When young people reach the age of 15 or 16, problems such as disobedience, fighting with parents, etc., can become critical. This is the age when they are tired of merely being their parents’ children and depending on Mom and Dad for everything (pocket money, transportation, all sorts of permissions); they wish to be more independent and to take control of their lives. This coming of age, this separating themselves from their parents and becoming responsible for themselves, can be a truly bloody and painful process on both sides, and that is where the most common sins occur.
Such things as beginning to date (someone they like actually wants to spend time with him or her!), having a job outside the family (earning their own money, even if it is on someone else’s terms), getting a driver’s license (a major leap into freedom and responsibility), and learning geometry (having to take personal responsibility for their thought and their ability to defend their answers) are all critical moments in this move toward independence, and all of them happen at about the same time.
I usually ask young people to spend more time with their parents in a non-confrontational situation, a place where adolescent is actually turning to adult in search of wisdom or knowledge, a moment of bonding. Consequently, I have them ask Dad to show them what every button and switch on the family car does, how to change a tire, and how to fill the windshield washer reservoir; kids love this one. Or I ask them to talk to one of their parents about growing up: they need to begin by thanking their parents for what they have already taught them, but they should then go on to ask, “What do I, me in particular, need to know about how I will change in the next six months? How can I change the way I act? How can I act more maturely now?” This demands a certain humility and trust, but it is part of adolescents taking charge of themselves and cooperating with God in creating a mature person out of who they are currently.
Or I can also suggest that they spend a weekend with an older sibling who is away at college and spend a lot of the time there talking about what is really going on in their family; they will profit from the older child’s insight, but the bonding that happens is itself a goal because that time together quietly heals past attitudes and wounds left from sibling problems they might have experienced when they were younger. An experience like this also offers a new way of relating to family, a more adult level to replace the childhood dependency that they are trying to escape.
At their age there is also some problem with younger siblings, who are annoying because they are seeking attention, usually in inappropriate and intrusive ways; I point out that this is frequently the younger siblings’ inept way of saying that they like their older sibling and want to see the older one pay them some attention and show their love. I often suggest that the confessants talk to their parents about this before they do anything else. The parents might at the least offer some solid and practical moves that would abate any underlying rancor, but the teenager might also ask to borrow the car (or to have their parents drive them) in order to take the younger kids to a movie and pizza at the mall; Mom or Dad might even kick in with the money needed for this.
Giving the younger children some of the attention that they crave, away from the adults, helps create a bond and ease the transitions that both older and younger siblings face as they grow. The talking over pizza is the most important part, obviously, although the first or second attempt at this may just be a healing of past wounds, a getting to know each other better or in a new way.
Young men, from 14 on up, start experiencing the national addiction to pornography, masturbation, and even sex, frequently tied to drinking too much. Any or all aspects of this complex can become an addiction, with one aspect usually dominating. They become sucked into a negative feedback loop: there is a definite pleasure involved, which they can arrive at without any clear personal involvement, and although that pleasure is not truly fulfilling they seek that fulfillment in repetition, thus laying the foundation for a habit that will short-circuit true personal growth and maturation both in the short and the long run.
These young men channel their healthy hungers and urges for completion, independence, and an adult relationship into a fantasy world where they feel admirable, powerful, and dominating, a real escape from reality; there is a reason that the “adult” sites and entertainment are aimed at the immature and the adolescent. I usually find that they have almost no relationships with real women on anything beyond a superficial level, and consequently I encourage these young men to seek a true social life and to spend time with real families and children, concentrating on a healthy maturing of their emotions. I have not yet seen this syndrome in young women, but there are clear indications that it is only a matter of time.
First Date Revisted
People who come to me and are married, usually with children, seem to have a very difficult time with their spouses: for them life is routine, mainly a matter of constant childcare, dealing with household tasks, and worrying about money, and they feel distant, very alone and sometimes trapped. I will ask them when they last went out on a date with their spouse, and I refuse to accept going to a movie together as being a real date; that was not what thrilled them when they were courting, not the reason they decided that they could not live without each other.
I ask them to park the kids with a brother or sister and to take four or five hours for themselves as a couple: dinner in a quiet place outside the home, then finding another quiet place where they can talk about their inner selves. I tell them that they are not to talk about the kids, about work, or about money but instead to tell their spouse what first attracted him to her and her to him and how that changed as they got to share their lives more closely and to know each other better. They need to talk about their self-doubts, their fears, their hopes — to renew an intimacy that has nothing to do with sex.
Depending on how this goes, the confessant might even ask how to be a better spouse. I caution that he or she should not expect an immediate or profound response: this “penance” is to reinitiate a relationship, to restart sharing and intimacy, and that will not all happen at once, especially if one person originates the exchange out of the blue.
Retirement brings its own problems. Nowadays a woman is better educated, more independent, and has more often led a life outside the home and separate from husband and children, while a man is used to doing, managing, and having a certain set role in the family. When the two are suddenly faced with spending a lot of time together, adjusting these roles can cause sparks. There can be a real turf war, as when a man used to controlling an office tries to reorganize the household or to treat his wife like a paid employee. In their anger and bewilderment in coping with this, the two can discover that they have become somewhat estranged; they are both close to asking, “Who are you and what are you doing in my house?”
The two can suddenly notice a lack of affection and face some loss of hope and a paling of their religious faith, and all of this comes out in confession in the various ways that a single individual experiences it. If they have not begun to work on their relationship with each other well before the kids leave home and they are facing retirement together, it might be too late. Suggestions I can offer here and penances I can propose will vary enormously depending on the case, but they will generally fall somewhere between what I propose for the married-with-children and what I tend to turn to for the older and aging — which is what I will discuss next.
