Because I Can’t Help Myself

I’m a small-time book publisher, and though I haven’t done the hard research, I’m pretty sure that if you look at the history of the trade, do-it-yourself books peaked before self-help books. The first told my father’s generation how to fix a leaky faucet. The second told my generation how to feed a hungry heart. Late in my own life, with my father gone, I am more convinced than ever that his generation (WWII) was great, mine (Boomers) second-rate. Pretty much everything you need to know about us is in those books.

My father never had much truck with self-help or psychotherapy (long story), but I’m sure that if he had been a Catholic, instead of a stauch Episcopalian, he would have gone to confession regularly. He believed in doing things right; he believed in authority; and, while a strong man of some certainty, he did not believe that he knew it all.

In fact, when I told my father I was converting to Catholicism, he moved in five minutes from astonishment to confession, telling me, “There are a couple of things in my life that I have always been deeply ashamed of.” He made it clear that he had never told anyone of these things, not even my mother, who was sitting by his side and listening along with me.

I think my father told us this because he associated Catholicism with confession and secretly hungered for it. I’m sure that if he had gone to confession, Dad would not have questioned the methodology or the priesthood. Behind the screen or face-to-face? Whatever you tell me to do, Father. Good confession? I’ll do my best. Lead these men and take that enemy position? Yes, sir. 

My generation decided somewhere along the way that it didn’t need authority. Which is completely delusional, of course, since we are famous for falling for every single latest fad, from diets to self-help regimens. We hunger for authority, we just don’t admit it. We’ll fall for the Maharishi, then Werner Erhard, then Deepak Chopra, then God Knows Who Next, but we don’t need priests, we don’t need the apostolate, we don’t need any intermediaries between us and God. We can find God on our own, thank you very much. Don’t even need GPS.

The above reflections follow a day of comments on my second post about confession this week. You can read the whole exchange here. What draws my attention is this:

I’ve never gotten anything from confession with a priest that came close to what I’ve gotten from God. I guess I will never understand desiring all these intermediaries, these layers, these mortal substitutes for the real thing. Once you’ve tasted the real thing, you don’t want anything else—you can’t want anything else. Nothing less than God will do.

So there’s the question: Why do we need intermediaries?

Because in the end we can’t help ourselves. Think about it. This is even what you say sometimes to the priest (or to yourself) when he asks, “Why do you keep falling into this sin? Why do you keep making this mistake?” Because, Father, I can’t help myself. 

Turning our hearts around, the real meaning of repentance, is a big big job. Every year, the Church gives us a whole 46-day period from Ash Wednesday to Easter to call us back to repentance. That’s a long time, with many prayers and sacraments, including confession, hopefully. We need all the help we can get, seems to be the message.

Why do we need intermediaries?

Because here it is Lent again, and the same job of repentance is staring me in the face. Bless me, Father, for I too have sinned.

  • EPG

    Webster wrote (in part): "My generation decided somewhere along the way that it didn’t need authority. Which is completely delusional, of course, since we are famous for falling for every single latest fad, from diets to self-help regimens."Those of us who are (with Frank) reading "Mere Christianity" can point to C.S. Lewis's words about authority, and the extent to which we rely on authority for most of our knowledge. Lewis accepted on authority the fact that New York City existed. He had no alternative, he had never been there. I accept on authority accounts of the American Revolution, the attribution of a piece of music called "Messiah" to one G.F. Handel, and the existence of the cathedral at Chartres, among many other things. One problem in our current culture is a professed mistrust of authority, except when that authority confirms our previously held prejudices, whims and fancies. Thus, anti-Obama "birthers," rely on theories spun on websites which they cite as authority, ignoring evidence and arguments from other sources. I have a relative who, convinced of the link between certain vaccines and autism, cites various websites supporting her theories as authority, and rejects the publications of the American Academy of Pediatrics on the subject. In the religious sphere, many want a religion of affirmation, not of transformation. They want reconciliation on their terms, and not true repentance. Instead of recognizing their faults, they have placed God in the dock (to borrow a phrase from Lewis). I share that problem with authority (I'm a little younger than Webster, and, depending on where you draw the line, at the tail end of the Boomers or among the first of "Generation X"). And I'm not yet convinced of the reliability of the authority asserted by the Catholic Church (which is YIM not[yet]Catholic. Yet one of the reasons I have become disengaged from North American Anglicanism is a growing recognition that, as humans, we constantly rely on authority. If we are honest, we also have to recognize that authority might not always tell us exactly what we want to hear.


    I just returned from a beautiful liturgy cum ashes where the priest reminded us that the purpose of Lent is really threefold: Prayer(to grow closer in our relationship with Jesus and to pray for others), fasting(to include corporal works of mercy), and reconciliation/confession. He also remarked that 'Without Advent there would be no reason for Lent…that the two seasons are inextricably linked.') This Lent I will try to focus on the three aspects of the season. May I ask my fellow YIMC readers to join me in so doing?Pax Christi.

