Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Living on the Surface of the Self?

"This morning the governess came to confession. I happen to know that her regular confessor is my colleague, the Cure de Heuchin, but I could not refuse her as a penitent. Those people who think the Sacrament gives us instant power to read the hidden places of a soul are indeed credulous! If only we could ask them to try for themselves! Used as I am to the confessions of simple seminary students, I still cannot manage to understand what horrible metamorphosis has enabled so many people to show me their inner life as a mere convention, a formal scheme without one clue to its reality. I should imagine that once they have ceased to be adolescents, few Catholics go in mortal sin to communion. It’s so easy not to go to confession at all. But there are worse things. Petty lies can slowly form a crust around the consciousness of evasion and subterfuge. The outer shell retains the vague shape of what it covers, but that is all. In time by sheer force of habit, the least ‘gifted’ end by evolving their own particular idiom, which still remains incredibly abstract. They don’t hide much, but their sly candour reminds one of a dirty window-pane, so blurred that light has to struggle through it, and nothing can be clearly seen.

What then remains of confession? It barely skims the surface of conscience. I don’t say dry rot has set in underneath; it seems more like petrification." (pp. 107-109).

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"For several days I have been thinking a great deal about sin. In defining sin as a failure to obey God’s law, I feel there is a risk of conveying too abstract an idea of it. People say such foolish things about sin, and as usual they never take the trouble to think. For centuries now doctors have been discussing disease. If they had been content to define it as a failure to obey the rules of health, they would long since have been in agreement. But they study it in the individual patient in the hope of curing him. And that is just what we priests are also attempting. So that really we aren’t very impressed by sneers and smiles and jokes about sin.

And of course people always refuse to see beyond the individual fault. But after all the transgression itself is only the eruption. And the symptoms which most impress outsiders aren’t always the gravest and most disquieting.

I believe, in fact I am certain, that many men never give out the whole of themselves, their deepest truth. They live on the surface, and yet, so rich is the soil of humanity that even this thin outer layer is able to yield a kind of meager harvest which gives the illusion of real living. I’ve heard that during the last war timid little clerks would turn out to be real leaders; without knowing it, they had in them the passion to command. There is, to be sure, no resemblance there with what we mean when we use the beautiful work ‘conversion’- convertere – but still it had sufficed that these poor creatures should experience the most primitive sort of heroism, heroism devoid of all purity. How many men will never have the least idea of what is meant by supernatural heroism, without which there is no inner life! Yet by that very same inner life shall they be judged: after a little thought the thing becomes certain, quite obvious. Therefore? …Therefore when death has bereft them of all the artificial props with which society provides such people, they will find themselves as they really are, as they were without even knowing it – horrible undeveloped monsters, the stumps of men.

Fashioned thus, what can they say of sin? What do they know about it? The cancer that is eating into them is painless – like so many tumours. Probably at some period in their lives most of them felt only a vague discomfort, and it soon passed off. It is rare for a child not to have known an inner life, as Christianity understands it, however, embryonic the form. One day or another all young lives are stirred by an urge which seems to compel; every pure young breast has depths which are raised to heroism. Not very urgent perhaps, but just strongly enough to show the little creature a glimpse, which sometimes half-consciously he accepts, of the huge risk that salvation entails, and gives to human life all its divinity. He has sensed something of good and evil, has seen them both in their pristine essence unalloyed by notions of social discipline and habit. But of course his reactions are those of a child, and of such a decisive solemn moment the grown-up man will keep no more than the memory of something rather childishly dramatic something mischievously quaint, whose true meaning he never will realize, yet of which he may talk to the end of his days with a soft, rather too soft a smile, the almost lewd smile of old men …. (107-109)

(The Diary of a Country Priest by George Bernanos, 1937 translated by Pamela Morris, Carroll & Graf Publishers 2002 pg. 86)

(Courtesty of Virginia Hughes)

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