Sacraments of guilt

Reconciling with divorce

IT’S THE LAST Tuesday of May and the coldest day of the year so far. The temperature has fallen 10 degrees in the past forty-eight hours and as God (or, by proxy, the parish priest of West Wollongong) would have it, I’m stuck in a draughty primary-school hall with eighty or so other Year 3 parents. We’ve been summoned together for the first in a series of ‘adult faith formation’ sessions. Waiting for the evening to begin, we huddle around in awkward little friendship-by-association-of-our-children groups. Teeth chatter, styrofoam cups squeak, someone’s car alarm goes into a hypothermic fit on the sleet-soaked basketball court outside.

Struggling to make small talk, I confess to the mother standing opposite me in her nurse’s fatigues and joggers that I’m feeling a little apprehensive. I’m not exactly sure what an adult faith formation session is, but as a lapsed Catholic who stopped attending church some two decades ago, it’s hard not to feel the Spectre of Inquisitions Past hanging over my head. Just what they might have in store for us apostates – heated pincers? rack and screw?? strappado?!? – the paragraph at the bottom of the school newsletter didn’t elaborate. It stated only that a parent from each household was expected to attend as a precondition to our children receiving the sacrament of reconciliation later in the term, and that the evening would be hosted by the newly appointed Father Duane. The rest was left to my agnostic imagination.

Searching for a suitable point of reference, I find myself thinking back to the preparatory session I was required to attend some twelve years ago on my way to receiving the sacrament of marriage. (There are seven sacraments in the Catholic Church: baptism, reconciliation, Eucharist, confirmation, marriage, holy orders and anointing of the sick.) On that occasion, I arrived at the priest’s residence in an outer suburb of Canberra with a similar degree of scepticism and bone chill. After an offering of English Breakfast and Iced VoVos, my fiancée and I were marshalled into separate rooms to complete a survey designed to identify areas of potential conflict that might arise down the track and throw our marriage off course. More than a decade after box-ticking my way through those various categories, I can’t remember what my answers were supposed to have predicted about my forthcoming marriage, but I can reveal that unlike most of the other parents who’ve begun taking their seats towards the front of the hall, I’ll be serving as dignitary to two households this evening: the one my son inhabits nine out of every fourteen days (my ex-wife’s) and the one he occupies the other five days a fortnight (mine).

While it was a joint decision to send our two kids to a Catholic school – one made prior to separating – it’s unlikely I’d be here tonight if my ex-wife and I were still together. Owing less to apostasy than apathy, an evening with the school priest is exactly the sort of thing I would have gone out of my way to palm off onto her, like canteen duty or volunteering for class reading groups or driving to Spotlight to purchase another Where’s Wally book-week costume. If I’m being completely honest, I probably would have done so quite guiltlessly too, exercising the marital privilege I’d secured for myself through nothing nobler than sheer habitual obstinance. But just as separation has forced me to take stock of such unattractive spousal behaviours, so too has it intensified my sense of parental responsibility. And so, when my son’s mother texted to ask if I could take care of this one, I responded without hesitation: no problem.

My ex-wife and I have been separated for almost three years now and I’m in a serious relationship with someone else. Raised in an atheist household, my new partner knows next to nothing about Catholicism or its rituals. When I told her I was off to a reconciliation seminar at my son’s school, she had no idea what I was talking about – or rather, she assumed it must have had something to do with colonial culpability. I assured her that it had less to do with national shame than personal shame. ‘You know,’ I started explaining, ‘it’s where you go into the little room and the priest slides open the partition and you tell him all the things you’ve done wrong so that you can be forgiven and get on with your life.’ ‘Oh, you mean confession?’ she quickly cottoned on. Her brow creased: ‘So, why do they call it reconciliation?’ I thought for a moment and, realising I didn’t exactly know, responded vaguely: ‘Well, confession is just another name for reconciliation. Basically, they mean the same thing.’

