Confession: The Healing of the Soul
by Peter Tyler, 224PP, Bloomsbury, £14.99
Peter Tyler is both professor of pastoral theology and spirituality at St Mary’s University and a psychotherapist. So it is safe to assume that his reflections on the sacrament of Confession will come from an unconventional perspective. He does not disappoint. Writing primarily as a Catholic psychotherapist who has counselled many people, he suggests that often his subjects “lock up the forces of the unconscious and are terrified of opening up their contents”.
But what does the unconscious have to do with Confession? A great deal, says the author, for it is our unconscious scars and wounds, of which we are ignorant, that lead us to sin and thus to the need to confess. It is also the reason why, in the modern age, self-revelation and disclosure are very common – a “secular panacea”, removed from its religious sacramental necessity.
How did it come about that Christ’s healing power, spiritual as well as physical, and designed to lead to profound inner transformation, is so little understood, even by Christians? Tragically, it is unknown to millions of people suffering deep wounds of the psyche which secular therapy is powerless to heal. This is the question that Tyler explores.
Reflecting not only on the writings of the early Desert Fathers, but also on the mythological significance of the Arthurian legends – especially the story of Tristan – as well as the mystical experiences of men as various as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Breton priest Henri Le Saux and the Spanish Carmelite saint, John of the Cross, Tyler argues persuasively that they are all interlinked.
The Fourth Lateran Council of 1225 codified the sacrament of Confession within the canons of the Church. It meant that the early Desert Fathers’ practice of counselling and spiritual direction was joined with St Augustine’s insight that Confession was a transcendental encounter with God, to become the form as we know it today: individual Confession to a priest who absolves the penitent. In the same century Gottfried von Strassburg began writing about the myth of Tristan and his “terrible wound”, and the Carmelite order was founded on Mount Carmel in Israel. For Tyler, these three events throw light on each other and provide the key to allowing “the tortured 21st-century soul to begin the process of healing it so badly needs.”
He writes that the two essential elements of Confession, the psychological healing of the soul and the “window on the transcendent” became “yoked to the canonical requirements of the sacrament”. He does not suggest that priests in Confession should also be psychotherapists, yet he does think that counselling or spiritual direction can often be helpful when used alongside the sacrament, in order to guide people in self-understanding and why they often act contrary to what they know to be their best spiritual interests (St Paul knew a thing or two about this). It is not for nothing that Tyler’s book opens with the sentence: “We are strangers to ourselves.” After all, we are all called to be holy: “whole”, integrated persons rather than the divided selves that we so often experience.
Tyler quotes Dom Bede Griffiths, a friend of Henri Le Saux, who also went to India to explore the Hindu way of self-transcendence and who wrote: “It is Christ alone who can set us free from the unconscious”, and that in our Christian life “the Holy Spirit should penetrate to the … ultimate root of being, and transform us.” He admits that this complex subject is a “tightrope” balanced between “transcendental piety”, which fears to look below the surface of our behaviour, and “psychological reductionism” which can misunderstand and misinterpret the genuine seeking after the transcendental, which is embedded in human nature.
In this respect, the chapter on Wittgenstein, whose tortured search for an authentic way of life drove him to live in isolated places and led him to multiple public “confessions” of his transgressions to his family and friends, is especially noteworthy. Tyler points out that confessions such as Wittgenstein’s “remind us that at the heart of true knowledge lies the Confessional act”. Similarly, St John of the Cross recognised that “all true examination of the divine must start with the groan of the Confessional”.
We must repent to be saved. But to repent we need to know ourselves, and then the sacramental grace that transforms us becomes a saving grace. Otherwise, as the author points out, Confession can easily descend to simply wanting a “clean slate”, with the consequent repetition of the same sins, rather than the true healing touch of Christ.
A short review can barely cover the fruitful themes raised in this book. Those who want to mature in their faith and cease to be divided selves, as well as lovers of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, with its substitution of flawed romantic love for the love experienced by St John of the Cross – will find it very enlightening.
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