Monday, May 08, 2006

Confession and Confidentiality

A few weeks ago a regrettable incident happened in connection with the Governors' Reconciliation process. Complainants were invited to write to the Governors if they were interested in meeting with them. One letter was sent, marked "private and confidential" from two sisters, whose mother was then approached about its contents while on a weekend at Waterperry by another person. Abject apologies have been offered, with which the offended parties are I think relatively satisfied, but that is not the point. The worst thing about this affair is that few of us will be surprised that it happened. The culture of the School is one in which confidentiality is not articulated as a discipline, except for students.

One young person confided in her tutor about some truly damaging and deeply personal experiences she had had. Travelling half way round the world to Waterperry, she discovered that these private matters had been referred to in a tutorial gathering. It is more fitting for readers of this blog to consider what this says about us, than for me to comment.

None of us who have enjoyed the benefits of the School would, I think, like to see its atmosphere of benign paternal (or maternal) care lost. Many times I've found that sharing my troubles with my tutor has been a tremendous help. In addition, I would have to say that on the whole the School does seem to behave responsibly with the knowledge it receives. One tutor I know of was the recipient of the most appalling confessions from a student who was, in my opinion, completely off the rails. It was one of those borderline cases that could be a test of a Catholic priest's vow of confessional silence. Not one word got out to anyone else, until it became public knowledge later.

In recent years, however, as I have become conscious of the absence of privacy, I've begun to consider what I do or do not say. On one occasion, I made the tutor promise that he would not reveal what I said to anyone else in School, and I'm sure he kept his word. At other times I spoke and was content that I did not mind it being revealed. Possibly, having to screen my thoughts in this way is a burden that I could have done without.

Confession has always been an important part of Western culture, and His Holiness speaks about its value also in the Indian tradition. Presumably there is something universal in it. I have an image of writing one's burdensome troubles and sins onto a piece of paper and then burning it at an altar ... they go up in the smoke to - I don't know what, something greater. It's a blessed relief to feel that there is a larger existence than that of the person who is suffering with the problems, an infinite sea of forgiveness and understanding into which one's petty concerns are just an unnoticeable drop, instantly dissolved and gone.

We have to have this. To paraphrase TS Eliot, human beings cannot bear too much alone. It's impossible to have a spiritual path without the opportunity of confession.

But, as a School is made up of individuals, we must also have some discipline of confidentiality. Whether it takes the form of guidance given to all tutors, or even a kind of Hippocratic Oath, a priestly oath of secrecy, there must be protection for the students from the human weakness of those in whose care they are. And, to set the minds and hearts of the students at rest, it must be clear to the students from the very first under what conditions they speak to their tutor.

Clarity of principle, in this case as in all others, will ensure the future value of the School.

1 comment:

Q12 said...

Congratulations on this excellent site. As you so rightly say, clarity of principle is all important. This is what the School conspicuously school lacks in some all important areas.

For example, there is no agreed answer to basic questions like: What is the School for? What is its purpose? What are its objects? We all have our own differing ideas.

Yes, the School has published Rules which purport to set out objects, including 'to promote the study of natural laws', but few would suppose that these coincide with its real objects.

Its real object might be something along the lines of: ' to promote self realisation for all, through the study and practice of Advaita Vedanta.'

Against this background debates about the School might be better directed and informed. A dialogue about objects would, in itself, be a valuable exercise.