[Jesus] said to the paralysed man, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven.’ …. He turned to the paralysed man [and said] ‘I say to you, stand up, take your bed, and go home.’ Mark 2 vv1-12
This story about Jesus is a miracle story, and it’s not going too far to say that our ability to help each other to put the past behind us so that we can stand up and walk can indeed feel pretty miraculous. The past can paralyse our ability to live full lives because instead of valuing and enjoying what the past has given us, whatever that may be, we sometimes wish the past had been different. We wonder what the present may have been like if the past had been different. We wind back to crucial moments in our lives and in imagination behave differently. And because of course no amount of wishing, wondering, and winding back can make the past any different from what in fact it was, these are fruitless activities; they can consume our present and blight our future. Somehow we need to put the past behind us. This isn’t always as easy as it sounds, particularly if we find it difficult to feel positive about some of what the past has left us with. While we may need to understand our past, we also need to be unburdened of it. We need to stand up and walk.
It would, perhaps, be nice to think that this is something we could do by ourselves, but that’s not at all easy to do, and any success we had would deprive us of the opportunity to come close to another person by giving them the chance to help us. We talk a lot but we rarely – in my experience at least – talk frankly with our friends about what paralyses us. Even when we do, the response is often not particularly helpful, because many of us don’t know how to respond, and resort to platitudes or to giving advice about what to do. Yet simply giving a friend time to unburden themselves, without ourselves saying very much, is sometimes all that’s needed. Just listen. Wait attentively through the silences. Then listen again. Occasionally acknowledge the feelings being expressed and show you really are listening by putting what you have heard into your own words. Rarely if ever use expressions like ‘I know how you feel’ or ‘What you should do is …’. And when, having listened hard for as long as your friend needs you to, the time comes for you to say something substantive, remember that what this is all about is absolution.
Unfortunately, the church’s traditional ideas about absolution are tied to ‘sin’, generally understood as the breaking of divine rules. But it’s not only or even mostly the ‘sins’ we have committed that we may need to be unburdened of. There are the opportunities we have missed. There are the things other people did or didn’t do that affected our lives for what we think was the worse. There are the natural or chance calamities that changed the course of our lives. The memory of all of these can weigh us down quite as much as any feelings of guilt we may justifiably have for our ‘sins’; the burden of them can be intolerable, and until we are unburdened of all of them we can’t stand up and walk. Happily, other aspects of the church’s traditional teaching are much more valuable. Obviously, as the ‘seal of the confessional’ idea implies, when friends unburden themselves to us, we need to respect their confidence and never gossip about what we’ve been told. Perhaps even more important is the idea that releasing someone from the burdens that the past has left them with is not something that can be achieved by anyone else; we each have to unburden ourselves. Of course the person to whom we unburden ourselves may have some very important words of reassurance to give us – they can ‘pronounce absolution’ – but the words will have no effect unless we have first unburdened ourselves, or, as church teaching puts it, unless we have first ‘been to confession’, meaning here something much richer than finding ‘sins’ for which we can express ‘repentance’, for, as I have said, most of us have much more to admit to than simply sins.
There is something else that is very important that only we can do for ourselves, and this too is reflected in parts of church practice. When someone is feeling the burden of their past, it really won’t help very much if someone else tries to cheer them up by pointing out all the things they ‘ought’ to be grateful for. A nineteenth century hymn urges us to ‘Count our blessings, name them one by one’; it is excellent advice for us all to take to heart. I once knew an elderly widow who carefully wrote down in a notebook all the small things in her everyday life that made her happy: a visit from a friend, a pleasant phone call, a gift, a postcard; she did this so that she could, literally, ‘count her blessings’ whenever she felt burdened. We human beings can be quite perverse: we want to be happy; it is our blessings that make us happy; yet we have a tendency to concentrate on our burdens rather than our blessings. Part of combating that perversity is unburdening ourselves; its corollary is counting our blessings. That no doubt is why church liturgies include prayers of thanksgiving as well as confessions; they go together.
Words like ‘confession’, ‘repentance’, ‘absolution’ and ‘thanksgiving’ have a very churchy feel to them, and if we don’t feel comfortable in a churchy atmosphere it’s all too easy for us to abandon not only the words but also the valuable ideas and practices behind them. However secular we may be in our thinking, we are all likely from time to time to need both to unburden ourselves to someone else and to systematically remember the good things about our lives. In freeing ourselves from the churchy trappings of religion it would be more than unfortunate if we overlooked the fact that they can sometimes both convey yet also obscure ideas and practices that could be of real use to us. But the equal and opposite danger is that religious people may value the familiar rituals and comfortable words and yet fail to discover within them genuinely valuable tools for living.