It was Captain Vere himself who of his own motion communicated the finding of the court to the prisoner; for that purpose going to the compartment where he was in custody and bidding the marine there to withdraw for the time. Beyond the communication of the sentence what took place at this interview was never known … But there is no telling the sacrament, seldom if in any case revealed to the gadding world, wherever under circumstances at all akin to those here attempted to be set forth, two of great Nature's nobler order embrace. There is privacy at the time, inviolable to the survivor, and holy oblivion, the sequel to each diviner magnanimity, providentially covers all at last. (Herman Melville, from Billy Budd, Chapter 23)On the edge of eternity, at any given moment, each of us seeks the ultimate intimacy, the ultimate prayer partner, the colloquy beyond words.
I love teaching Herman Melville's Billy Budd because I always come to that moment in which I am privileged to tell my students what I myself first heard from my best and most memorable teacher, Dr. Eugene Curtsinger:
What occurs here between the condemned Billy and Captain Vere is left to our own hearts. Melville is a skilled craftsman. He knows that to vest a dialogue with utmost gravity is to make it secret and hidden, so that our own imaginations might people it with longings of our own hearts.The words that pass between Vere and Billy are sacramental because they are hidden—but not hidden because they are sacramental, as some mistakenly think of the Sacrament of Penance. Confessionals are hid in fine and private places not because they are secretive but because they invite us deep into the heart of the matter, the heart of our matter:
The principal force that moves the human soul is love. The truth is that only one task is entrusted to each human being: learning to love sincerely, authentically and freely. But only at the school of God can this task be achieved and can man attain the end for which he was created. (Pope Benedict XVI, Wednesday Audience, 2 Dec 2009)Confessionals are wood and stone and curtain analogs of the Tabernacle of the Heart. The Seal of the Confessional is not a bond of conspiracy between priest and penitent but a replication of a deeper and invisible reality that is more present than anything visible (and therefore like a thousand other sights that we readily dismiss).
A song by They Might Be Giants ("Where Your Eyes Don't Go") sums up a fear that haunts us:
Every jumbled pile of person has a thinking part that wondersThe Confessional reminds us that we are missing nothing—except the nagging worry that we are not fastidious enough, not circumspect enough, not vigilant enough to self-monitor, to patrol ourselves, to really listen to ourselves and tell ourselves what we need to hear.
What the part that isn't thinking isn't thinking of
Should you worry when the skullhead is in front of you
Or is it worse because it's always waiting where your eyes don't go?
Where your eyes don't go a part of you is hovering
It's a nightmare that you'll never be discovering
In his Confessions, Saint Augustine adapts the truism, "God knows us better than we know ourselves," with the truth that we know God better than we know ourselves (X, 37). Indeed, unbeknown to us, we talk with God better and more honestly than we do ourselves. The Confessional sacramentalizes the ever-present dialogue in our hearts between the self whom God knows better than we do and the God Whom we know better than we know ourselves:
our heart is made of flesh and when we love God, Who is Love, how can we not express our human feelings in this relationship with the Lord? . The Lord Himself, becoming man, chose to love us with a heart of flesh (Pope Benedict XVI, Wednesday Audience, 2 Dec 2009)Captain Vere and Billy Budd meet in the hidden stateroom of the heart, and if we can thereby people and vividly voice that clandestine colloquy, we can do it so adeptly because that same deep dialogue is whispering all the time inside our own hearts, our God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—sharing with us.
Our eyes do not go there, nor do our ears, but God's very words in the Tabernacle of our hearts speak a love that pervades our entire existence:
The image of God present in man impels him towards resemblance; that is, towards an ever fuller identification between his will and the divine will. This perfection, which William [of St. Thierry] calls "unity of spirit," cannot be achieved through individual effort, . but by the action of the Holy Spirit which . purifies and . transforms into charity all the desire for love present in the human being. .In this way . man becomes by grace what God is by nature. (Pope Benedict XVI, Wednesday Audience, 2 Dec 2009)Advent is a time of listening and waiting. And though we will not hear in this life any more of the Tabernacle talk than we do of the final conversation between Billy and Vere, we will nonetheless recognize and embrace our Dialogue Partner when Eternity dawns upon us. We will not merely "arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time" (Eliot, "Little Gidding")—we will see Him "face to face" and "know even as [we] are known" (1Cor 13:12, RHE):