunite the person with God and the community. Reconciliation, like therapy, then also involves healing. Both can be challenging to approach, but also personally rewarding.
Psychotherapy is a treatment service provided by a mental health professional, while the Sacrament of Reconciliation (also known as Confession or Penance) involves a priest. There are indeed some clergy and religious who provide counseling and psychotherapy, but I think you get the general idea of this difference between the two. Some may avoid therapy because they don’t care for mental health professionals, and some Catholics may avoid Reconciliation because they don’t like having a personal close encounter with a priest. I suspect though that this accounts for only a few of those who don’t make use of these two options for healing. So what else is going on?
Both processes involve humility and honesty. There are some people that have difficulty with this. In our human brokenness, we tend to be proud and stubborn and we certainly don’t like to feel guilt and shame. In order for a person to approach therapy or the Sacrament, he or she must be able to admit “something is not right.” One way of looking at humility is that it is the ability to conclude: “I am not God.” So many of us get frustrated with ourselves because we’re not perfect, or our life does not seem to be going the way we want. We have a secret belief that we can control life and avoid suffering if only we had enough time or money or power or the right pill. If things are not going well we might feel humiliated, which is not at all the same thing as experiencing humility. A feeling of humiliation makes us want to hide or crawl in a hole so that nobody can see us. Good therapists and priests do not judge because they understand that we are all broken from original and ongoing sin. They have seen many tortured souls. And they have seen many suffering souls heal through grace. In the 1st letter of Peter (5:5) we are reminded that “God opposes the proud but bestows favor on the humble.”
Both therapy and Confession are confidential. The therapist and the priest are bound to keep private what is revealed to them. It is important to trust in this. It becomes much easier to reveal something very personal and painful if we know we can trust that it won’t be shared around to others. Simply naming the difficulty to another person is a powerful thing. I have seen many people express how much better they felt after the first therapy session, and people frequently report feeling “a weight lifted” after Confession. Sharing a deep secret takes the power away from whatever it is that is bothering us.
Both Reconciliation and psychotherapy may be avoided because a person is not ready to change. Some of us consciously avoid it, and some of us unconsciously avoid change. We might believe that we are okay, and that it is really the other people in life that are the problem. For instance, one may say “I wouldn’t be depressed if my husband paid more attention to me.” Another may claim “I wouldn’t look at porn if my wife was more interested in me.” Or we might say “well, I know what the priest or the therapist is going to say and I don’t want or need to hear it.” Perhaps it is time to take some responsibility for seeing what we might be able to do, with God’s help. We might not be responsible for the cause of our difficulty, but we are responsible for doing something about it. The grace of God is a gift ready and waiting to be used to strengthen us for good.
Both of these avenues, therapy and Reconciliation, involve time and effort and some of us are just plain lazy. We are a fast food, microwave culture. We want things quick and easy. We might prefer to just let things coast along as they have been, even if they are not so great. I recall watching Whitney Houston’s funeral service a few months ago and being moved by Pastor Marvin Winan’s encouragement to “prioritize.” I can still hear his wonderful, booming voice as he challenged everyone with that single word. He expressed a hope for everyone to have a good life and not put off tomorrow what you can change today.
Some of us might not believe that there is any hope for us. We don’t want to go to therapy or Reconciliation because we are afraid that we’ll just be back in the same boat soon enough…and so then what’s the use. This does not have to be true. Our spiritual enemy wants us to despair and lose hope so that he can steal our soul, and so we need to fight these thoughts with the help of God and others. If we have tried in the past and found the same result, then something different needs to be tried next time. We must believe that the Spirit can give us all of the grace and strength that we need. God promised it, and we have numerous examples that God delivers. We need to believe that the Spirit is there for us, for you and me, right in this moment here and now. We are not expected to change on our own. We live in a culture that encourages individual effort. But some things we just cannot change on our own. The Spirit creates and gives life. This began at the moment we were created and will continue for all of our days. We have the Spirit and we have others to lean on.
Both processes of therapy and Penance involve transformation. Transformation means that you are not the same person as you were before. Jesus explained about this to Nicodemus (John 3:1-21) that a person must be born again, born from above, from the Spirit. Nicodemus had a difficult time understanding the depth of such a transformation. A person may enter therapy under a dark cloud of depression and leave as someone with a bright outlook on life. An addict may begin recovery in chains, and leave as a free person. The sinner enters Confession with a heavy weight, and leaves forgiven with the encouragement and challenge to “go and sin no more.” Both processes may involve the stripping away of a false self. Both processes may continue or begin the journey to return to one’s true self…a self that we may be running from. This can leave some people afraid of the experience, but when we find our true self…we find Christ and his great love and peace. If we view therapy and Reconciliation in this light, then they become less of a chore and less of a bore.
Some of us do not want to face therapy or Confession because we are protecting our identity. We are somebody who wants to present to others or to our self that we have it all together. We don’t want to think of ourselves as a “sinner” or as an “addict” or a person with a mental illness. Don’t give us any reminders please. The important thing to realize is that these things do not define us. We are more than our sins, and we are more than our illnesses. Sometimes I have wondered if Jesus while on Earth forgave sins and cured illnesses because he wanted people to see that they were more than those things that caused them suffering. This is difficult to comprehend when we are in the midst of the pain of suffering. We just want it to stop.
Here is one difference between Penance and psychotherapy. Not everyone may need therapy, however all Catholics need this Sacrament. Even the saints admit in humility that they could be better. This is why there is a time-honored tradition in the Church to perform a frequent examination of conscience, and to take advantage of Penance on a regular basis. It really does provide strength for the journey.
You might be thinking that your sins are not so bad or your problems are not so bad, that you don’t really need the Sacrament or psychotherapy. “I’ll just talk with my friends, and it’ll be okay.” In our culture, we may have become confused about what is a sin, and so we conclude that we are doing the same thing as everyone else and so it must be fine. Consider if you are really being honest with yourself. Do you really share your deepest concerns with your friends? Do you really feel forgiven after just saying a prayer on your own?
Sure there are other issues and other similarities and differences between psychotherapy and Reconciliation. We might be concerned because we heard therapy is expensive and that it’s difficult to find a good therapist or that there’s a wait list. Check it out and see. We avoid Confession because the Church is so far away or we don’t like the priest or we don’t want to stand in line or we can’t fit it in to our schedule. Find a more convenient time or a new confessor then. Why not give the Spirit a chance to work some healing in you through the priest or the therapist? Grace is there for the asking. It is a free gift from the One who loves us more than we can imagine. Christ wants us to have life to the full (John 10:10). Don’t settle for less.
If you are Catholic and have not experienced the Sacrament of Reconciliation in a long time, take this as an invitation to go soon. If you are someone who goes once or twice a year, trying going more often and even perhaps once a month for a while, and see how different you feel. If you are a person who needs some counseling, make some calls and find out what options are out there for you. You can have a better life, and it doesn’t necessarily mean changing the world or waiting until things magically fall into place. You be the change. It begins with action.
If you have discovered grace and healing through the Sacrament or through counseling or psychotherapy, reach out and share your story with someone else. Some person you know, or even a stranger, just might need to hear what you have experienced. The Winans’ sang these lyrics at Whitney Houston’s funeral, “tomorrow very well might be too late.” Let us then act when the Spirit moves!