However, as a quick doctrinal brush up has since revealed, this isn’t quite right. Confession is but one of four interconnected aspects that constitute the rite of reconciliation – the others being contrition, penance and absolution – and isn’t necessarily the most important one, either. As it was originally performed, a far greater emphasis was placed on the penitential component – that is, on making amends for one’s wrongdoings. I’m not talking about a few Hail Marys under the breath here, either, as is current protocol, but very gruelling and often very public acts of restitution such as being dressed in sackcloth, marked with ashes and assigned a cathedral entranceway in which to stand, weeping and begging forgiveness from those permitted inside. The reason for this, as Catholic commentator DD Emmons explains, was not merely to shame and humiliate the offender but more importantly because ‘[p]eople believed that the remedy for grievous public sin was most effective if the penance likewise was done in public’. To transgress was to cause damage to the community at large by bringing it into disrepute with God and, comparable with contemporary legal practices where, in the words of theologian Joe Grayland, it’s ‘understood that society, and not the individual, exacts justice from the perpetrator’, so it was for my guilty Catholic forebears.

Catholics and their guilt. While the etymology of the phrase Catholic guilt isn’t entirely clear, it’s likely the word guilt comes to us from the Old English gylt, which has an equivalent in the Germanic gült and, according to linguist Anatoly Liberman, refers to ‘a specific tax levied on people in the Middle Ages’. An article published in the Virginia Quarterly Review a few years back explained that such taxes functioned as atonements for ‘crimes or offences’ and that Catholic guilt arises from the idea of an all-knowing, all-seeing God who never forgets a debt. More importantly, the coupling demonstrates the shift from guilt as the mere ‘fact of having committed a specified or implied offence or crime’ to the ‘emotional or cognitive experience’ that accompanies such transgressions: an almost Pavlovian response, which Thomas Aquinas likened to ‘the fires of hell in its mode of torture or action’ or which phenomenology describes, in equally visceral terms, as the rupturing of the primordial body.

If such definitions sound overly theological or hyperbolic, it’s worth bearing in mind that from an evolutionary perspective, we’ve been hardwired to associate social transgression with death since, for our early ancestors, being excommunicated from the tribe for stepping out of line ‘meant losing the vital shelter of the group’ and was thus tantamount to a literal death sentence. In this regard, the alarm that comes with knowing you’ve done wrong by another member of your group may well be nature’s way of preparing you for the worst. If it feels unbearable, almost as though you’re going to die, this is because at some point in the evolution of our species, there’s every chance you were.

Psychiatrist and philosopher Thomas Fuchs describes this sensation as a falling out with the common world, a situation in which we’re separated from others and ‘thrown back on ourselves’. In contrast to shame, which relies on the presence of others, guilt is what happens when you internalise another’s perspective, becoming both victim and perpetrator at once. Fuchs cites the German psychiatrist Conrad Klaus, who puts it like this: ‘Something has changed irretrievably and can never return to its former state. The world still seems the same, the chair, the table, the trees and the clouds are the same as they were before. And yet everything is different: their relation to me, the culprit, is altered; they are innocent, not concerned by my guilt. Thus they have moved and turned away from me, they do not care for me anymore and leave me in the lurch.’


MY WIFE AND I had been together for sixteen years when I told her I wanted to end our relationship. The phrase ‘falling out with the common world’ doesn’t do a very good job of describing the crisis that followed. It implies that the world in which you coinhabited can go on existing without you, that you can simply stuff the pain and suffering into an overnight bag along with your change of underwear and toothbrush and cart them off to a hotel. But that’s not how it works. That other world, the one you’ve decided to leave behind, catches fire the second you utter those words. The chairs, tables, trees and clouds – they don’t turn their backs on you, they combust. The whole place goes up in flames, in fact, and there’s little that you, the arsonist, can do but stand back shielding yourself from the heat while trying your best to ignore the cries of the family you’ve left trapped inside. Attempting to douse a situation like this with feelings of remorse is about as effective as attempting to extinguish an actual house fire with tears.

