Shriven is not a word we're accustomed to hearing today. It's particularly Catholic and it means to be absolved of wrongdoing, to have confessed one's sins. I can speak from experience, I've never felt lighter than after being shriven and I'm of the firm belief that whether we know it or not, we all need and desire that feeling.
Yesterday, I came across this relevant quote from Archbishop Fulton Sheen:
“A few decades ago, nobody believed in the confession of sins except the Church. Today everyone believes in confession – with this difference: some believe in confessing their own sins; others believe in confessing other people’s sins. The popularity of psychoanalysis has nearly convinced everyone of the necessity of some kind of confession for peace of mind. This is another instance of how the world, which threw Christian truths into the wastebasket in the nineteenth century, is pulling them out in isolated secularized form in the twentieth century, meanwhile deluding itself into believing that it has made a great discovery. The world found it could not get along without some release for its inner unhappiness. Once it had rejected confession and denied both God and guilt, it had to find a substitute.”
Google the phrase anonymous confession and you'll get over 7 million results. The need to confess is real and the Church offers the real thing, with the priest acting in the person of Christ, offering absolution and forgiveness yet... we seek subsitutes:
Sure, other things come into play now and again: the need to earn money, or… Actually, no, that's it. But my prime motivating force, the engine that powers all else, is guilt. You don't have to be Catholic, of course, to suffer the same fate (though if my anecdotal evidence gleaned from nearly four decades' membership of a family of mentally-convulsing freaks is anything to go by, it does help). It's a temperamental thing. And for those of us who are daily wearied by the ever-accumulating burden it brings, the idea of having somewhere to go every Sunday to be absolved of all your sins (perceived and unperceived, just in case you overlooked something – what catch-all bliss!); and being ascribed a penance has a charm all its own. Just once, I'd like to feel fully shriven, like the bedragoned Eustace in The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader, after Aslan scores through his scaly hide and tears it off to leave him standing there "smooth and soft as a peeled switch", and free.
We need to develop a secular alternative. "I can see it now," Toryboy says – and I won't lie (can you imagine the internal contortions if I did?), there is something faintly contemptuous about his tone. "Queues of liberals outside a recycled cardboard confessional in a community centre. 'Forgive me, Father/Mother/Caregiver of either or indeterminate gender, for when somebody made a joke at my dinner table about immigrants, I did not fully ascertain that it was meant meta-ironically before I laughed; nor did I later offset the carbon I emitted while doing so.' 'Write four articles on intersectionality and walk to Waitrose with organic peas in your shoes, while checking your privilege as penance,' your soggy, proportionally represented elected excuse for a father confessor will say. 'And forgive me for being in a position to forgive you.' God almighty. Who art in heaven, actually, and is much better."
You would think that being an atheist would be liberating, but in fact it doesn't make sense. If you believe that there is no god, and that religion is an agglomeration of useful traditions and practices that has evolved to manage our desires and fears, then paralysing panic when these are stripped from you by the rational parts of your brain are entirely logical responses.
"All you need is someone bigger to shout loudly at you," Toryboy says. "Which works out very well for me." I hope he's right. Then maybe the only thing I'll feel bad about is the fact that I don't feel worse.
I find it incredible sad that people I know and love, and so many more whom I know not like the author of that piece, settle for substitutes when they feel the need to be fully shriven.
Unhappiness seeking relief but looking in all the wrong places for it.