Sermon: Modern Confessions: Augustine and the Stained Glass Self by Ethan Loewi

2019 November 17
by First U Bklyn


Modern Confessions:

Augustine and the Stained Glass Self


A short way above our heads, nineteen figures watch over us, immortalized in glass. I like to imagine that the window people are secretly alive, like in Toy Story or Harry Potter, and when the sanctuary’s empty they all hang out. Maybe Martin Luther and Emerson have a weird frenemies thing going on. Maybe the Unitarians and the Trinitarians are always arguing about the divinity of Jesus, until Jesus comes up from lower windows to say “Oh my God, guys–give it a rest.” There’s a lot to say about these illuminated luminaries, but today I’d like to talk about just one: the scholarly gentleman on my right, all the way at the end of the row.

That bearded, bookish individual is one Augustine of Hippo: a 5th century bishop, better known as Saint Augustine. He’s kind of a big deal. As a philosopher and theologian, he probably did more to shape early Christianity than anyone who wasn’t Jesus. And he looks real good up there, on stained glass. Most people do; it’s a flattering medium. Looks like he really has his act together. But in his most famous work, a memoir known simply as the Confessions, Augustine describes himself as the 5th century equivalent of a train wreck. He writes it in his forties, looking back on his twenties, when the poor guy was just a mess. In all the great texts of antiquity, if there is a bigger neurotic than Augustine, I don’t know who it is. Augustine is to neurotics what Michael Phelps is to swimmers: just a giant in the field.

As a young man living in Rome and Milan, Augustine feels crushed by his mistakes and wracked with self-hatred. He lies, he brags, he serves only himself and his own pleasures. As he writes in the Confessions, all of which is written as a prayer to God, “I foamed like a troubled sea, following the rushing of my own tide.” He finds worldly success as a teacher, which swells his ego, but brings him no real joy; no success is ever enough. Forget being a saint—the man is wretched. In his words, “I bore about a shattered and bleeding soul.” Hopeless and helpless to change his ways, he says “I became to myself a barren land.” Stuck in his cycle of self-destruction, he cries out to the heavens, “Please God, make me good, but not yet.” He knows he has to change, but fears the pain that change might bring. Grounded by inertia, all he can do is endure and lament.

So I read this, and I think, wow, this sounds like a lot of people I know. Not because I’m friends with any 5th century bishops, but because his portrait of spiritual pain is so vivid that it has a timeless quality.

There is an urgency I feel around this topic—because some days, I feel like spiritual pain is all around me. And our spiritual health and mental health are closely intertwined. I have so many friends struggling with depression, self-hatred, neurosis of all kinds. I have a fair volume of neuroses myself—though, as a Jewish graduate student, that does kind of go without saying. (For the record: whenever I give a sermon, unless explicitly stated otherwise, I am using it as an excuse to work through my own neuroses.)

From everyday stress and sadness to rising rates of clinical depression and anxiety, the psychic atmosphere around us can seem very stormy indeed. I won’t try to list all the factors causing this for this: the standard explanation goes something like “Donald Trump, social media, and global warming.” And that’s a pretty good answer. Those are troubling things. Today I want to focus on one thing we can do to resist this climate of spiritual pain. That’s why I want to talk about the Confessions—and more broadly, the act of confession. Because just as universal as spiritual pain is our potential for spiritual healing. And one way we can achieve that is through healing speech. Today, I propose that we reclaim the concept of confession—to center not on guilt and sin, but about the sacred act of speaking our truth and being heard.

I think it’s curious that when we think of the word “confession,” our minds—or at least my mind—think of harsh, negative things. Guilt, punishment, religious condemnation. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and the etymology agrees—confessions’s Latin root is fateor, meaning simply to acknowledge, and many ecclesiastical rites of confession use the word confiteor, which can mean to praise or to give thanks. Let us frame confession not as sin-absolving speech, but as spirit-healing speech. And confession isn’t just about pain: we can confess our love, confess our gratitude. Our hopes, our fears, our intimate and complex inner lives. And there is power in that self-expression: the power of catharsis. Confession is the opposite of bottling up. Let’s build a world where we’re not afraid to be vulnerable, not afraid to be human. We can create a culture of acceptance, of ourselves and others, where our whole selves can feel heard, and valued, and loved. When our souls in pain, when we are to ourselves a barren land, we should not have to suffer in silence.