  • Sharon

    Yes. We can't help ourselves, we can't do it without God…But that still doesn't explain the _necessity_ of intermediaries. Why not go to God directly? And how is choosing God's authority over man's authority rejecting authority?Maybe it's more satisfying or helpful for some people to want something tangible, a physical person who will listen and respond, but that's still no substitute for God. The danger, too, is that the confessor becomes a substitute for God, and that the penitent might get a little too comfortable by choosing "the easy priest" (or the deaf priest, the senile priest, the foreign-language priest — anyone who went to Catholic prep. school knows the deal) and then thinking they've done their duty, they've followed the rules, they're good go go, without ever bringing God into their confession. For me (but maybe not for you), intermediaries create layers, create distance, create doubt, distrust, cynicism. That's the problem with intermediaries — even the well-meaning ones (oh, dear God, spare us all from the good intentions of others…/eyeroll) get it wrong, and when they do, when they're sitting in for God and getting it wrong, they are in danger of doing a tremendous amount of harm, irreparable harm, even.It's not "self-help" to rely on God, btw. God is real.

  • Webster Bull

    Sharon, Glad to see you pop up today! You're still with us!God is real, yes. But until Jesus Christ was born, God was also invisible (except to Moses, sort of) and inaudible (except to a few prophets). Jesus brought God to us, because he was and is God, and then Jesus left us. And what he left us is that system of intermediaries that you find so troubling. I need these intermediares. I can't do it alone, which is what this post tried to say in a roundabout way. You, Sharon, may see and hear God. I, Webster, am like one of the ancient Hebrews, who could not. God is mediated to us through Jesus Christ in the present-day form of the Church and the Sacraments, including Confession. That's how I understand it. That's the best I can do. God be with you.

  • Wine in the Water

    Sharon,We need them because we cannot do it on our own. If we could just go to God, God would not have had to come to earth Himself to come to us. If we did not need Confession, Jesus would not have given the Apostles the authority to forgive sins – something the Jews of the time very clearly understood to be something that only God had the authority to do – He would have just told them to do no more than exhort the people to repentance. If we did not need earthly pastors, Jesus would not have commanded Peter to feed His lambs, to take care of His sheep, to feed His sheep.I think it really is a fundamental matter of perspective. These things do not separate, they bridge. If we could reliably bridge the gap between ourselves and God on our own, He would not have built all of these bridges.

  • EPG

    Sharon For me, the turning point was recognizing that our knowledge of the historic claims of Christianity comes from authority — Scripture and Tradition. Without some reliance on authority, whatever we know of God comes from either the working out of our own intuition, or some claim to direct revelation. We probably would do well to at least have sufficient doubts about our own infallibility to test our intuitions and reasoning against something else — if only to be sure that our own perceptions of God aren't merely our own constructs. As for direct revelation, I suspect it is vanishingly rare, and am certain that it also needs to be tested against some authority to separate wheat from chaff. (For example, I reject Joseph Smith's claim to direct revelation, and hence his claim to authority, in part by testing his claims (and those of the Latter Day Saints regarding him) against other authority.)

  • Anonymous

    It's a mistake to add Werner Erhard into this. His work is in no way spiritual, ecumenical, reglious or about faith, yet he has coached numerous members of various ministries and established a non-profit Mastery Fondation for their work (not his) for that

  • Webster Bull

    Anonymous 1:39, I don't think I called Werner Erhard spiritual. I think I called him symptomatic of our falling for fads. Which given the number of "new paradigms" he has "created" since est in the early 1970s is, I think, a fair assessment. I quote from WE's own web site:"Werner Erhard continues to develop methodologies that provide individuals and organizations with the means to design new contexts and paradigms – allowing them to think more independently and creatively, and to take more effective action."My impression is (and it's only my impression), if you keep making it up as you go along you can continue to "design new contexts and paradigms." Which can make the truth slippery. From WE's Wiki entry: Charlotte Faltermayer in “The Best of est?” in Time Magazine, March 16, 1998, reported on allegations made in a 60 Minutes segment on Werner Erhard that "was filled with so many factual discrepancies that the transcript was made unavailable with this disclaimer: 'This segment has been deleted at the request of CBS News for legal or copyright reasons.'"

  • Mary P.

