It was a bad sign when several jolly-looking priests got into a car and pulled out of the car park on the Saturday before Christmas. But I ignored the signs and went into the church to wait for 8:15 confessions. Inside, the atmosphere began hopefully and then trailed away into resignation, as folks slowly acknowledged that the priests would have been there for the Office and then for Mass if they were ever going to show up for confessions. The clergy were having an away-day and all bets were off. I went to one of Chicago’s finest Irish markets and purchased Irish sausages and bacon, loaves of fruit bread, scones, a Christmas cake, ox-tails for soup, and of course several deep drums of loose tea. It was not the consolation of the confessional, but it made the return journey to South Bend feel less fruitless.

Then, with an impending operation that would tie me to the house until the New Year, I had to shut my face against a litany of exhortations to get to unobtainable confessionals before Christmas. With my foot iced and elevated, I was watching the world go past on social media, and the world seemed to be streaming into confessionals and coming out shriven and theologically gruntled. It did not warm the cockles of my heart when my friend Rachel Lu popped up in my feed to point out that, to her, the best explanation of the profound and repeated confessional experience of transformation is in fact “the efficacy of the sacraments.” The post-confessional taste of forgiveness is in fact as immediate and undeniable as sausages, eggs, and bacon knocked back with a strong cup of tea. Irritated by my own thwarted appetite, I took several days to echo my young friend’s perception.

I wrote, “Feeling great after confession is probably the most widespread experience in Catholicism, a religion not founded on religious experience as such.” Being a philosopher, Rachel was interested in how that observation runs counter to the legend of “Catholic guilt”: In fact, as she smartly pointed out, the most widespread Catholic feeling is not so much guilt as forgiveness! To me, a theologian, what is interesting is that, though people think of the more anarchical forms of Protestantism as being founded on experience, here at the heart of Catholicism, impelling people to believe that their faith is anchored in Truth, is an experience—the experience of active and personal grace. It is an experience that is very little explored or plumbed. Priests are not the only ones who are in reality bound by the seal of the confessional. Confession-goers are naturally shy about proclaiming how terrific they feel after confessing to adulteries, thefts, and simple detestation of their office mates, spouses, sprogs, and neighbors.

Many theologians, including St. Thomas Aquinas, argue that the Eucharist is the empress and epitome of all the sacraments. Hans Urs von Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr stand out in maintaining that “penance,” the sacrament of reconciliation, is the nerve-center or headquarters of the seven sacraments. It seems an odd choice. Maybe they made it because of the experiential and yet objective quality of confession. It’s all contestable, of course, but Catholics do not seem, in general, to experience a tremendous personal encounter when they receive the body and blood of our Lord. The reception of the Eucharist is rightly at the center of all believing Catholics’ lives, but participation in the Eucharist is more of an objective advent of grace than a vehicle of experienced grace.

I don’t know who is right, Thomas or von Balthasar and von Speyr. But the odd preference for penance does call for a deeper phenomenology of confession than theologians have yet put their minds to. That means an analysis of what kind of experience it is. It means an analysis that is philosophical but ultimately theological, acknowledging that the penitent does not reconcile himself to God, but is, rather, overpowered by grace, and that this is what makes the experience so convincing.

Experiences are not all simply “subjective” or private. There are subjectively subjective experiences, like dreaming in one’s sleep.  Here the experience is not guided by anything objective: Unless the dreamer is a prophet, the dreaming happens “inside” his brain without correlating or shadowing anything external to his synaptic processes. “Inside of a dog,” as Mark Twain sagely observed, “it’s too dark to read,” and the inside of the subjectively subjective experience has no outside to speak of. But not all experiences are too dark to read. Most of our conscious waking experiences are sunlit, and in some kind of relationship with objects and ideas. Much of our conscious experience is “subjectively objective,” or guided and shaped by external things: Sausage-eating experiences are shaped by sausages, and driving-to-church experiences are mediated through the car and structured by the road. In a third category are experiences not just structured by their objects but driven by them. These are objective-subjective, and the actual experience is of displacement and re-orientation—for instance, falling off a roof or through a hole in the floor, or being swept away by a wave.

These break-taking experiences include repentance, or what Jews call tshuva. Rabbinic exegesis of the Book of Jonah treats “tshuva” as a double entendre: It is his turning around, re-turning to his task in Nineveh, and it is his interior conversion. Tshuva is the experience of “turning” Jonah underwent when he returned from his flight from God and set his face back to Nineveh. Tshuva is not just deciding to turn around or consenting to repent, but being over-thrown and over-powered into turning in a new direction. Though the confessional holds its secrets, this is, I suspect, the common actual experience of the sacrament: a subjective experience of being objectively re-ordered and turned around in one’s spiritual bearing and moral direction. Never in any ordinary, non-mystical believer’s life is there a deeper experience of being gripped and converted, as Jonah turned around and returned to his mission.

Francesca Aran Murphy is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. She is writing a fortnightly blog on religion. 

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