Uncle Reggie Stories: Pretty things can cause trouble: guilt and repentance, with or without the confessional room.
I was 7 or 8 years old when it happened. I saw a very pretty book that somehow attracted me tremendously. I’m sure it was the cover of the book that made me want it, badly. I told my mother about it, and she said no. I was very upset, but kept it really quiet. My parents gave me a very small allowance every week, and I managed to save and hide little amounts from the allowance. Then one day, I found out that I had saved enough money to buy the book myself. But, knowing fully that my mother did not approve, I secretly bought the book.
Photo 1: Children’s books are too pretty and tempting.
It was great fun reading the book without anybody knowing my secret. At least, that I knew of. Until, one day, my mother noticed the book, and challenged me. I tried to lie with some lame excuse, but I could feel my whole body change color, and I knew that the game was over. Guilt and shame overwhelmed me, and I can still remember the scene painfully. However, I was also relieved that I did not have to keep the awful secret any longer. Mom gave me a severe tongue-lashing about lying, I shed a lot of tears, but the resultant confession and repentance made me “scarred for life,” about the severe consequences of lying. Which was very good.
My parents did not physically lash out at me, for sins I had committed, but tongue-lashing was quite effective. Far more effective than nice encouraging words like, “you’re such a nice kid, you wouldn’t do it again, would you?” that some advocate today. I would have done it again, except for the stinging shameful experience of that day.
I was joking one day to my staff in the research laboratory, because they were working really hard. My senior assistant, Donna, was working especially hard, because she had a very keen sense of responsibility. I saw her working so intensely, that I specially complimented her. I joked with her that she was working like that because she felt guilty if she did not work so hard. She agreed with me, so, I made a perceptive comment to her, that “guilt is good!” To which, she agreed again (she’s a very agreeable person). If it were not for guilt, a lot of work would not be done well! Bosses in particular like that. Thank God for giving us a keen sense of guilt, I concluded.
Photo 2A: I didn’t realize you could write a book on “how to” for a confessional.
I lived for 47 years in the city of Cincinnati, which has a very strong Catholic tradition. We often say that Catholics have a very solid sense of guilt and shame, and a historic tradition especially of confession before their priest. Every 2 months we would bring a team of scholars from China to visit famous landmarks in Cincinnati. We would always visit at least one or 2 churches. Since Catholic churches seemed invariably the prettier churches, and there was always beautiful art work inside that I could use to explain faith issues, they were great places to visit. And I would always show the scholars the confessional room, since they might have seen it in movies in China. Repentance and penitence are great themes in the history of Christianity, and have strongly influenced the Western world for thousands of years, consciously or unconsciously, with or without the confessional room.
Photo 2B: Catholic confessional in Basilica cathedral, visited on regular China Scholars’ Cincinnati Cultural Tour. Photo by Amy Zhao, Cincinnati.
Today, we hear about the sequence of shame and guilt in a negative way, since some families seem to use it in a very harsh way to discipline, or even terrorize their children. I know of friends who felt that the sequence of shame and guilt, followed by harsh physical punishment, amounted to abuse, during a very vulnerable time of their lives. They often still bore their emotional scars even today. So, this issue of guilt can become distorted, and abuse indeed can have long term serious consequences.
I was once asked to be on a committee to investigate a charge of fraud for a very prestigious researcher in our institution. He was accused of publishing a paper that included nonexistent data. It wasn’t a lot of nonexistent data, but there was an unexplained gap in the data somehow. During the course of this investigation, the researcher was defensive, and tried to explain away the whole situation. However, it became clear that he could not explain away the gap. After one long difficult session, I sensed a change in the atmosphere. In my attempt to get at the truth, I asked him a very frank abrupt question, “Robert (not his real name), why did you do it?”
The reason I asked him this question was, subconsciously, I felt that his “game was up,” and we had all better get to a philosophical understanding of the situation, since in my view he had so “little to gain” from continuing to cover up this apparent fraud. He was already “king of the hill,” and this “little paper” was practically “inconsequential,” at least as just one more paper of 400 papers. And maybe deep down, I was hoping he would “confess,” so we could move on the next, hopefully “punishment,” and then “restorative,” steps. I had always been taught, in my own faith, that the final hoped for goal of any guilt investigation, was restoration, but it had to be preceded by confession and likely punishment to be truly just and effective, and I was certainly operating under that assumption.