    Hi Sharon,I'm glad you're back too. Do you know why? Because if you weren't interested in staying with the Church, then why are you asking these questions? I don't think you're doing it to show us, collectively, why we're "unenlightened," so to speak. If I'm all wet, then please feel free to disregard. I don't know how you've been hurt, and I don't need to know. I also don't know if any insight of mine will help you. If I'm all wet, then please feel free to disregard. "But that still doesn't explain the _necessity_ of intermediaries." Well as Webster said, most of us are not looking for intermediaries. We pray, and those of us with strong faith feel we are heard by God himself. But how do we know if we're following God's will? How do we know if we can do/be better? The clergy and the Church are not the telephone wire, with God, miles away, on the other end. The Church is there to guide us, to help us to become closer to Him. Most of us find the Church and clergy irreplaceable and invaluable for what they offer us. But again, if we pray, we have a direct line. Unless you're hearing back from God personally, and I'm not saying it hasn't happened, then this might be useful to you."Maybe it's more satisfying or helpful for some people to want something tangible, a physical person who will listen and respond, but that's still no substitute for God." None of us is looking for, or would consider, a substitute for God. I, personally, found it difficult to confess to another "human." But when the man on the other end is there on God's behalf, I've come to the conclusion that it is my pride and mistrust that, for a long time, made me uncomfortable in confession. Since I've acknowledged that I have to make myself vulnerable, to the priest as well as to God in confession, I have no problem with it, even face to face."For me (but maybe not for you), intermediaries create layers, create distance, create doubt, distrust, cynicism." Well, this is coming through loud and clear. The question is, is there any way for you to rebuild the trust that was lost for you? In other words, are you open to improving your relationship with the Church, and allow the Church to help you strengthen your relationship with God? It is clear that you have a firm foundation with God. That's great! But what about the other sacraments? Is the Eucharist truly the body and blood of Christ? You don't have to answer, this is just food for thought.Again, I am in awe of the wisdom offered on these posts. I applaud EPG's post, as I do think many are looking for a "religion" that agrees with them. That's always seemed so backwards to me. Are our own ideas really so much better than the Church, which has evolved over thousands of years? Has the Church nothing to offer for you? Or are you willing to take a risk and possibly grow closer to God by being a part of it? Better yet, can you help the Church, and other church members, by becoming more active in it? Would you be willing to consider that?

  • Mary P.

    Oops, I didn't mean to say it is better to help the Church than be close to God! My bad!

  • cathyf

    An interesting help on the Jesuit Examen: Rummaging for God: Praying Backwards through Your Day. I've found this to be pretty challenging…

  • Warren Jewell

    It is ironic, and as usual, a paradox of revelation, that Christ didn't preach to the crowds "You come to these guys of Mine". He told "His guys" to do this and that that the Gospel be given to all, that all may be saved. He made them responsible for being the channels of His graces, and through His Church, that He saves us.Their authority was imposed upon them, not ordered on the supposedly subordinate laity. They are intermediaries because Christ ordered them to be. It is why He gave them the tools like the Mass and the Sacraments. They would need them. We would need them through their mediation that so involves them that each priest is 'another Christ'.They cannot duck this ordination 'bullet', and neither can we because nothing Christ said gives us another option. Oh – wait – there is the option to believe that 'you will be like gods.' Except in heaven, there is room only for the one God, and the rest will have to make their heaven away from Him.Even the most sinful priest can at least point out the way on which to 'follow Him' up to Golgotha and on to glory. Big fool he may be, but he has only one Gospel he can give to us. He has but one Eucharistic sacrifice to offer, and Eucharistic Sacrament to give to us. He may sneer in private at our confessions, but he still has but the one absolution by which Christ signals He has heard the repentant, He has forgiven the penitent, He has forgotten the ugly, offensive sins.If it all looks like some cheap tricks, it is only because the good Lord, Jesus Christ, did all the heavy lifting. His Church COULD be offering us 'bread and circuses'. However, if so, the Bread is our God, and the 'circus' is only compared to being tortured to death for sin, or sentenced eternally to hell, that terrible hell of never seeing God.And, to me the 'greatest generation' accolade is in a toss-up between the American Founders' generation or that which gave us or trained up the ancient Apostles, Fathers and Doctors. Frankly, (even 'Webster-ly') we have had nothing like either since their times.

  • Webster Bull

    I have to go back and read Graham Greene, "The Power and the Glory," because I think his whisky priest, who fathered a child and is tormented by guilt, might have something to say here–about how people in a region without priests (because of suppression of the Church in 1930s Mexico) literally hungered for the sacraments of confession and communion, even if they were administered by a tormented, alcoholic priest on the run, who had fathered a child. At least in Boston, we're running out of priests. If we wait long enough, we may be in the same situation.

  • Jessica

    From the always-reliable John Salza . . .

  • Maria

    "then Jesus left us"–no, Webster, He is here.

  • Maria

    Loved The Power and the Glory. He was only really great in his early years…

  • Matthew Berg

    Dismissing the priest as merely a mortal substitute strikes me as a fairly narrow way of viewing the sacrament.For starters, ritual and regularity are powerful tools in and of themselves. How often do we act without stopping to think of the nature and import of your actions? How often do we actively avoid examining our part actions because we know that we've been acting wrongly?And I can't speak to church doctrine on the matter, but it strikes me as important that, even when acting in stead of Christ, a priest is still "just people" (as Sharon put it in her comments). It isn't enough to be humble in the face of God; we should show humility to our fellow man as well. What better way to remind ourselves than through an act of supplication.(In the interest of disclosure, I should admit that I haven't been to confession in over twenty years. Or a practicing Catholic, if you don't remember me from previous comments.)