To the best of our knowledge, no other species of animal experiences guilt. A dog may feign a kind of shame when caught doing something wrong, but it doesn’t transform this inauthentic remorse into feelings of negative self-worth and proceed to mull over them for the weeks, months and years that follow. I remember a kelpie pup of my grandfather’s that got in and killed a chicken one night while we were staying on his farm. To teach the dog a lesson, my grandfather tied the dead fowl around its neck with a piece of baling twine so that it had to drag the carcass around everywhere it went for the next three days without being able to devour it. From the spare bedroom, I listened to it whining through the night like an animal that, to my youthful and apparently naive ears, had well and truly learnt its lesson. How much longer did it have to go on for? I wondered but didn’t dare ask (lest I have something fastened to my neck). On the fourth day, to my relief, the rotting chicken was untied and thrown in the bin. Message received. Well, almost. That night, the kelpie slipped its chain again, dug its way back into the coop and killed another three chickens – this time consuming its fill before sun-up. With the sort of pastoral stoicism befitting a Patrick White novel, my grandfather took the pup down the paddock this time, away from us ‘bleeding-heart town kids’, and shot it. ‘A leopard can’t change its spots and neither can a dog,’ he eulogised upon his return to the house a short time later. Perhaps he was right. But what about us humans: can a person change – or better still, get rid of – their spots?


THE FAITH FORMATION evening kicks off under the ageing and watchful eye of Pope Francis, whose framed A4-sized portrait hangs beneath a blinking wireless router at the back of the school hall. Shuffling forward in his oversized parka and baggy slacks, Father Duane couldn’t present a stronger contrast. For one thing, he’s only thirty-seven years of age, which makes him younger than the average Australian priest by some two decades. With his self-deprecating charisma (he worries midway through his introduction that if he says too much more we’ll think he’s got ‘tickets on himself’), he isn’t just young, he’s also quite likeable. And so I find myself paying closer attention to his ‘personal faith journey’ than I might otherwise have done.

It turns out that for Father Duane, life has followed the classic prodigal arc. We hear of the pious early years spent fishing on the Shoalhaven River, the university years spent studying psychology and doing as hedonistic university students do (with their backs to God, naturally), and finally the redemptive adult years in which he about-faced a final time and committed himself to a life of religious servitude. I’ve encountered this narrative many times: it was a veritable trope of the evangelising troupes who’d show up at our primary-school assemblies with acoustic guitars and more joie de vivre than there is sugar in red cordial. Structurally speaking, it’s a very simple and very old tale: things were good, things turned bad, things got good again. Christians have been riffing on this story for thousands of years and show no signs of tiring. Innocence, sin, redemption: the basis of the entire faith. Listening to Father Duane put his personal spin on it, though, it isn’t the peripetian final act that piques my interest but rather the detail of him having studied psychology at university prior to entering the priesthood.

In the weeks after my marital breakdown, I was given the contact details of a psychologist by a friend. This friend had ended a long-term relationship herself some months beforehand and, like me, felt incredibly guilty for having done so. She’d met with the psychologist on a number of occasions, sometimes in her office, other times at the beach, where the psychologist would show up with a labrador and one of those elongated shoehorn-looking things for launching tennis balls into the surf. They’d take a long walk together, talk about the failed relationship, about the difference between selfishness and self-preservation, about innovative phone apps for managing bouts of low self-esteem and whatever else happened to come up. All in all, it’d been an informal and pleasant experience that my friend had found helpful and she thought I might find helpful too.

