One consequence of spending almost three weeks of the month of June in retreat houses – first directing at OshKosh and then doing my own retreat at San Alphonso – was a lot of sacraments (in the capital “S” Catholic meaning of the term). In addition to daily Mass, in the month of June I’ve had three anointings (one at OshKosh and one at each of the two group retreats that went on at San Alphonso during my week of private retreat) and received the sacrament of reconciliation twice.
You would think that spending so many days in a retreat house would mean little occasion for sin, but I found myself at San Alphonso lining up for confession for the second time in two weeks.
My arrival at San Alphonso coincided with a women’s retreat weekend that included about 120 women. Because I was doing private retreat, I was fortunately given a room far removed from the rooms occupied by any of the women – “fortunately” because the women almost never maintained any silence. They chatted seemingly incessantly, even in the chapel and some, even during Adoration.
One of the things I confessed to the priest was my judgment of the women and their failure to keep silence. I added that I tried to be charitable, that I did realize it was a blessing that some of them were on retreat at all and many were perhaps doing the best they could. But I could feel the judgment. (Having the previous day heard about the resignation of the Archbishop of the Twin Cities, I also confessed that I had not always been charitable in my views toward him, but that I had been trying that day to keep him in my prayers.)
What the priest said in reply was perhaps the single most useful thing a confessor has said to me in a long time. He began by observing that we have been given brains and we will make judgments. The problem is not the judgment arising, it is not moving past the judgment to prayer (as I had done in the case of the Archbishop) or some other positive response.
Brilliant in its simplicity and so clearly right. And I know this from my prior years of Buddhist (particularly vipassana) meditation. We can’t stop or prevent feelings or thoughts from arising – they will rise of their own accord. What we can control is how we deal with them. Do we hand onto negative judgments (or e.g. feelings of jealousy or envy, etc.), follow their story line, and allow them to grow in strength until they drive out any space for wisdom. Or do we move past them. Any potential “sin” lies not in the judgment, but in what we do with it.
So perhaps the priest said nothing I didn’t already “know” at some level, but what he said had an enormous impact on me.