As a struggling new psychotherapist I often worked under public health contracts. For five years I worked a 10-hour Thursday at a state-funded alcohol abuse in-patient/out-patient treatment center. (The facility shared a name with a well known alcoholic beverage brand, in one of those typical governmental oversights.) It was a tenure not without its humor: when I would leave for home at night, the parking lot was filled with bicycles, over 50, perhaps, as many outpatients had lost their licenses to DUI convictions. When I would get home at night, I would always announce to my wife that “I’m home from the Tour de France.”
I learned the subtleties of advanced treatment from substance abuse counselors who were wonderfully kind to me, without exception. I suspect that many readers are familiar with the rudiments of 12-step programs, including the much feared fourth step of the moral inventory, the writing and the private one-on-one revelation. (As a pastor in earlier years, I had numerous requests from recovering alcoholics to “hear” their moral inventories in a confessional setting, which I was happy to do.) I learned from sponsors and addiction specialists that the best treatment success came with repeated working of the step cycle, which in practice meant that a recovering alcoholic would undertake a full moral inventory every few years.
This struck a strong theological chord with me. I remembered years before, as a grad school theological student, that the noted sacramental scholar Regis Duffy, O.F.M., had discussed with us in class the intricacies of the confessional, including circumstances where a penitent might make five or six visits to the confessional before seeking absolution. As my friend and fellow house friar Regis would explain, penitents needed space and time to adequately reflect upon the seriousness of their acts, the peculiar circumstances of their lives at that time, and the direction that conversion might look like before making a formal request for absolution. One might call this a “penitential catechumenate” approach for short.
(For catechists, I will discuss the different theologies of sin, primarily “individual act” and “fundamental orientation” in a subsequent entry.)
When I became a psychotherapist, I quickly discovered that patients were often suffering contemporary emotional pain from their own mistakes and decisions of years ago. In fact, a number of my patients had sought professional help before. Why were past mistakes continuing to plague present day life? And why does Catholic sacramental practice permit a penitent to present a sin in confession that was absolved twenty years ago?
The answer is surprising simple but amazingly overlooked in psychology and catechetics: it can be found in any competent Psych 101 text book, under the chapter heading of “human development.” We change. Every ten years or thereabouts (see Erik Erikson, d. 1994) we progress into a new and more expansive view of ourselves and the realities of life. A simpler explanation might be “the wisdom of age.” This factor of human life means that we can never go backward with mathematical objectivity in writing our life script; it will always be colored by the greater truths we have acquired along the way. Sinful acts or omissions had a certain meaning in our 20’s. As we age, and we learn about love, the precious nature of time, the values of competency and the dignity of a good name—not to mention our onrushing encounter with Judgment—the “sins of youth” take on a greater significance in our self understanding.
This is not “wallowing in guilt.” Catholic belief in Purgatory is recognition of the unfinished business of sin, so to speak. St. Augustine, by his own confession, engaged in petty theft, wasted some of his best early years in arrogant hot pursuit of a bankrupt philosophy, and fathered a child. After redemptive baptism at the hands of the theological giant and Bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose in 387, Augustine became a bishop himself in North Africa and possibly the greatest theologian and prolific writer in the history of Christianity. But the sins of his youth were always with him and influenced his writings, and by extension, the Church’s outlook on many theological ideas and practices that remain with us today.
Morally speaking, my Lent of 2015 should not be the Lent of 2005 or 1995. It is the Lent of my history seen today with greater prayer, better understanding of the Gospel demands, greater empathy for those I have injured along the way and poor decision making, and the directive insights of a present-day Church, particularly from a mature confessor or spiritual director to nurture me through the ongoing pain of discovery. “A humble, contrite heart, O God, you will not spurn.” (Psalm 51:17)
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