I’ve always loved Woody Allen films because I always identified—more than I’d like to admit—with Allen’s neuroses, anxieties, and performed guilt. There’s a memorable and witty exchange on guilt between Allen and Mia Farrow in Broadway Danny Rose. “Who’s got time for guilt?” Farrow exclaims. A flummoxed Allen responds: “What are you talking about? Guilt is important! It’s important to feel guilty, otherwise you…you know, you’re capable of terrible things. You know. It’s very important to be guilty—I’m guilty all the time and I never did anything, you know. My rabbi, Rabbi Perlstein, used to say we’re all guilty in the eyes of God.” Farrow replies skeptically: “You believe in God?” Allen delivers the punchline: “No, no, but I’m guilty over it.”
Allen, of course, draws on the famed store of “Jewish guilt.” There’s no equivalent notion of “Evangelical guilt,” but you’d never guess that from my childhood. I was in perpetual spirals of guilt. At the end of the day, I couldn’t even say why I felt guilty—I just was. Years later, after I’d done plenty to actually feel guilty for (usually in an attempt to self-medicate away that persistent, floating sense of guilt), I told my mother: “You know, I felt guilty even before I’d even done anything to feel guilty for.” I left Evangelicalism behind, but quickly replaced religious guilt with “liberal guilt.” I felt guilty about white privilege, about drinking non-fair trade Starbuck’s coffee, I even felt guilty about my own self-indulgence in liberal guilt! Not that any of this did much to substantively change what I did everyday. Guilt was useless but it was also omnipresent—the most I could do was to sally on in spite of it.
When I began to tell my friends that I was considering converting to Catholicism, many—especially lapsed Catholics—responded with: “But…but…’Catholic guilt’!?!?!” Frankly, I always thought that my persistent guilt made Catholicism a good match. It’s better to be able to throw up your hands and proclaim “Catholic guilt!” than to be stuck with a guilt you can’t account for. But Catholicism also appealed to me for another reason. Unlike the religion of my youth and unlike my secular progressivism, Catholicism offered something alongside its famed guilt: a ritual for its expiation. I’d long envied Catholics their confessionals. When I was a freshman in college, I longed to find someone to whom I could tell every single bad thing that I’d done or thought. Someone who, after I’d laid all my cards on the table, would still want to associate with me. This, so far as I could tell, was what a priest was. The person who knew every shitty thing you’d done but would still make eye contact with you.
Because I was baptized at the same time that I was received into the Catholic Church, I didn’t actually have to go to confession prior to becoming Catholic. However, a couple of weeks ago, I finally made my first visit. I’d planned to go about a month after my reception into the Church just to experience it before I had anything really awful to confess. However, it so happened that I did manage to do something that made me feel really guilty before I went. The guilt was much like what I’d felt in relationships when I knew that I’d really fucked up: Everything is broken, I thought. That’s it. Accompanying that revelation was a deep sorrow—a contrition, to use the Catholic term. But, this time, there was something different: my sin had made me feel far from God, but my sorrow over the loss of closeness to God already seemed to be drawing me back towards Him. I began to appreciate what my relationship to God had been—what the closeness to Him had been like—through the experience of its absence and of its loss. And I think what allowed for that turn was the realization that I could go to confession and be reconciled to God and the Church. Guilt was not an end in itself nor a punishment that must be dutifully endured nor a mood that had to be self-medicated away but was part of a journey. “We can learn from sin,” my priest told me, once I met with him and made my first confession. Not that sin is itself good—of course it is not—but through the experience of failure we can discover a sort of grace through a new knowledge of ourselves and a greater understanding of what is really important. “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone” tends to be a recipe for fatalistic tragedy, but the possibility of loving and losing and yet finding that love again is where hope lies. In confession, I found not simply the expiation of guilt but also its redemption. Confession was the “end” of guilt in both meanings of the term. It brought it to its conclusion but it also illuminated its ultimate purpose.