Like Augustine, none of us are really a stained glass window. None of us look as good as we might, if we were frozen in glass and backlit by the sun. But that stained glass self, that the world sometimes pressures us to be, is also two-dimensional. Two-dimensional, fragile, and silent. It shatters easily—unless kept far above the world, where its it can escape the challenges of life. Let us reject this idea of the perfect, untroubled self, and learn to care for the embattled, many-sided selves we truly are.

I’d like to touch on three aspects of confession: what’s preventing it, why its useful, and how we can make it happen. A what, a why, and a how. The what is a big topic by itself: all kinds of forces in our world today are conspiring to shut us up, especially when it comes to sharing any kind of vulnerability. In a time when so much of what we say is preserved online forever, visible to anyone who Googles our name, it can be highly tempting to just do and say nothing that anyone might judge negatively for any reason. To go through life like a turtle in its shell. Maybe we’re afraid of what our future employers might think, or our future romantic partners. I’ve often felt this pressure myself—been stifled and controlled by it. I have felt, and still sometimes feel, afraid to show myself, for fear that people might not like what they see. I often worry that I’m trying to show the world a stained glass version of myself. But it’s not real, of course–and it’s fragile. (Just so we’re clear, this sermon is not a tirade against stained glass. I like stained glass, it’s very nice! But it has to take a fall for the sake of the metaphor.)

Our career-obsessed society compels us to live like we are bipedal LinkedIn pages. Pressures everyone to behave like they’re President and CEO of their own one-person corporation. In an Atlantic essay titled “The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern Economy,” Victor Tan Chen writes that “In the absence of other sources of meaning, Americans are left with meritocracy, a game of status and success, along with the often ruthless competition it engenders.” Our emotions, our spiritual health, our mental health, these core aspects of being human—become viewed as liabilities.

Let me also observe that many corporations see in our spiritual and mental well-being, or lack thereof, an opportunity. Your self-regard, positive or negative, is commodified. The burgeoning wellness industry is happy to sell you spa treatments and juice cleanses, meditation apps and self-help books—whatever might ease your condition, regardless of whether it has any proven ability to do so. Let me put it this way: for people to be struggling with rising rates of sadness, self-hatred, and clinical depression suits a lot of corporations just fine. Because an advertising executive sees a desperately unhappy person the way an Olympic archer sees the broad side of a barn. In many ways, our culture can condition us to be self-loathing. To compare ourselves to others, and find ourselves lacking. And sure, we know in theory that this is bad, that we should love and accept ourselves. But things like anxiety and self-hatred can be remarkably resistant to logic. In the words of Anton Chekov, “Life does not agree with philosophy.” We are under spiritual assault here, so we need spiritual responses. One such response can be speaking our truth. In a culture of repression, let us strive for a culture of openness. Let us reject the corporate and cultural forces that demand we be unfeeling and impervious.

The why of Confession is different, depending on who you ask. Augustine might say we need to confess to cleanse ourselves of sin. That’s not how I see it. And if it was, I’d far more conservative church right now. Confession as I mean it is an act of catharsis and connection. Confession is healing through self-expression. One person to study this extensively is psychologist James Pennebaker, who has found across dozens of studies that confiding in others, or even just writing about painful experiences in a journal can help reduce our stress, improve our mood, and even get better sleep. As he writes in Scientific American, “Expressive writing and religious confession are not panaceas, but these forms of release can help us get through difficult times.”