I was doubtful. The idea of wandering barefooted along the beach with some New-Age psychologist and her support dog didn’t sound very appealing to me. It reminded me of the reasonably well-known ‘Footprints in the Sand’ poem by Carolyn Joyce Carty, which was recited to me by so many priests and religion teachers during my childhood it might as well have been actual scripture. The poem begins with an unnamed speaker looking back over the journey of her life, as represented by two sets of footprints on a beach – hers and the Lord’s. When she notices that the second set of footprints disappears during all the most difficult periods of her life, she questions the Lord, asking why he would abandon her when she needed him most. He responds by telling her that he didn’t abandon her at all – those were the moments where he picked her up and carried her. It’s a clever metaphor, I suppose, even if it always left me visualising the Lord as the kind of long-haired, deadbeat dad who might show up unannounced at Christmas and spend the afternoon giving piggyback rides to all the kids he doesn’t bother thinking about for the rest of the year. Unsurprising, then, that it should have struck me as the opposite of what I was looking for in my own period of grief. I didn’t want someone to comfort me, carry me or translate my selfish decisions into the more Instagrammable language of #selflove; I wanted to feel guilty because I was guilty. But more than just feeling guilty, I wanted to find a way to express that guilt, to embody and provide outward form to the malevolent spirit that’d taken refuge in the cathedral of my gut so that no one would be able to cross my path without gnashing their teeth and tearing at their breast in disgust. Phone apps and beach strolls? Where indeed were the charcoal and sackcloth when you needed them!

The allure of self-abasement – from Jesus’ munificent crucifixion to fourteenth-century flagellants who believed they could stave off the Black Death by whipping themselves into a frenzy to modern-day gluttons for punishment like Catholic blogger and mother of nine Kendra Tierney, who was recently featured in The Atlantic spruiking her campaign for a ‘month- long period of prayer, fasting and sacrifice, as an act of reparation to God for the sins of abusive priests and the bishops who covered up their actions’ – there’s no shortage of purgative predecessors for born-and-bred Catholics to take their cue from. But what about us apostates? From where are the defectors among us to seek instruction?

I stopped believing in God during my first year of university. I don’t remember the exact day, but I do remember where I was and what I was doing. I was sitting on the veranda drinking coffee. It was mid-morning. The woman across the street was standing on a ladder in her front yard, pulling dead palm fronds from the tree that grew alongside the powerline. She was wearing yellow gloves. I took a sip from my cup, squinted at the sunlight reflecting off the mailbox in front of her and, like that, shifted from believer to non-believer. It was as simple as allowing myself to entertain the idea of there being no God for half a second. Which, strange as it now seems, was something I’d never before done. Up to that point, God had lived in some sacrosanct region of my brain, cut off from all scrutiny. Was he real? I didn’t ask the question. After thirteen years of Catholic schooling, I suppose I’d been trained not to. On this day, though, I did and decided he wasn’t.

I said nothing to anyone to begin with. I wasn’t sure how firmly I believed in my disbelief. I wanted to interrogate it in private first. I went inside, collected my notebook and did my best to capture the epiphany in poetic form. I’d just started a creative writing degree, so it seemed like the artistic thing to do. Naturally, the poem was very bad. Importantly though, I didn’t flinch at the subject matter. Which seemed to suggest that I’d discovered some sort of truth. Or at least some sort of personal truth.

The psychoanalytic literary theorist Peter Brooks writes that ‘in an increasingly secularized culture, truth of the self and to the self have become the markers of authenticity, and confession – written or spoken – has come to seem the necessary, though risky, act through which one lays bare one’s most intimate self’. While this risky business of self-revelation (or the showy ‘drama of the ego’, as Blake Morrison puts it) may have reached its cultural apotheosis in this era of tell-alls and Twitter feeds, it’s worth noting that its literary origins stretch a long way back and are, in fact, more spiritual than secular.

It was Saint Augustine, an early Christian theologian from North Africa, who pioneered what is today considered the first example of autobiography in the Western canon. Premised upon the Delphic-cum-Socratic-cum- Neoplatonic principle of self-knowledge being the cornerstone of all knowledge, Confessions maps Augustine’s conversion from ‘virtual pagan to devout Christian’ and has been described by contemporary critics as an attempt at merging ‘the science of the human soul’ with the ‘science of God’. Noverim me, sed noverim te, Augustine writes in an earlier soliloquy: ‘I would know myself, I would know you [God].’ While the work was to serve as a model for other would-be saints over the years, it would take another one- and-a-half millennia for the project to find its secular equivalent.

