Thursday, October 8, 2009


The trip from Cairp Tahn to Johannesburg is usually a fairly gruelling 2 hour flight. I do it more times than I enjoy. The plane is usually full and passengers usually fairly bad tempered.
I am reading, at the moment, Wally Lamb's monumental, (and now 10 years old book) - I Know This Much Is True (Harper, London 1999). It is about identical twins, one a paranoid schitzophrenic. It is about love and hate; about love and resentment; about the person we think we are and the person we are made to be. It is the kind of book which takes in huge sweeps of world history, a snapshot of a particular paranoid moment in our collective past and examines the inner depths of a condition as only this man, the author, knows how. You cannot read the book without an extraordinary amount of introspection.

And, sitting on the plane from Cairp Tahn to Johannesburg, I found myself remembering the last time I made sacramental confession to a priest. For those who are not inside this tradition (and I have to say, neither was I at that point!) the whole idea of confessing "sins" to a priest and receiving absolution from God, through him or her, is destinctly peculiar and even mindlessly archaic in a world which is now dominated by psychologists.

When I went for my first confession, I was about to be made Deacon. In preparation for this, I was on a three day silent retreat in a very remote place called Masite, in the tiny Kingdom of Lesotho, where my wife and I had fled to avoid my being called up into the South African Army.
It was in the winter - and believe me - the winters in that tiny, landlocked, extremely mountainous Kingdom can be unbelievably cold. There is a retreat house at Masite, run by the Sisters of the Society of the Precious Blood - an Anglican order. The buildings are made of stone. There is (or at least there was) no electricity. The Chapel was freezing cold, but ethereal in its simple beauty. And on retreat, one arose in what seemed like the middle of the night, teeth chattering, to say the Office of Prime - the first of the liturgical services of the day.
The retreat itself was a silent one. You could read whatever you liked, but you were not allowed to speak. It was before the days of computers, the internet, cellphones and all the other electronic and cyber intrusions on one's thought processes. The point of the process was to focus on what you were doing, on who you were and where you were going - for three days. Food, of a very basic kind, was brought to you. You could go for walks every now and again and you were expected to attend the daily Mass and the other offices.

During this process, I made my confession to my spiritual advisor of the time. The first confession I had ever made. Before I did so, I needed to consider a range of things - what would I consider a "sin". What about those things which others considered sin, but I didn't - like, for instance, homosexual love? I was, after all, a married homosexual and did not then, and do not now, consider homosexual love to be sinful. I was, however, not only married and Gay, but also about to enter Holy Orders.

What about homosexual acts? That, of course, was is and was a much more complicated question for the church - but in the end, it would not be something I would be confessing as a "sin". There were, in my life, much bigger things to consider. Acts of cowardice. Deceit. Integrity. Honesty. Acts where love and compassion were lacking. These were, and for me, remain much more serious concerns than genital ones.

And so I made my confession. It was a simple affair, of me and the priest seated facing away from each other in the chapel. He simply listened as I spoke. And when I was finished, he gave me counsel. It was not admonishment for the wrongs I had committed, but rather encouragement to move beyond. When he spoke the words of forgiveness, I felt able to forgive myself. That was the key - the permission to forgive myself for the things I had done, because I had heard words of forgiveness from someone else.

The non-schitzophrenic twin in Wally Lamb's story finds that act of self-forgiveness the most difficult. His acts of omission and his acts of commission against his "weaker" twin are indeed serious. It is also true that they are circumstantial. They haunt him and plague him and hunt him down. They confront him when he least expects them. They surprise him and terrorise him.

His "weaker" twin, on the contrary, never judged him. He loved him completely and with utter, childlike trust. He never saw the "sins" his brother committed against him. He never believed anything but the best of his brother. And his brother was not, by any stretch of the imagination, universally bad or universally cruel. But it was a relationship of the struggle of the inner self. Two opposite and contrasting poles of the same person, starkly evident in two people who look exactly the same but are confusingly and glaringly different.
I have not reached the end of the book yet, but I hope very much that the "stronger" twin reaches a place of forgiveness for himself. In my experience of life since my last confession, that is the one thing which I know is true - that forgiveness is not only possible, but necessary. And the most difficult person to forgive, is oneself.

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