Wherever you come down on the idea of sin, we all grapple with guilt on occasion. Whether or not we believe in a God, we all have some form of ideals or highest principle. Us UUs are folks with huge ideals. And we don’t always live up to those ideals,100%. We’re not always as kind as we could be, or as politically engaged, or as eco-friendly. Let us ask ourselves: what covenants have we broken, and with what Gods? There will always be some airspace between how we live and how we might live ideally. And that delta is guilt’s habitat. Confession is how we cope with the pain of not living up to our ideals–which I might also define as the pain of being human. Let us foster a religious community that can face and forgive our imperfections, our angst, our fears of not being enough. It would be a shame if we got rid of conservative religious guilt, as contained in the concept of original sin, only to replace it with liberal religious guilt. A sort of woke perfectionism; the photo negative of conservative Christianity, in which the framework of sin and piety is not abolished, but ironically inverted.

Speaking of conservative Christianity, let me take a moment to dish some dirt about Augustine. I opened this sermon by talking about him because he’s part of our space, part of our history and because he exemplifies the practice of confession. I believe confession is a powerful spiritual technology, with many benefits. That said, I could talk for hours about the things in Augustine I don’t agree with. For instance, he was extraordinarily sex-negative. In the Confessions, sex and sin are almost synonymous. At various points he likens his own sexual desire to mud, chains, thorns, and a whirlpool. These are views we have rightly relegated to the dustbin of religious history. He was so crushed by his sense of self-hatred and sinfulness that he even despised himself for enjoying theater. In his words, “What sort of compassion is this for feigned and scenical passions?” Now I don’t know about you, but I like theater. I don’t think it degrades my character. And if I were to take in this room an opinion poll on sex and theater, I’m guessing both would come out looking pretty good. My point in this tangent is that we our religious predecessors have both a lot to teach us, and a lot to criticize.

Therein lies the challenge and the power of religious liberalism. Can we look at our spiritual ancestors, people like Augustine, and learn from them? Can we build upon the spiritual technologies that they have left us, refining out the harmful while cherishing the good? Or will we throw out both baby and bathwater? Will we take an ahistorical stance, that condemns us to forever reinvent the wheel? For the sake of growing and evolving as a faith, I hope that we will not. The seeds of our spiritual practice today were sown thousands of years ago, by people who could never have imagined a faith like Unitarian Universalism. But we are connected to them still.

Lastly, we come to a vital aspect of confession: the how. I’ve talked about ways that our culture can pile on spiritual pain, and then pressure us to bottle it up—which does real harm. So how do we stop bottling up? First, I want to stress that Confession is not just an act, but an ethos. It’s a call to live more openly–and this can take many forms.

It can be as simple as telling your friend about your problems. Confession can be ritualized, or turned into a form of worship. Confession is a spiritual practice. It’s not therapy, and it’s certainly no substitute for therapy. Rather, it can help us through connection to another person, or our personal idea of a higher power. You can confess to your God, as Augustine did–and in time, his shattered and bleeding soul was nursed back to wholeness. You could also confess to your dog. You could simply write in your journal.

I know that confession is hard, especially when a listener is involved; it takes courage to be vulnerable, to trust that much. And it’s not always safe to vulnerable; there can be real stigma attached to admitting that we are anxious, or unconfident, or struggling. But person by person, we can build a paradigm of love and trust. If you are in a good place, spiritually and psychologically, and you know someone going through hard times, maybe offer to listen to them. Don’t assume that everyone has someone to talk to, because that’s just not the case. A poll just a few months ago found that 27% of millenials say that have no close friends. That’s a lot of bottled up pain. There’s a lot of uncorking to do, and it’s not easy to deal with that volume of spiritual anguish. But in the face of that dauntingly vast and hauntingly dark challenge, let me offer this bright and simple truth: you deserve to be heard. You deserve to be known. You deserve to be cared for. If you have a spiritual burden on your chest, this community is here to help you deal with it. We have a Caring Ministry team, made up of pastoral caregivers who would love to meet and listen to your story. None of us are made of stained glass; we are not saints or angels, perpetually radiant and righteous. So as we look out on our still unwritten future, as we stare at that blank page, let us love the complex, imperfect person that has made it this far. And then, let us start writing our next chapter. 

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