Writing at the behest of no one and for an audience of ‘fellow mortals’, the eighteenth-century thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau provides us with one of the earliest, most notable examples of a religious autobiography. Beginning his confessions with the promise to relate both his ‘laudable’ and ‘wicked’ sides, to conceal ‘no crimes’ and add ‘no virtues’, to render the ‘vile and despicable’ alongside the ‘virtuous, generous and sublime’, Rousseau replaces the spiritual conversion at the centre of Augustine’s work with a proto-romantic quest for selfhood, producing what has been described as an ‘astonishing work of acute psychological insight’ in the process.


ACUTE PSYCHOLOGICAL INSIGHT. I wait for Father Duane to finish reading the parable of the prodigal son from his iPhone before raising my arm and asking him to backtrack to the part about having studied psychology at university. I’m interested in hearing what, in his dual-professional view, sacramental reconciliation could possibly have to offer that time alone with a good book – or a walk along the beach with a barefooted labrador owner, for that matter – doesn’t? What a Catholic education can teach us about guilt that a catholic education can’t?

Affable as always, he scratches his beard, smiles and tells me quite matter- of-factly that he doesn’t think it has anything additional to offer or teach. ‘Guilt,’ he begins explaining, ‘has this dual nature, you see. On the one hand, it can really eat away at a person, becoming destructive if left unprocessed. And yet it also plays this important social role in alerting us to those times in which we’ve hurt somebody. There’s a name for people who don’t feel guilt,’ he says. ‘Do you know what it is?’

I shake my head, half expecting him to respond with Pharisee. As it turns out, though, the answer is more in line with his university training.

‘Sociopath,’ he says, ‘that’s what you call a person who doesn’t feel guilt, a sociopath.’ He goes on from here to tell us that he views the institution of psychology not so much as a secular alternative to priestly counselling but as one of the ‘tools for healing’ that God has provided. In all cases, though, the crucial element in surmounting this potentially destructive force, he insists, lies in ‘naming’ it, in ‘speaking’ the things for which we feel guilty.

My own university training offers up a similar host of advice. From Shakespeare’s ‘Wherto serves mercy / But to confront the visage of offence’ to Oscar Wilde’s ‘There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves we feel that no one else has a right to blame us’ to Rousseau’s heir apparent, Karl Ove Knausgård, whose six-volume act of contrition, My Struggle, lays out the author’s ‘self-loathing and shame’ in unflinching and deliberately unflattering detail, capturing what critics describe as ‘an almost Christian feeling of spiritual urgency’ whereby ‘the uglier he is, the more powerful his redemption becomes’.

Ugliness, hey? Yeah, I can do ugliness. How’s waking from a night of guilt-ridden dreams to discover you’ve pissed the bed for the first time in several decades? Or making yourself so sick with blame you vomit to the point of rupturing an eardrum? Or resorting to the private window feature on Google to discover that in severe enough cases the body will interpret psychological trauma as an actual physical threat and react by restricting blood flow to the extremities and all non-essential organs, including (as begot your search) the male sexual organ? This was the terrain I found myself in during the immediate aftermath of separation. A landscape of bodily betrayal. I was shocked and embarrassed by the severity of it. The afflicted conscience and existential misgivings and general self-disgust I’d expected, but not this corporeal mutiny that was to radiate outward from the tabernacle of my intestines with all the ferocity of an exorcism.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose. As I child, I was taught to think of sins in very material terms: as actual stains on an actual soul. Black marks that appeared like charcoal fingerprints on its otherwise pristine surface every time I did something wrong and that could only be cleaned away through commensurate acts of goodness or by direct appeal to God. This wasn’t metaphorical, it was literal. Somewhere in my chest cavity was this glowing fist-sized organ that would break free of the ribcage at the hour of my death and either ascend to heaven or sink through to the Earth’s hellish core, depending on how weighed down with sin’s sooty residue it was at the exact moment of my expiration. Such was the metaphysics of the soul as I understood it. The trick, of course, was in making sure that as grubby as I let it get, I never allowed it to reach such a point that, when cut free, it wouldn’t rise skyward as quickly and unsentimentally as a helium balloon slipping from a child’s grasp.

