Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
For some time now (for it is a long book) Presvytera Deborah and I have been reading together Elizabeth Gaskell's classic biography The Life of Charlotte Bronte. This book has often been praised as the greatest biography of 19th c. English literature.
Charlotte Bronte, of course, is the author of one of 19th c. English literature's enduring classics and the creator of one of that literature's most memorable character in the novel bearing that character's name, Jane Eyre. All readers of this novel know that "plain Jane" is a high-spirited and perceptive young woman who has a rich and deep interior life that has endeared her to countless readers since the novel's initial publication in 1847. And there have countless stage and films adaptations that continue to be produced to this day. Yet, Charlotte Bronte wrote other fine novels, including The Professor, Villette, and Shirley.
Charlotte Bronte had a deep Christian faith and sensibility. Her faith was severely tested as she first nursed, and then helplessly watched, three of her siblings die within about a six-month period (September 1848 - May 1849). Two of these siblings were also novelists: Emily wrote the famous Wuthering Heights; and Anne wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Of the three siblings that Charlotte lost, the oldest one to die was her deeply troubled brother, Branwell, at thirty-one. Emily was twenty-nine; and Anne was twenty-seven. This was a series of crushing losses for Charlotte to bear. Her deeply personal and poignant letters following these untimely deaths testify to her belief in eternal life with God through Jesus Christ our "Redeemer" as she often referred to Christ.
Her father, Patrick Bronte, was a curate of the local Anglican parish in Haworth, and their home in the parsonage there is now a place of pilgrimage for Bronte devotees. Charlotte Bronte was fiercely Protestant, and just as fiercely hostile to Roman Catholicism. Supposedly, she both pitied and feared Roman Catholics.
When she taught at the Pensionnat Heger, a school for girls in predominantly Catholic Brussels, Belgium, she felt surrounded by "Romanism." She further thought that her Roman Catholic students were filled with superstition and susceptible to "sensual indulgence." Yet, before we judge Charlotte Bronte too harshly for such prejudices, such antagonism between Protestants and Roman Catholics in 19th c. England, was probably not that uncommon. Every time and place seemingly has its own prejudices. We certainly have ours.
All of this makes one peculiar event in her life all the remarkable and difficult to fully explain.
Wandering through Brussels during a break from teaching, and at a time when she was suffering from a certain malaise that we would term despondency, if not depression, she found herself entering the large Roman Catholic cathedral of SS-Michel-et-Gudule for what seems to have been the evening service, what we would call Vespers.
Following the service she made her way to that part of the cathedral where the ornate confessional boxes were located. And at this point, something compelled her to enter one of the confessionals and confess to a Roman Catholic priest!
As one prominent Bronte scholar - Helen Cooper - has written: "A daughter of a Church of England clergyman, Bronte must have been desperately depressed to have decided that her only hope of comfort lay in thus violating Protestant - Catholic 'rules'." It took her some effort to convince the priest to even hear her confession as she informed him that she was a Protestant. Charlotte later wrote of this incident: "I was determined to confess," and after the priest relented to hear her - presumably because it might lead to her conversion - she emphatically added: "I actually did confess - a real confession."
To this day there is no memoir or letter that reveals precisely what she confessed on that day in Brussels. However, in the words of her most autobiographical character - the ultra-Protestant Lucy Snowe from the novel Villette after she confessed under the exact same conditions - we read the following:
"the mere relief of communication in an ear which was human and sentient, yet consecrated - the mere pouring out of some portion of long accumulating, long pent-up pain into a vessel whence it could not be again diffused - had done me good. I was already solaced."
It is true that Charlotte Bronte never went to Confession again in her life, but nevertheless she acknowledges in these words of the fictional Lucy Snowe a truly deep experience. Was this a once-in-a-lifetime concession to that inner need to "confess your sins to one another" (James 5:16)? A felt need that I am sure we often have.
Thus, I am offering a reflection about this real and literary event from the life and literature of Charlotte Bronte, because we are in that season when our own confession is a key component of our lenten effort as Orthodox Christians. (I wonder what the ultra-Protestant Charlotte Bronte would have thought of our Byzantine Liturgy).
We, of course, may feel that Confession is an "obligation" that must be fulfilled as a member of the Church. I even ask you to do so by appointment (!), and we may thus lack the spontaneity and even surprise of turning to Confession compelled by some inner need, as was the author of Jane Eyre and Villette.
However, we too may be surprised by what we experience as was Charlotte Bronte against all of her expectations. We (desperately?) need to "unburden our souls" to resort to something of a meaningful cliche. Each and every confession is potentially a time to "break on through to the other side" - to quote a more recent "artist." Such a breakthrough is the path to inner freedom.
The Sacrament of Confession offers the supreme opportunity to overcome a bad habit, a disposition, a passion; to seek forgiveness of our sins against God and one another; or to remove those obstacles that we perversely create between ourselves and the living God.
And, as Orthodox Christians, we have the liberty of not having to overcome any prejudices concerning Confession. We need only overcome any reluctance or resistance; any self-justification or self-defense; or any illusions about ourselves that we refuse to abandon, so that we also may experience "the mere pouring out of some portion of long accumulating, long pent-up pain" to a priest "consecrated" for that very role.
As different as we are to Charlotte Bronte - though the "human condition" remains the same - there is no reason we could not fully agree with her when she said that Confession "had done me good."