What does a person need to be emotionally healthy?
I put that question to a psychologist friend of mine at lunch some years ago.
She replied there was no simple answer, but that as a platform for emotional health and wellness, we all need to feel loved, understood, and accepted for who we are.
Driving home I got to thinking about that response and how perfectly it illustrates the truth of St. Augustine’s assertion that God has made us for himself and our hearts are restless until they rest in him.
If we think about it, none of those drives so fundamental to our sense of security and well-being can be fully met by anyone: not even the people we most love.
Parents, friends, siblings, mentors, spouses, children. All these human loves enrich our lives and are genuine gifts of God to us. Yet no relationship, be it ever so intimate, is devoid of the sour notes of selfishness, misunderstanding and disappointment.
In fact, to look to any human person –even a spouse—to fulfill all our desires for happiness is a recipe for making both ourselves and the other guy miserable. Nobody can possibly live up to the expectation: make me happy. The one who expects so much is always hurt and the other person chokes under the burden of projected disappointment.
Our loved ones understand us: to a point. Since we are mysteries even to ourselves, however (Why did I say that? Why did I do that? Why am I in the mood for spaghetti and not chicken today?), we never fully “master” another person. A loving relationship can thus always be fresh and new; it also means we sometimes feel “alone” even with people we love.
Acceptance for who we are might be the hardest emotional need to come by, simply because we try to mask our worst qualities. We try not to show our tempers, our pettiness, the ugly sides of ourselves. Who among us doesn’t fear, deep down, that “if he knew what I was really like, he wouldn’t love me anymore?”
This is why I think the sacrament of Confession is one of the most intimate experiences we ever have this side of eternity. The human person longs to be fully known, and yet fears it as well. What do we do in Confession? Kneel down and speak the fullness of who we are, all the fears and littleness and blight. The mask is dropped and what do we receive? Mercy. Love. Understanding. Acceptance for who we are.
The Pope made just this point in a recent address to priests about the importance of their role as Confessors: “In our time, marked by noise, distraction and loneliness, the penitent's conversation with the confessor can be one of the few - if not the only - opportunities to be truly heard in depth.”
We approach the confessional to be forgiven, but if it’s been awhile, we may be overly focused on the humiliation of speaking our sins and fear of the rebukes we expect to hear.
Your confessor may instruct you on some element of Church teaching, but poor is the priest who would ever yell at you. As the Pope points out in that same lecture, nothing is as encouraging and enlightening for the priest’s own faith than the experience of witnessing the thing that makes angels rejoice as nothing else can: a sinner’s restoration to grace and sonship.
We often talk about having a “personal relationship with Christ.” Few things can jump-start that personal encounter like the experience of his love and mercy in the confessional. It is there that we discover not the generic Savior of The World, but MY Savior: the one who has forgiven me.
There is no way to prevent the heart from leaping up in love for so good a God after such an experience. As the Holy Father says, “Let us not forget how many conversions and how many truly holy lives began in a confessional!”
This is because Confession is not a holy spanking or rebuke. It’s a moment of being truly and fully who we are: and of finding a moment of genuine rest and joy: a little foretaste of heaven.