Well over twenty years ago, I was seeing a counselor regularly for a few years. Young adult issues surfaced in my life with a roar: sex and relationships, family-of-origin issues, compulsions and self-destructive behavior, an unpleasant boss. Nothing life-threatening, but serious enough that I felt my quality of life spiraling away from me.
But I found a curious thing happened just by talking about my worries. Much of the attractive lure of my indulgences melted away as I gave voice to them. There was one particular issue that was a source of shame, but when I finally worked up the nerve to bring it to counseling, it seemed to lose much of its power over me. I had brought it to confession before, of course. But there was a different quality about it there. I felt forgiven sacramentally, naturally. But the glow never lasted. I didn’t feel as if I had really moved. It was like being covered in mud, then rinsing off when the rain came. When I looked around, I was spanking clean, but the mud was still all around me. It was easier to sit down and roll with it than to trek out of my surroundings and seek out higher ground.
The first two verses of Psalm 40 come to mind. It’s not enough to realize one is in a tight spot. One has to move. If need be, one can ask for assistance to move:
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
I’ve been enjoying my recent sojourn into Ignatian spirituality. It has been a fruitful combination of challenge and confirmation. I was struck recently by James Martin’s sharing of the value of having a spiritual director or spiritual friend. This is the person with whom one can speak of secret temptations and lures. Getting something out into the open, out into the light, makes it less powerful in one’s life. According to Saint Ignatius, this counters the enemy’s lure to the person as a false lover, one who urges that temptations remain secret. And in secrecy, they gain power over the believer.
This must be what happened to my friend Shawn Ratigan in his descent into child pornography. Pornography is no question a false lover. I can understand the need to keep it a deep secret. Even adults viewing adults in a context of vowed celibacy or marriage, and when brought into the light, one wants to ask simply, “Why?”
Under the guise of a good, the avoidance of scandal, Bishop Finn also got caught in the trap of the false lover. Much was concealed from people: the reason for the attempted suicide, the contents of the computer, the priest from his friends, parents from the suspicions, the full extent of the crime from police authorities, and even decisions which could have been easily, gladly, and wisely assisted by a close circle of circumspect advisors.
What’s the antidote here? Bring everything out into the open–all those negative feelings and temptations and urges to do wrong or to despair or to move away from God.
How often this happens in spiritual direction! Someone seems to be dancing around some uncomfortable topic, something he is afraid of revealing, precisely because he knows that once it’s out in the open he will be challenged to recognize how unhealthy it is.
Once it’s revealed, the unhealthy urge, decision, or tendency can be examined, healed, or rejected. When a young Jesuit is tempted to break his vows in any way, for example, he often suppresses the desire to talk about his struggles with his superior or his spiritual director, and the frustrations and fears and secrecy and problems only deepen.
This has certainly been true in my life. Looking back on my late twenties and early thirties, I see I was a muddy mess in a lot of ways. I had the opportunity for invaluable spiritual direction. Of course, I was afraid of mentioning how often I didn’t pray. A lot of wasted time, it would seem.
But today, I’m tempted to focus more on the present, and not so much, “If only I knew what I was doing!” (Likely that when I reach age seventy, I’ll look back on today with a similar lament.)
I think there is a place for a person’s good sense to guide the revelation of secrets. For me, I talk with my wife often, and I try mightily to discuss my small mud puddles before they become desolate pits and miry bogs. I value the setting of the sacrament of marriage. For my wife and I, we often speak in our shared trials as being each other’s ticket to sainthood. It used to be something of a jest between us. As we grow older, I think it has developed a much more serious tone. A good thing, to be sure.