Of all the sacramental confessions I have done in my three years of Catholicism, I’ve only been complimented on one. I stepped into the confessional, stomach churning as usual, breathing hard under the weight of guilt. Kneeling down in the soft darkness, I took a deep breath, and began: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I was so mean to someone this morning. And I did it on purpose. I was mad, and I just wanted to lash out, and I made her feel awful. And the worst part is that I intentionally took it out on her, not anyone else, because I knew that she is so kind – she would never hurt me back even if I deserved it.”
Through the screen, the priest’s profile was a dark outline against the glow of candles. He nodded slowly, thinking. Finally he said, “That was a very, very good confession.”
It was the last thing I was expecting to hear. Long after, I realized that he was right. It’s always a good thing to confess your sin. But it’s a very, very good thing to see the ugly reasons behind your sins. To dare to look under the hood of your own soul, see the grotesque motivations therein, to drag them into the light and claim responsibility for them – that is a good confession.
That sort of “psychology of sin” is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s sad genius. Without glorifying evil, Dostoyevsky enters into the inner lives of his characters and follows them into the darkest parts of their souls. He’s compassionate: he reveals their souls without ridicule. He doesn’t let them be alone in their darkness. I have not read all his works, but my favourite so far is Notes from Underground, a particularly vicious self-portrait of a soul mired in sin. At 149 pages, it’s miniscule for a Russian novel, but packed with power. It’s Dorian Gray’s portrait in the attic. It’s “The Screwtape Letters: an Alternate Ending.”
Notes from Underground is a snarling anti-confession of an unnamed protagonist, usually called the “Underground Man.” He introduces himself:
“I am a sick person – a spiteful one. An unattractive person, too. I think my liver is diseased. But I don’t give a damn about my disease and I do not seek treatment and have never sought treatment – I won’t seek treatment out of spite …”Notes from Underground
The “Underground Man” spits out the story of his life in a few harsh vignettes, convulsed by a self-contradictory mixture of shame and perverse pride. He’s repulsive, and he knows it, but at the same time uncomfortably compelling. We recognize ourselves in the narrator’s agonies of social humiliation, wilful nastiness, and calamitous failures to get the heck over himself. I’d bet all my roubles that Dostoyevsky leaves him nameless precisely so that we are forced to see ourselves in him.
The Underground Man lurches from bitterly cold streets to stuffy saloons to disappointing brothels, lamenting his life in a dizzy inner monologue. He knows he is responsible for his misery, but he loves to punish others for it. He would rather be hateful to those he thinks of as his friends, than humble himself to actually enjoy them. He is starving for intimacy, but he can’t stop himself from deadening it into something sordid. Yet, with hints of an abusive upbringing, money troubles, and other tragedies, Dostoyevsky compels us to a sad pity for him rather than hatred – a pity that is all the more conflicted because we know, and he knows, that his circumstances don’t justify his moral masochism. We pity him, but we can’t excuse him.
Sin as Sickness
The first thing we learn about this middle-aged civil servant is that he is sick and he doesn’t care. Right away, Dostoyevsky shows us his skill in following the anti-logic of sin: the Underground Man actually likes his sickness because it gives him grounds for self-pity, but then he despises himself for liking it, and then he glories in his self-hatred. And so on.
Dostoyevsky uses physical illness to draw attention to the moral disease of sin. Similar to Crime and Punishment, in which Raskolnikov gets so sick after committing murder that he wanders around St. Petersburg in a state of near-delirium for half the novel, the Underground Man’s invisible liver disease is a figure for the unseen disease in his soul, for which he also refuses to seek help. The narrator gives us another example of the absurd psychology of sin with a nasty flourish – the infamous “finding pleasure in a toothache” soliloquy:
“Listen to the groans of an educated man who is suffering with a toothache. He knows that these groans are of no help to him; he knows better than anyone that he is only futilely straining and irritating himself and others. He’s saying, ‘I am disturbing you, I am straining your hearts, I am not letting anyone sleep. I am not a hero to you now, but just a bit of a nasty person.’”
This perverted, self-pitying pride runs through Underground, forming the mirror in which we see ourselves. Everyone can recognize themselves in the nasty person who wants others to suffer along with them, despising themselves all the while, then blaming others for despising them; the wilful self-pity of the educated man with a toothache, cherishing his painful yet undignified illness. That same pride is at the heart of the psychology of sin. Look back at my confession above. Didn’t I confess to the same self-involved pride, the same perverse pleasure in causing harm to others? Whatever the Underground Man is sick with, I’ve got it too. It’s a virus called sin.