Battling Self-centered Loneliness
The problems of older people can stem from a sense of loneliness, especially if they are widows or widowers. They find themselves to be rather self-centered and anxious about what are actually minor faults, such as not saying their prayers every evening or not saying grace at every meal. I strongly recommend that they work on getting out of the house or the apartment, volunteering for some service to their parish, visiting their friends who are in assisted living or nursing homes, etc. Another possibility is writing a letter to a son-in-law or daughter-in-law, telling them how good it is to have them in the family; this can be tricky, though.
Many of these older people miss their spouses quite deeply due to a strong bond of love, and consequently I review for them just what a saint is, someone who is with God; they are almost always certain that the departed spouse qualifies. I suggest to them then that they sit in a comfortable chair or at their kitchen table and just share their morning coffee with the loved one: they can ask for emotional support, guidance, intercession with God, a readiness for the death that will allow them to be together again, etc. This can be a very effective application of the idea of the Mystical Body and can light up their lives, making their faith shine out to younger members of their family.
‘Falling Down’ in the Workplace
Some areas of sin and weakness span all ages and genders but are more connected to places. Gossip, theft and cursing, for example, can occur primarily in the workplace; I have already outlined an approach to working with the first. The remedy for theft is fairly obvious, not only the required restitution but maybe going against the grain by contributing something positive to the workplace environment by buying donuts for their unit or, more profoundly, by making sure that other people are taken care of when their children are sick or when another worker’s car suffers problems.
Cursing or inappropriate language is a more special case. Most of the time this is the result of having developed a bad habit over time, and that comes without our conscious thought. I propose that if people truly seek to change their ways they should first spend a little time in prayer to ask help from God or their patron saints to find a way of expressing themselves with expletives that are not vulgar or blasphemous. If, for example, they can decide to use “Holy cow!” or “Nuts!” (or even “furshlugginer” or “crocking”) and can feel comfortable in using it, they move to the next step.
As they go through their lives they will find that the usual unacceptable words and expressions come to their lips as always: they must stop each time, recognize their failure, apologize to God, and remember what they had decided to say instead. They will not change all of a sudden, but as they proceed they will find that they are hesitating before saying what had become habitual and will have a chance to use the new expressions, which will slowly take the place of the ones that they have felt guilty about.
I might also make suggestions that are more general in application but which seek to reach beyond the particular problems named by the penitent. The first takes elements of several of the ideas I suggest above: “Who is your patron saint? Why have you chosen that saint? Would he or she be a good person to talk to about this problem? Well, sit down and talk (= pray) to him or her over a cup of coffee.”
Again, many people feel that they are unloved, that they are so weak and unloving that God can’t possibly love them (although they would certainly not say that in so many words). I find that, as a general rule, human beings have an immense double need: to be known, profoundly and completely, and to be loved, absolutely and without cease. The problem is that we believe, on the basis of our human experience, that we cannot fill both needs at the same time; we seem to believe in our hearts that “if you love me it is only because you don’t know the real me, and if you do know me then you can’t possibly love me and are either a liar or are too stupid for me to respect you.” And this might in fact be generally true on a merely human basis, but God manages both of those needs perfectly and more extensively than we will ever understand, not even when we enter into the fullness of His Kingdom.
The Trick Question
As another way to help penitents break through this block, to change this mental stance, I ask them to do one of two things (although I only suggest one of them, depending on the circumstances). I tell them that I am going to ask a simple question that needs a “yes” or “no” answer, that there is a wrong answer, and that I want them to answer quickly and without thinking about it. The question is simply “Are you a good person?” and in spite of what I have told them I ordinarily get the answer “Well, I try to be.” That is the wrong answer, and I need to remind them that I did not ask whether they were perfect.
I often have to remind them of how they feel toward children of less than 12 months: infants are dirty, inconvenient, disobedient, and useless, yet we still love them without any “if,” “when,” or “because” being involved. For these confessants, knowing and actually accepting that they are fundamentally good people, loving and loved, is a necessary basis for their confidence and growth.
Once we have negotiated this conversation, I ask them to pray over coffee the next morning and then, on a slip of paper, to write the two worst things about themselves and the five best things and to leave the slip under their pillow; they need to look at it, simply read it over, as they go to bed and as they get up each day. They will know when to throw it away, maybe after a week or so.
A Tiny Child
For people who are more sensitive or more image-oriented (almost always women), I ask them instead to imagine themselves as a tiny child (6-8 months) held on the Father’s chest, their head near His heart, warm and safe in His arms and filling His attention, and to allow themselves to be warm and safe, loved in their smallness and weakness, loved beyond their understanding. They need to feel the firm hand of the Father on their little chest and feel the finger of the Lord stroking their face; they must see the Lord smiling warmly at them and hear the Lord saying “I can’t wait for you to grow up so that you can know My love and love Me in return.”
By thus finessing the whole mindset of unworthiness, we can free the penitent somewhat from the frustrating and depressing attitude that they simply cannot be sinless and good enough for God to love them. This should help them to face the efforts they will need to make for healing and coping with real problems and to do so joyously and confidently, with hope in the depths of their hearts.
I offer all these ideas only to stimulate confessors to opening toward a more personal way of touching penitents and of bringing them into a closer rapport with Jesus and the Spirit in the context of the sacrament and the marvelous growth it offers. If we can help the People of God to feel closer and more comfortable — even in this area of guilt and regret — they can enter more readily into the banquet that our Father prepares for us. Think of the Father’s welcome in the parable of the Prodigal Son. TP
FATHER KESTERMIER, S.J., teaches in the English Department and is a campus chaplain at Creighton University, Omaha, Neb.