On this front, sacramental reconciliation proved an absolute game changer. None of this one-for-one, tit-for-tat business, adding and subtracting black marks in my head like some sort of deranged prisoner scratching at the walls of his cell. No, sir. With reconciliation you took care of the lot in one fell swoop. It was 1989 when I made my first reconciliation and even then, at the age of eight, I couldn’t believe what a sucker God must have been to enter into such a one-sided deal. It was like promising not to misbehave again while crossing your fingers behind your back. Was it a trick? Entrapment even? Or was he actually going to fall for it? According to my school’s squeaky-voiced religion teacher, he was indeed. It was called grace, apparently. And not only had God decided to bestow it upon us mortals, he’d also seen his way to taking care of the obvious weak link in the operation – the habit-wearing middleman – swearing him to silence by threat of excommunication.

The Catholic Church has copped a lot of criticism for its ongoing observance of the sacramental seal in recent times, most of it concerning the very serious topic of child sexual abuse and most of it scathingly on point. Rather than wade into the moral boglands upon which the Church’s foundations rest, however, let it suffice to say that there was no mention of such pernicious behaviour on the photocopied ‘Things You Might Like To Ask God’s Forgiveness For’ worksheet handed out to me and my peers in preparation for our time in the hotseat. Disobeying parents, squabbling with siblings, forgetting to say please and thank you: this was about as morally transgressive a life as I was assumed capable of living back then. How times have changed. Article 6 of the Catechism (the Church’s constitution) positions divorce alongside incest, calling it a ‘grave offence’ against both the ‘dignity of marriage’ and the ‘natural law’ and decreeing it ‘immoral because it intro- duces disorder into the family and into society’ – a disorder that ‘brings grave harm to the deserted spouse [and] to children traumatised by the separation of their parents’. While I feel somewhat indignant about having to share an article with a bunch of incest perpetrators (who knows, maybe they feel indignant about having to share an article with me?), it would be disingenuous of me to scoff away the charges quite so cavalierly when, as my own experience has revealed, they ring true and fair. I did cause harm to my deserted spouse and I did traumatise my children and I did introduce disorder into my family and broader social circles when I decided to call it quits on my marriage. This is not my overwrought Catholic guilt talking; these are empirical facts. I’ve seen the clench marks a three-year-old leaves in her mother’s skin after being prised away by her apartment-dwelling father: a stigmata of the most unholy kind. In such moments, the invention of a God who would ‘blot out [my] transgressions…and remember [my] sins no more’ makes perfect sense to me. As does the sacramental infrastructure put in place to support him.


THE EVENING AT my son’s school ends not with my ecstatic conversion back into the fold as a bona fide Catholic, but with me dropping my son back to his mother’s house. I lean across the front seat, kiss him goodbye and wait as he makes his way up the driveway and onto the veranda. When the front door opens from the inside, I catch a glimpse of my ex-wife standing there in a narrow rectangle of light. She places her hand at the back of my son’s head to usher him past, then turns and gives me a quick wave to say thanks for helping out – a small but tangible act of grace, which doesn’t absolve me of my guilt so much as remind me of the debt that remains hanging over my head. Watching her close the door again, I weigh up my repayment options. I could get out of the car, smear myself with tailpipe soot and take my post up there on the veranda, weeping and begging forgiveness from a God I stopped believing in some two decades ago. Or I could take a different route and try driving away the guilt with the tools of my vocation. Essay: from the French essayer, meaning ‘to try’ or ‘to attempt’, which itself comes from the Latin exigere, meaning ‘to drive out’ or ‘expel’. And publish: from the French publier and the Latin publicare, both meaning ‘to make public’. I chuck a U-turn at the bottom of the driveway and head home to make a start on this penitential act of reconciliation.

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