The Importance of Absolution

Source: Toa Heftiba

People talk about Christianity having burdened people with guilt and having tried to use this as a lever to oppress them. Well of course, such a misuse of guilt feelings may occur. But it is worse to extinguish the capacity for recognizing guilt because man then becomes inwardly hardened and sick.

Just think a stage further to an intensified form of inability to recognize guilt. The capacity to recognize guilt can be tolerated and properly developed whenever there is also healing and healing in turn can only exist when there is absolution.

Psychotherapy can indeed do a great deal to help us perceive defective connections to a cyclical structure and to help us put them right but it cannot overcome guilt. At that point, it has passed beyond the limits of its own capabilities and that is why it so often fails.

Only the sacrament, the authority from God can truly overcome guilt. We must admit in any case that in our individualistic age, it is becoming enormously difficult for people to cross the threshold of personal confession. But where the spirit of faith is leading us, there it can be learned anew.

Above all, because this is not an admission of guilt before man but before God and because it ends with the word of forgiveness and perhaps also with advice that will help us to overcome the after effects of guilt. (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI)

Introduction

I came across this gem of a quote by Pope Benedict XVI and found it both timely and relevant for my current stage of life.

I am a catechist who is training to become a counsellor. For some time, I have been wondering how these two may fit together. The quote gave me some direction.

It is true that I have been nursing a formless discomfort. If I can put my finger on it, I believe that at some point of my counselling journey, I began to doubt the efficacy of the church’s sacraments alone. I started relying heavily on counselling to receive respite from my problems.

In a way, on my mental scaffold, I began to elevate the role of counselling and devalue the role of sacraments in the healing process.

I now know for that this is folly.

The Limits of Psychotherapy

Disclaimer: I am just a counselling intern, 3 months into my journey. Hence, this is by no means an authoritative piece of writing. It is only a personal musing.

My belief is that most people are under-socialized and under loved. Especially in our modern society which emphasizes academic and career success. People are so busy studying and working that they fail to establish good support networks to give and receive love from.

Love to me, is to some extent, synonymous to healing. Therefore, in the absence of love, when people are interiorly wounded by the trials of live, they have no inlet to access healing.

This is where psychotherapy/counselling comes into the scene. The client’s relationship with the psychotherapist provides an inlet for God’s love to enter. This is already an healing process.

In addition, the interactions with the psychotherapist help clients pick up social skills which they may use to form new social networks outside the counselling room. This in turn creates future inlets of God’s healing love.

The new social networks also become places where the client is able to give love and healing to others. It is this receiving and giving of love that elevates the client to a new plain of personhood.

With that said, there are limits to the benefits of counselling. This is because man is not only a victim of sin, he is also a perpetrator.

Work is stressful, our family members are unappreciative, even the service staff at the coffee shop were nasty to us today. We head to the counsellor to receive his/her love and healing. After that, we are happy.

Eventually, as self-awareness increases, one comes to realise that: I am one of the factors why work is stressful for my colleagues. I am an unappreciative family member. My service to my clients hasn’t been up to standard of late. I have caused many people to feel very unloved and unappreciated.

This feeling of guilt, cannot be salved by counselling alone. Any attempts to so will be registered (in the subconscious at least) as an attempt to placate one’s conscience. The counsellor may say something like this:

“Denise, it seems like you are feeling guilty that you have not been able to be the most loving and kind person of late. In fact, you worry that your colleagues and family members may not be seeing the best version of you. You could have even hurt them inadvertently. This feeling of guilt is an indication that you are a good and loving person Denise. You really want to care for others but you know, we are all limited and we cannot the save the whole world. We need to start by looking after ourselves first. Please give yourself the permission to not be perfect.”

This attempt to salve the conscience is harmful as it eventually leads to the extinguishing of man’s ability to recognize guilt. This is bad as like Pope Benedict said, it inadvertently causes man to become inwardly hardened and sick.

The client probably grapples with thoughts like: “I feel guilty. The therapist said I shouldn’t feel guilty but I still do. I cannot stop this feeling.” Or after the person is desensitized from guilt: “I feel strangely uncomfortable. I can’t put my finger on it. I just feel that something is not right. I feel like I am not living right.”

Indeed, we are all made in the image of God and God’s love is one that is very exacting. It is a love that demands self-denial and self sacrifice. If this cannot be achieved, it almost always leads to feelings of guilt.

This is where the sacrament of confession comes in.

The Sacrament of Confession

When we receive the sacrament of reconciliation, we bring our guilt before Jesus:

“Bless me father for I have sinned. My last confession was a month ago. Since then, I have failed to be a good mother, wife, daughter and colleague. I have not been the most loving person and I have lost my temper several times.”

The priest typically offers a word of comfort and advice:

“God is love. To be close to God is to be a loving person. If you try to be a loving mother, wife and colleague with your own strength, you will definitely fail, but trust in God and he will help you. Move everything in the direction of love today.”

Then, he delivers the word of absolution and penance.

Just like that — 2 minutes in the confessional trumps 1 hour of psychotherapy.

Conclusion

Ultimately, I believe that all men have an inner desire to reach moral perfection. When we strive towards this moral ideal, we align ourselves to God’s will and that makes us happy.

Having the desire to be loving and morally perfect is a completely natural and human thing to do and people should not be discouraged from it. Instead, people should be encouraged to push themselves and always to avail themselves to the sacrament of confession when they fail.

Life is not about salving guilt but acknowledging it, receiving pardon and moving forward.

In the final analysis, this kind of life may not be the easiest but it will certainly be the most satisfying.

God Bless!

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Denise Thong

Denise Thong

Counsellor, Writer (Christianity, Children’s short stories)