I've been reading about confession a bit lately. Confession has always been a bit of a problem for me. Admitting my mistakes is not something I find easy. even worse, what I have been reading, both the catechism and in other works, tells me I need to give up the wrongs that have been done to me.
Our society as a whole is directly contrary to this aspect of confession. Our education militates against it. We are taught to hang onto the wrongs we have suffered with both hands, as though our lives depend upon it. In a sense, our lives do.
Look at the way we are taught history. Not too long ago, history was a mix of biography and geography: the place where a great man and a great moment met. The problem with this sort of history is abundantly clear to us today: the men were all, well, men, and white, and the moments were all European. Nothing happened, nothing existed, until a European man did it or found it. Nowadays, we have by and large rejected that model of history, and instead teach social history, bringing in as many groups as possible, casting as wide a net as possible to get what social historians like to think of as a better, clearer picture.
Here's the rub, though: for all the weaknesses of the old way, it had a strength. It was practical. The stories were told with a hero and also a villain, and this was done to help teach the students not merely about the past but about how they should conduct themselves in the future. It is a cliché to ask WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) but the educated men of the past would ask themselves what would Julius Caesar do, what would Hannibal do, what would Thomas More, Charles Martel, St Francis, Demonsthenes, Cicero, Cato, The Duke of Marlborough, General Wolfe, Jan Sobieski, Edward the Confessor, and so on, do? Be like a hero, they were told, not the villain.
(I should add that this even extended into the realm of fiction and morality plays and fables: what would the hero of your favourite book do? Reading fiction, as well as history, was part of the education of the heart and the spirit.)
As well, the new way- for all its strengths- has weaknesses. It is the history of everyone in general, and therefore of no one in particular. It cannot lead or be put into practice, because percentages and figures have no agency. More to the point, social history, instead of using heroes and villains as its basic structure, instead employ a structure of oppressors and their victims, and of the two, the only one worth being is a victim.
So the heroes of the past are all being torn down, and the only thing we have to aspire to today is some sort of victimhood. How often do you hear people claiming 'I'm the real victim, here,' or 'I'm a victim, too.' It was gives us grounding, elevates us in the eyes of others, somehow. It becomes the core of our identity, the very essence of who and what we are. We are not only not taught to forgive the wrongs done to us, we are taught to become those wrongs.
Which brings me back to confession. The heart of the teaching I have been reading comes from the Lord's Prayer: 'And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.' The Lord's mercy cannot reach us if we have shut ourselves off to it by refusing to forgive, to share in our own mercy, our own shadowy imitation of the Lord's great mercy, and by hanging on to the wrongs that have been done to us. We become closed to Grace.
I am not saying that we should not seek justice, nor to forget the wrongs we have been done. We are not called to be doormats, nor to stand by idly in the face of injustice, even when done to us. But, as Catholics, we cannot go forward without forgiveness. These days, that means, sometimes, letting go of our identity, the way we see and define ourselves. But that's how it should be. To become the new man in Christ, we must let the old one go.