Getting Sin Right
It is so important to get sin right because without a true understanding of it, we will get everything else wrong. One of the most important, yet largely unnoticed, aspects of the crises we’re enduring today is confusion about where evil comes from. Does it dwell in corrupt institutions? Or does it flow from each of our corrupt hearts? If the former, all that we have to do is dismantle the institutions, and we will have peace on earth. The twentieth century has seen many such attempts, from attacks on economic groups (as in the USSR), to genocides of ethnic groups (Nazi Germany, Rwanda), to civil war on religous groups (the Cristero War of Mexico in the 20’s, a similar attempt at religious annihilation in Spain in the 30’s, to name a few). These efforts to eradicate evil by blaming and punishing certain social groups have given us the bloodiest century in the history of the world, and, I think we can all agree, have brought us no nearer to peace on earth.
Doestoyevsky points the finger of blame elsewhere. At me, to be specific. His “Underground Man” shows us the sin that lurks beneath the surface of each one of our personalities. Reading Underground, one has to admit that even if we achieved some kind of utopia here on earth by our own efforts, the presence of even one such person would be enough to destroy it. And we are all that kind of person. G. K. Chesterton summed it up with characteristic clarity by responding to the question, “What is the problem in the world?” with the short letter, “Dear Sir: I am.” Dostoyevsky looks into the sinner’s heart with piercing clarity, and finds the same spiteful pride that lives in my heart – and in Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Judas Iscariot’s, and Alessando Sarenelli’s hearts. Non serviam. Everyone wants to solve the world’s problems; few are willing to admit that the best way to do that is to repent of our own sin. Everyone wants to save the world; few admit that we have to first save it from ourselves. Nostra culpa, nostra maxima culpa.
I think that insisting on sin as the root of social issues, rather than the other way round, offends people at times because they perceive that I am saying that your sin is the problem. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s my sin I am worried about. Not you. Me. Do I go to confession week in and week out to say, “Bless me, Father, someone else has sinned”? Absolutely not. I can only guess at other people’s souls, but I see mine clearly; along with Chesterton, I confess that I am the problem with the world. Even when I see objective evil being done in the world around me, part of my reaction is the horror of knowing that I, too, am capable of such evil, which moves me to pray for mercy for the perpetrator. But I know evil first and foremost because I myself have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and have to vomit up the poisoned fruit again and again in confession. Confession – aye, there’s the rub!
Can it really be possible for a man to respect himself in any measure when he derives pleasure from the very feeling of humiliation? I am not speaking of some sickly sweet remorse. I was never able to bear saying, “Forgive me, Papa, I won’t do it again.” Not because I wasn’t capable of saying it, but the opposite – maybe because I happened to be too capable of it, much too much!”Notes from Underground
There is only one way out of the grip of sin – repentance. You, and I, cannot get away from the evil in our hearts unless we admit that we are sorry for it, and that we cannot fix it ourselves. It’s a profoundly unpopular option. We would rather relativize our sin, and say to ourselves, “we’re all human, and at least I’m not as bad as some.” But the “Underground Man” shows us that making excuses for ourselves doesn’t heal our sickness. We can stretch relativism as far as we want, but it’s nothing but temporary anaesthetic. The only medicine that heals is forgiveness, and to be forgiven you have to say I’m sorry.
Back in the confessional, my knees are beginning to ache from kneeling. I’ve done the one thing the “Underground Man” won’t do – asked my Father for mercy. I’m crying silently because I’ve been forgiven. I’m a red-faced, sweaty, nose-runny mess, but the priest isn’t disgusted by me. He’s more eager to offer Christ’s forgiveness than I am to receive it. After I sniffle my way through the act of contrition, the priest raises his right hand toward me and speaks words that are ever-ancient and ever-new:
“God the Father of Mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son, has reconciled the world to Himself, and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of our sins; through the ministry of the Church may God grant you pardon and peace, AND I ABSOLVE YOU OF YOUR SINS, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Most commentators laud Dostoyevsky for inventing something new – existentialism. I think it’s more important that he articulated something very old. Sin is the oldest thing in the universe, except for the eternal thing, and that is God’s love. Love overshadows sin and makes it a little thing. The Underground isn’t a safe place to hide in our sin any longer: Christ harrowed Hell. We can no longer revel in self-pity for our souls’ sickness: Christ freely offers to heal us. The violence of sin has no power any more: Christ willingly laid down His life to it and therefore conquered it completely. He makes all things new. Grave, where is your victory now? Death, where is your sting?
Let’s not prefer our misbegotten pride to crying out to our Heavenly Father. Let’s not cherish our toothaches instead of admitting that we need help to be healed.