Chateaubriand’s autobiography, Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb, evokes a series of times and places as various as the author’s life. But there is one episode which, while conjuring up something of Brittany around 1780, also expresses a perennial reality.
The schoolboy Chateaubriand is being prepared for his first confession by a severe-looking priest, “a man of fifty with a stern appearance” (in Robert Baldick’s translation). Having read a frightening book about the eternal fate of those who hide their sins in the confessional, the young lad grows unbearably anxious. When the day comes, he is shaking with fear and scarcely able to stammer out his sins. Then the priest prepares to say the words of absolution.
If Heaven had shot a thunderbolt at me, it would have caused me less dread. I cried:
“I have not confessed everything!”
This awe-inspiring judge, this delegate of the Supreme Arbiter, whose face filled me with such fear, became the tenderest of shepherds. He clasped me in his arms and burst into tears.
“Come now, dear child,” he said, “Courage!”
It was, Chateaubriand recalled, an instant of supreme happiness, like a mountain lifting from him: “I shall never experience a like moment in the whole of my life.”
Chateaubriand was never one to dial down the melodrama—but that was in part because he believed that emotions could hint at the truth. Sin is a terrible reality, but it need not define us forever, since any sin can be forgiven. God, whose judgments are so fearful, will not turn away a penitent. And the priest—stern judge and tender shepherd—is an image of God, more just than we can imagine, more merciful than we dare to hope.
People are always trying to simplify God in one direction or the other, toward inflexible justice or indulgent sentimentality. But when we find severity and mercy together, it has the authentic note. The child mystics of Fatima, for instance, were told of the most horrifying and the most consoling truths. Again, there are priests who are admired as “a lion in the pulpit, a lamb in the confessional.” The phrase puts me in mind of one particular priest who preaches of the dark ugliness of sin, but listens to your own transgressions with nothing but gentleness.
The hope of the confessional is that you are defined not only by your sins, but also by God’s mercy. As the idea of Christian repentance fades from the collective consciousness, this definition is thrown into doubt. When Brendan Cox, a British campaigner (and widower of the politician Jo Cox), who had become a media star, was accused of sexual harassment, he felt the need to say that his record “doesn’t necessarily mean I’m innately a bad person.” The ex-footballer Jamie Carragher, suspended from his TV presenting job last week for spitting at a man who had taunted him, said: “Hopefully, going forward, I feel I can show the real me—because I don’t think that’s a representation of me.”
In the pathos of these remarks, Cox and Rogers were trying to find a language that has begun to vanish along with the practice of confession. Celebrity culture builds people up as heroes, then destroys them for one mistake. Sin is either ignored or made to seem ineradicable.
If there is no remedy for sin, then sin becomes too grim to think about. This private repression leads to public overreaction. As Jon Ronson has observed, social media lynchings have a weird disproportion about them. “Who were the victims of my shamings?” Ronson wonders, looking back on his own former habit of tearing people apart online. “I could barely remember. I had only the vaguest recollection of who I’d piled into and what terrible thing they’d done to deserve it.”
These frenzies give victims no way out—each victim is simply this week’s scapegoat—and they give public figures an incentive to be shameless. It hasn’t always been like this. After King Henry II had St. Thomas Becket murdered, the sovereign was persuaded to confess his sins publicly, strip to the waist, and be beaten by dozens of monks. You might say he achieved closure.
For Chateaubriand, confession was both a reminder of uncomfortable truths and the remedy we are yearning for. “How divine this religion is,” he marvels, “which can thus take hold of our best instincts! What moral precepts can ever take the place of these Christian institutions?”
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.