Monday, November 4, 2013

Salvaging Sacraments

I'm a recovering Catholic. Although I don't believe in God and don't attend Mass except on rare occasion for the purpose of singing, I miss the Sacraments dearly, and in particular I miss the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

I get that Confession seems kinda weird at first blush. You're telling someone who may or may not be a total stranger about all of the bad things you did, highly personal and otherwise, possibly in great detail, in order to receive imaginary forgiveness from an imaginary god, and then you're letting the stranger dole out a punishment that might not be at all related to your actual sins. I can understand why that would appear creepy, pointless, and horribly unpleasant, perhaps even to a pseudo-Catholic let alone to an atheist and total outsider.

Let me see if I can explain why anyone would ever be motivated to go to Confession out of something besides obligation or fear of damnation. Catholics often say that the Sacraments are "outward signs of inward grace". When I was little, coming to understand (some of) what they meant by that had a pretty profound effect. Abstract ideas like contrition, forgiveness, devotion, and faith are invisible and elusive. It's not always easy to get your brain around them enough for them to impact your daily life.

It's a bit like when you genuinely believe that it's a good idea to learn calculus, but "calculus" feels like such a murky, distant, impenetrable concept that you're not sure how to do anything about it. Sacraments are concrete symbols for abstract ideas and events that help you get a handle on similarly murky things like your relationship with God.

If I made a Catholic-style sacramental rite out of calculus, it would go something like this.

  1. Recite: "Mathematics is vast and immaculate. My understanding is meager and flawed. May studying the Calculus one day unite me with Mathematical perfection. Amen."
  2. Open a Calculus textbook. Read a section. Do the exercises. Reflect on what I do and don't understand, what I could have done better, and what flaws in my pre-existing understanding are preventing me from progressing further.
  3. State my current understanding of what I read to a professor. Show them my exercises. Listen to their feedback. 
  4. The professor recites: "Mathematics is vast and immaculate. May your understanding advance toward perfection. In the name of the Calculus, I grant you your next assignment." (I receive the assignment.)
Reconciliation is similar.

  1. Examine my conscience. Call to mind the sins I've committed, and reflect on them.
  2. Recite (something along the lines of): "Most merciful God, I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done, and by what I have left undone. I have not loved you with my whole heart; I have not loved my neighbors as myself. I am truly sorry, and I humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on me and forgive me; that I may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen."
  3. Go to a priest and tell him what I've done wrong. Maybe talk to him about it a bit so I better understand why I did what I did and why I am sorry.
  4. The priest says, "Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life." Then he assigns a penance, an actionable plan for atonement, and I carry it out.
Inasmuch as reconciliation can have positive effects--and I think it can(1)--what we're dealing with here is a sort of urge propagation.

Through concrete actions and carefully designed rituals, you are forcing yourself to encounter something you'd rather flinch away from, and you're grappling with it right now instead of leaving your future selves to endure a vague and undirected sense of guilt over mistakes you don't even think about let alone correct. Religious or not, nobody benefits from ignoring problems that need solving, and nobody's as good at allowing abstract ideas like "being a good person" to transform their day-to-day lives as they are at making incremental improvements via specific actions (though those actions may be motivated by abstract ideas). Lofty resolutions are not effective without well-designed mechanisms of action, and rituals are awesome at being that.

I don't think you'd need to change much to salvage the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Try this, and see how it goes. (And if you do try it, tell me how it went.)
  1. Pick a regular time to think about what mistakes you made that week.
  2. Write them down. Consider why each was a mistake, and why you made it. For the most important ones, think of plans for mitigating or repairing the damage if possible, and for preventing the mistake in the future.
  3. If you know someone who would be willing to help you with this, tell them some of your thoughts, and request advice for improving your plans. If you're the sort of person who's likely to benefit from it, choose a highly respected mentor instead of a peer. Make sure you know precisely what specific action to take next for each mistake you want to address. (This is something like, "This evening, ask Cathy whether what I said hurt her, and actually listen to what she has to say about it." It is not something like, "Be nicer to Cathy.")
  4. Take the actions on your list. After each action, punch the air and shout "VICTORY!" When your whole list is done, call up your friend so they can tell you YAY!

What other parts of life might be improved by secular rituals?
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1) Don't get me wrong; I'm aware that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is harmful overall--as are all the Sacraments--since it propagates and reinforces a destructive memeplex. And probably for other reasons.

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