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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Life in the confession booth

With what fruit, then, O my Lord...  do I confess, not only in your presence but to men also by these writings, what I now am, not what I once was?
--Augustine, Confessions Book X, Ch. 3

So, I've been thinking hard over the last few days about a weird change I've been noticing about myself this past semester: I'm telling everybody I can corral for ten minutes about what happened when Matt was murdered.   And, I'm starting to wonder: is this necessarily a healthy thing?  It really started with my minister friend back in August.  We were having a theology discussion at a local bar (yes, we do that sort of thing) and he was trying to come up with topics for a lecture series on campus. 

"What about a roundtable on theology and homosexuality?"  He asked innocently.   I leaned over the table and thumped my finger on his legal pad. 

"Absolutely not.  You might as well lob a grenade in the middle of our campus as do that," I answered.

 Later, I apologized and explained to him why I was a little sensitive to that issue, and he was really surprised.  Then, when the Laramie Project: 10 Years Later came to our town, I told "Joe" the entire story, and then the cast.  It's sort of snowballed from there.  Each time scared the utter heck out of me, but then I've felt so much more...  liberated, I guess.  And I keep doing it. 

Reactions have been mixed.  Some people just sort of edge slowly for the door, like I'm going to pounce on them.  One colleague suggested that I needed a vacation.  And then one of my classmates just opened up and shared with me the trauma in her own life she's been silently packing around for seven years, and I was stunned.  She and I have started talking a lot. 

So I find myself in the twenty-ninth year of my existence in the middle of an all-out confession fest.  Why?  I have never really felt impelled to air out my dirty laundry for the world.  In fact, one of the hardest things for me has been that  whole "Confess your sins to each other" business in the Book of James (there's a reason Protestants don't like that book.)  But I'm starting to wonder just a little bit about this little glut of storytelling: is all this some kind of exhibitionist tendency, or is it something more-- or something worse?

Okay, so I'm a medievalist.  That means that whenever issues regarding identity and confession pop up, I'm invariably going to turn to one guy as the expert.  Augustine of Hippo wrote the first tell-all autobiography back at the end of the fourth century when a large part of the Roman elite still believed that their true "selves" were the public face, or personna, that they cultivated in the civic sphere.   Augustine's thought reveals a  completely different idea of what identity really is.  At the same time, his autobiography The Confessions is also a meditation on the nature of time, of memory, and creation just as much as it is a meditation on a boy who stole pears simply for the pleasure of taking.  But why on earth does Augustine tell us all these things, and why make it so open  to other's scrutiny?   Here's one scholar's take on the Confessions:
The book runs even deeper than that. Augustine believes that human beings are opaque to themselves no less than to others. We are not who we think we are. One of the things Augustine had to confess was that he was and had been himself sharply different from who he thought he was. Not only was this true of his wastrel youth (to hear him tell it), but it remained true at the time of confessing--he did not know to what temptation he might next submit (10.5.7).  (O'Donnell). 
So how can Augustine ever know himself?  It's a strange, recursive process of presentation, reading, and submission to God's authority.  Augustine tells the story of himself to an audience-- to God, but also to us-- and in the process of creating that narrative he can read it exegetically, to see what that narrative actually contains. (How typical of a scholar to treat the self like a text, isn't it?)  Everything he understands of himself can only come through God-- but it seems he can't get that revelation until he tells his narrative and submits it to God's wisdom.  To tell the self is a necessary part of knowing the self.

But the funny thing is that Augustine didn't just write this in a quiet corner and then burn it, keeping that narrative of his life just between him and God.  He published it in his lifetime.  Telling that story to others to make sense of his life experience seems to be just as much of the process.  He needs to submit his story to others as well-- partly for their benefit, but also partly for his. He talks a lot about this in the early parts of Book X:
Such is the benefit from my confessions, not of what I have been, but of what I am, that I may confess this not only before you in secret exultation with trembling and in secret sorrow with hope, but also in the ears of believing sons of men, partakers of my joy and sharers in my mortality...  (X.4). 

To tell of the self to others is its own benefit, because to know the self (and to know what you don't know) is a revelation and therefore a gift of God-- both the good and the ill-- and God's wisdom is meant to be shared (X.5). 

So why am I doing this?

I do think that at least part of this urge to blab my life over the Internet does come down to trying to figure out how to narrate this portion of my life so that the Lord and I can read it over.  I don't really understand this part of my lived experience yet, and telling the story is part of the process of figuring out who I am.  To know the self is to tell your story.  At least part of my confession glut is getting acquainted with this part of who I am, I suppose. 

And at least part of me is telling this story because I tried to write it down without an audience, and nothing would come out.  When I didn't have anybody to tell this story to, the inability to make a coherent story of this time in my life was driving insane.  You can't tell a story without somebody listening.   So I needed to enter the confessional booth and whisper my secrets to make them come together, but I couldn't do it until I knew someone was listening on the other side.

So maybe Augustine sat down with his wax tablet and stylus to tell his narrative to nobody but God and nothing came out, either.  I don't know if it's true.  But it's a comforting thought.  Anyhow, when I finally showed this blog to my minister friend, he read a couple of entries and then turned to me.  
"Jackrabbit," he asked me, "How different does doing this feel from your normal prayer life?"  The question took me completely by surprise. 
"Actually, not much at all," I confessed.  "This feels a lot like when I pray to God."  He smiled knowingly. 
"Me too," he said.  "When I pray, I have to tell myself in a story, too." 
To know yourself means telling your story.  I'll have to keep telling this, I fear, not just of what I once was, but what I now am, too.   There's an interesting lesson for that with The Laramie Project too, isn't there?  In order for Laramie to know herself, she needs to tell her story, too.  Maybe that will be a good place to venture at some point.


Augustine of Hippo.Confessions.  Trans. John K. Ryan.  New York: Image, 1960.  (This is a complete and very readable translation for those itching to tackle some Augustine.)  

O'Donnell, James.  "An Introduction to Augustine's Confessions."  Georgetown University. Web. (O'Donnell is also author of the most recent biography on Augustine.)  


1)  Stained-glass window of Saint Augustine, Woodchester, from Lawrence OP's Flickr Photostream:
(Augustine usually carries a flaming heart, as you can see in this photo.)  

2)  Ary Scheffer's famous portrait "Saint Augustin et sa mère sainte Monique" (1846).  Photo from Nojhan's Flickr Photostream: / CC BY-SA 2.0

3) A confessional booth in St. Peter's, The Vatican, from pacnwtxn's Flickr photostream:

1 comment:

  1. Oh I soooooo know where you're coming from with this!

    Its funny, my nieces schoolteacher teaches her class "What is the best way to get rid of the worry monster? You tell someone what you are worried about!". I think sometimes we need to share our thoughts and feelings to help us lessen the worry as well as gain a wider perspective.

    I love your honesty in your writing, its engaging and I think you're right, to know yourself is to tell the story!

    Wonderful post, thank you for sharing it!