One of my absolute favorite singer/songwriters is Towne’s Van Zandt. I don’t recommend him to many because, frankly, he lived a confused and broken life, and his songs are deeply in touch with that. But I admire his poetry, and it often expresses those things in my life that I cannot put into words on my own.
In one of his most lucid and Catholic moments, he wrote a profound insight: “There ain’t no dark ‘til something shines; I’m bound to leave this dark behind.” (Rex’s Blues)
This is a fundamental truth reiterated by modern physics and ancient theology. Darkness is the absence of light. Cold is the absence of heat. The claim is not simply about knowing the dark, but that darkness is a shadow cast by something obscuring the light. Even the darkest night on earth is simply the other side of the planet obscuring the sun’s rays.
Perhaps we’re playing just a little loose with the physics, or at least treading on a debated point, but the theology is absolutely clear. Evil is the absence of Good, but Good, especially God’s Goodness, is more fundamental than evil. Catholics live in a world with many uncertainties, but we are absolutely certain that the Devil is not the opposite of God.
God’s goodness has no true opposite.
The world is not some yin and yang of equally powerful and opposed good and bad forces, but rather world mixed with perversions of truth, goodness, and beauty.
The Sacrament of Confession is fundamentally the Catholic practical response to this theological reality. We cannot confess our sins until we can also profess the goodness we have perverted. “There ain’t no dark ‘till something shines.” We must be in touch with the light; we must have grace operating in our lives before we can even admit the error of our ways.
This is why we must attain the age of reason in most cases before sacramental confession makes sense: we have to be able to see the light which is obscured.
But we are not confessing the darkness of sin simply to wallow in it or to somehow glory in our own guilt. We confess the darkness of sin because we realize it is the product of a greater light which has been obscured. Think about all the really nasty sins that we prefer not to mention; they are perversions of a fundamental good and wonderful beauty. In every good confession, we are also professing the greater good which has been perverted and reclaiming it. I can only say “that was not the man I want to be” as the flip side of saying “this is the man I do want to be.” Every good confession, then, is not so much about the nastiness of sin as it is about reclaiming the good which has been perverted.
This has implications for the way we teach, parent, and participate in the life of the community.
We must be quick to help others recognize not simply that we see something wrong, but more importantly, the good which has been perverted. Our ultimate goal in personal confession is the same as our goal in communal life: we want to be genuine lovers of the one, true, good, and beautiful God.
When you find yourself noticing darkness, pause and search for the light which has been obscured. Take the insight of a troubled and flawed poet, and trust “there ain’t no dark ‘til something shines,” and then go and leave the dark behind secure in the light.