Sometimes Sacramental Confession can be more useful than counselling

Penitent receives absolution during Confession (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

It might seem odd to blog about Confession in the week leading up to Christmas, which is a time of obvious rejoicing. But in a way, the Sacrament of Reconciliation comes before everything else (excluding infant baptism), so it makes perfect sense to me. I have just been reading Professor Peter Tyler’s Confession: The Healing of the Soul (Bloomsbury £14.99), a thought-provoking book. Tracing the history of the modern practice of individual confession to a priest, and showing how Christian tradition embraces two elements in this Sacrament, the Desert Father’s method of spiritual direction and St Augustine’s encounter with the transcendent, the author explores the nature of the wounds people suffer (largely unconscious) and explains how these can be healed through Confession.

Peter Tyler is a practising Catholic psychotherapist as well as professor of Pastoral Theology and Spirituality at St Mary’s University. I asked him why, in his introduction, he describes Confession as an “art”. He refers to Pope St Gregory the Great who stated in “the first great treatise on pastoral care that all pastoral care is an art as much as a science.” Tyler reflects that “In contemporary terms, we have to learn about anthropology, sociology, theology and psychology, but there is also a certain “je ne sais quoi” which can only come with experience.”

Distinguishing between theology and psychology, he explains that “in theology we are dealing with God and God, by God’s nature, will always be greater than any construct we place on Him. In my experience, the experienced confessors whom I have encountered over the years are those who understand the technical science of the situation but who can also let God be God to the person they are sitting with. That is what Gregory the Great meant.”

What does Tyler mean by his image of a “tightrope” between “transcendental piety” and “psychological reductionism”? He believes that we live “in a strangely illiterate age when it comes to religion – which is why I think the study of theology is so important. As I said above, because the nature of God is so other than our ordinary experience, and because there is less preparation to deal with this action, increasingly I find in my ministry and psychological practice that when a modern person has a deep encounter with God they are often unable to cope with it.”

He tells me that “As humans, we seem to want to either reduce the spiritual to the physical or use the spiritual as a means of running away from the physical. The first reaction is “psychological reductionism” – the encounter with God is written off as a psychosis or mood disorder. The latter is a form of Gnosticism or dualism that wants to avoid the necessity of living in the world. The Church in her wisdom has always taught a balance between these two extremes.”

I remind Tyler that he writes that after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, “healing of the soul” became “yoked to the canonical requirements of the Sacrament.” Doesn’t this imply a rather negative view of Confession as it is practised today? “On the contrary! In my final chapter I return to the contemporary world and suggest that Sacramental Confession is the archetypal form of confession, par excellence. My book arose from the fact that I heard Sacramental Confession often being played down as a poor substitute for therapy or counselling – whereas my own experience as a therapist is that sometimes Sacramental Confession will be of more use to the person at a particular time than counselling.”

Why, I want to know, is secular “confession” so popular these days? Tyler tells me: “It is a good question and rather mysterious. As I suggest in the book, it could be argued that as human beings we need to engage in confession. It is part of what makes us human.” He adds, “As a Catholic, I might argue that with the decline of religious confession in the modern era, this impulse manifests itself in other forms or ways. As an analyst, I would say that it is a necessary psychological function and if it is not dealt with in a therapeutic setting it will emerge in other ways.”

He thinks that in his parents’ time, “people would often open up to shopkeepers, hairdressers and other ordinary folk in daily encounters. Nowadays, when I go shopping, I am lucky if I meet a human being to take my money! The need for confession is also the simple need for human contact and love.”

Following on from this, how would he try to heal the breach between the “confessional” and the “counselling room?” Tyler is clear: “First, people, especially Catholics, need to be educated as to the value and importance of Confession (hence my writing this book.) Too often it is seen simply as a means to “wipe the slate clean”. Yet it is, quite literally, a wonderful gift from God and the Church for the healing of the soul. Clergy are not second-rate psychologists but performing an important role that builds on the psychological to allow transcendental healing to take place. Secondly, psychological professions need to understand that there is a limit to what can be achieved in the counselling room – where the psychological ends and the spiritual begins.”

He comments: “Perhaps there needs to be a little more humility here too.”

Referring to a fascinating passage in his book, where he contrasts the “terrible wound” suffered by Tristan in Arthurian mythology and the “love wound” described by St John of the Cross, I ask Tyler to explain the difference between them. He is convinced that “The Tristan wound is the transcendent wound of our time. So many young people today have an encounter with the divine, as described above, but are unable to allow it to heal their souls. Rather, like the Lord Tristan, they fester and die from the wound.”

“St John’s poetry describes something subtly different. He writes, “Oh night more lovely than the dawn!” From the transcendental (or theological) perspective we are witnessing the love of God transforming our very being to make it ready for the great encounter we are destined for. So, on one level the wounds are the same but it is a question of perspective. Either we see the wound as a closing of a door to the transcendent – or as an opening to Eternity.”

I remind Tyler that he quotes Dom Bede Griffiths in his book, that “It is Christ alone who can free us from the unconscious”. Could he explain this further? “My interpretation of this fascinating statement is similar to my answer to the last question. Griffiths wrote this in correspondence with a Jungian analyst. He realised (as I do) that psychology is important. However, there comes a time when psychology must bow down and make way for the spiritual or theological. St John makes the point in a similar way. He distinguishes between our “natural appetites” – what we would now probably call the “unconscious” – and the “voluntary appetites” – our assent or dissent to the forces that arise from the unconscious.”

“Events of the last century have revealed to us the dark forces of the unconscious (Freud himself suffered from them when his family members were persecuted by the Nazis and his books burnt before he was sent into exile). The temptation is to despair – our psychological reductionism again. What Dom Bede Griffiths is saying is that we do not need to despair. Christ can enter into the depths of the unconscious and allow healing to happen. I see this on a regular basis in the consulting room.” He adds: “For me, personally, it happens most strikingly and forcible in the Confessional.”

My last question arises from this discussion: would it generally benefit Catholics to have a spiritual director/counsellor, alongside going to Confession?

Characteristically, Tyler refers again to St John of the Cross, telling me that in discussing spiritual direction the Saint says it may be necessary “to counter three “blind guides”: Those who give us bad advice; the Devil; and the soul that does not understand itself.”, adding “I don’t personally think spiritual direction or counselling are necessary at every step of life’s path. They are specific tools for specific tasks at specific times. I know many good and holy people who engage in neither.”

“However, from the Desert fathers onwards, we have been counselled to have a person to talk to in order to share our spiritual life with. This may be a “professional” guide or what the Celts used to call a “soul-friend”. St Ignatius calls it the necessity of having someone in your life with whom you could talk serious about serious things. The Devil can easily deceive us, and often having a person to open our hearts to can unmask these deceptions.”

“None of this” he reminds me, “obviates the need for regular and timely Sacramental Confession if one is a Catholic.”