For a brief moment, he was “caught”, and I could see that he was clearly ready now to answer truthfully….. he was about to say something…, but after a pause of a few awful seconds, he caught himself, and in a moment of pure pride and defensiveness, he shouted, “I never did anything wrong!” My attempt to get at the truth failed, the temperature froze in the room, and I could see that the game was indeed over.
The committee knew the truth, even though Robert couldn’t face it himself, and it was downhill thereafter. I am guessing, from the temperature of the room, that, before that outburst, the committee had been willing to hear his confession and any contrition, and even to think positively about some restoration after that. But, it was not to be. There was no confession, and no contrition. He was severely punished by the University, and the fall was precipitous, clearly from the highest heights of academia, to the lowest point possible. I could practically not believe the severity of the punishment, including removal of professorship and directorship, and barring from National Institutes of Health grants. Confession is good for the soul, but denial of the truth can bring harsh judgment.
One of the amazing things to me about the end of World War II was that the Germans were willing as a nation to confess and repent of their corporate horrendous atrocities. Even today, decades later, the Germans have generally gone to great lengths to show their genuine national repentance, and abhorrence of atrocities like the Jewish Holocaust. So that practically everyone in Europe knows that phase of history was tragic, but basically over. However, in Asia, one of the greatest scars that still remains is the ambiguous stance often shown by postwar Japanese leaders towards genuine confession and repentance. There is something practically “magical” about confession and repentance, without which scars often remain, and shadows are cast in strange and sometimes ominous ways over relationships.
There were 2 robbers crucified at the same time as Christ, on either side of him. You might remember the crucifixion scene is often shown as 3 crosses, and that is why. These 2 men were likely very evil robbers, since Roman crucifixion was reserved only for big time criminals. One of the robbers ridiculed Christ on the cross, even though Christ committed no crime, whereas he himself likely was deservedly there for terrible crimes. Even in his last moments, he had no intention of confessing and repenting, preferring to mock an innocent fellow being suffering together.
The other robber however tried to stop him ridiculing Christ, by reminding him of the reason why he was on the cross, while Christ was there unjustly. In fact, he then appealed to Christ, to remember him, the second robber, to which Christ made the very dramatic promise, that, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” This robber’s “deathbed confession” provides the precedent for which many people down the ages have been grateful, that they can have a last-minute chance before death, to confess and repent!
Photo 3: Two robbers on the cross, 2 choices. Some say something unfair happened that day: what was the real “unfairness”? That one could confess at the last moment, or one can reject God even then, or that God was crucified for us (sobering thought)?
Maybe you, and many others, think this robber got off easy, since he got to go to Paradise, and it’s “unfair.” But, remember, both robbers had the same chance. And other confessing people have a last chance also. The most “unfair thing” that happened that day, clearly wasn’t the grace given to one for his “last chance,” but that Christ, with no sin, had to die, “totally unfairly.” Christ however never declared it as “unfair.” Indeed, he claimed, remarkably, before this happened, 17 times in the records of the Disciples, that, He was going up to Jerusalem to die. And that the whole purpose of His coming to this world was to die for the “sins of the world.” Meaning, He clearly did it voluntarily, for you and for me, since everyone sins. I would think that is certainly amazingly “unfair,” but it happened, was recorded extensively, and is believed by 2 billion people. Why? Think about that for a minute. Why?
One of the greatest stories that Christ told was the well-known story of the prodigal son. Many cultures have a similar story, so it resonates well with many people down the ages. But the key point in the story was not just a wayward son and his return. When the young man had wasted his father’s money on evil purposes, he had the sense to confess and repent, and his return to a loving father is the basis, indeed the key point for Christ’s call to everyone to turn back to God. It is the eternal message of hope for everyone, that “home” is where we are supposed to be, returning back to a loving father who is constantly waiting for us to “return home.”
Photo 4: The prodigal son is a universal story, but the returning home part of the story is the best… a picture symbolizing repentance that leads to the great embrace by our loving father. The Prodigal Son (c. 1857), by Joseph Mozier (August 22, 1812 – October 3, 1870) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
We might not think we are a “prodigal son,” but according to Christ, we have all wandered far away from God, and need to “return home.” Confession and repentance trigger this return, and start us on that road to return home. At any time. Any time. Though, it would seem logical that the earlier, the better! No need to wait till the last moment, the last chance! Why wait?