Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Because I Can’t Help Myself

I’m a small-time book publisher, and though I haven’t done the hard research, I’m pretty sure that if you look at the history of the trade, do-it-yourself books peaked before self-help books. The first told my father’s generation how to fix a leaky faucet. The second told my generation how to feed a hungry heart. Late in my own life, with my father gone, I am more convinced than ever that his generation (WWII) was great, mine (Boomers) second-rate. Pretty much everything you need to know about us is in those books.

My father never had much truck with self-help or psychotherapy (long story), but I’m sure that if he had been a Catholic, instead of a stauch Episcopalian, he would have gone to confession regularly. He believed in doing things right; he believed in authority; and, while a strong man of some certainty, he did not believe that he knew it all.

In fact, when I told my father I was converting to Catholicism, he moved in five minutes from astonishment to confession, telling me, “There are a couple of things in my life that I have always been deeply ashamed of.” He made it clear that he had never told anyone of these things, not even my mother, who was sitting by his side and listening along with me.

I think my father told us this because he associated Catholicism with confession and secretly hungered for it. I’m sure that if he had gone to confession, Dad would not have questioned the methodology or the priesthood. Behind the screen or face-to-face? Whatever you tell me to do, Father. Good confession? I’ll do my best. Lead these men and take that enemy position? Yes, sir. 

My generation decided somewhere along the way that it didn’t need authority. Which is completely delusional, of course, since we are famous for falling for every single latest fad, from diets to self-help regimens. We hunger for authority, we just don’t admit it. We’ll fall for the Maharishi, then Werner Erhard, then Deepak Chopra, then God Knows Who Next, but we don’t need priests, we don’t need the apostolate, we don’t need any intermediaries between us and God. We can find God on our own, thank you very much. Don’t even need GPS.

The above reflections follow a day of comments on my second post about confession this week. You can read the whole exchange here. What draws my attention is this:

I’ve never gotten anything from confession with a priest that came close to what I’ve gotten from God. I guess I will never understand desiring all these intermediaries, these layers, these mortal substitutes for the real thing. Once you've tasted the real thing, you don't want anything else—you can't want anything else. Nothing less than God will do.

So there’s the question: Why do we need intermediaries?

Because in the end we can’t help ourselves. Think about it. This is even what you say sometimes to the priest (or to yourself) when he asks, “Why do you keep falling into this sin? Why do you keep making this mistake?” Because, Father, I can’t help myself. 

Turning our hearts around, the real meaning of repentance, is a big big job. Every year, the Church gives us a whole 46-day period from Ash Wednesday to Easter to call us back to repentance. That’s a long time, with many prayers and sacraments, including confession, hopefully. We need all the help we can get, seems to be the message.

Why do we need intermediaries?

Because here it is Lent again, and the same job of repentance is staring me in the face. Bless me, Father, for I too have sinned.