Examining our Lives

Last night we had a communal reconciliation at the Jesuit Retreat House where I am offering an Ignatian preached retreat this weekend. Part of the service was an examination of conscience, which is an important part of preparing ourselves for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

There are many ways of conducting an examination of conscience. I thought the one we used last night was worth sharing, as it invites us to think broader than we sometimes do about what we might need to seek absolution for.

The examination was in the form of a prayer for mercy, in which we asked God’s mercy:

for our misuse and destruction of the resources of the earth…

for ways in which we have put our comfort above the needs of others…

for ways in which we have put our sexual needs above the needs of others…

for overindulgence in food and drink…

for neglecting to care for our health and well-being…

for ignoring the needs of the poor and the needy…

for ignoring the needs and sufferings of those closest to us…

for ignoring the inequality of the world…

for neglect of prayer and worship…

for bitter moments, judgments and thoughts…

for failing to be thankful for the good things of life.

If you are like me, there was more than one item on that list that caused you to squirm a bit. More than one that caused you to admit, this is an area in which I can do better.

And so let us together pray: Lord have mercy! And let us together commit ourselves to show greater care for ourselves, our brothers and sisters, and our world.


Why Confession Matters

In anticipation of a communal Reconciliation service to be held at Our Lady of Lourdes on Saturday, Fr. Dan Griffith, pastor at Lourdes, asked me to write a piece for this week’s bulletin on the sacrament.  Here is the piece I wrote and that appears in this parish week’s bulletin, titled Why Confession Matters:

I went to Catholic grade school in the 1960s, a time when we were marched over to the church every two weeks to confess our sins. Every two weeks for eight years I confessed the same sins: I disobeyed my parents and I fought with my brothers and sisters. Quite honestly, I wasn’t sure what God or I got out of this biweekly exercise, since I knew I’d start committing the same sins over and over again as soon as I received my absolution and did my penance.

What I didn’t understand then is that the sacrament of Reconciliation (what we sometimes call Penance or Confession), is a grace-filled invitation is get in touch with the great love God has for us.

St. Augustine, after writing his Confessions, second-guessed having done so. He wondered: If I’ve come to regret my sinful past and believe God has forgiven me, why not simply put my past behind me. Why put all this bad stuff from my past down on paper? His answer to that question was that it was the recognition of his own sinfulness that had led him to recognize the love of God. It was only when he realized the depth and extent of the presence of sin in his life that he was able to see who God is and how God worked in his life.

The theologian Michael Himes similarly suggests that Reconciliation “is not about how wicked I have been but rather about how good God is.” The sacrament, he suggests, “is not primarily about my action, whether good or bad, but about God’s action.” Himes observes that this makes Reconciliation a source of joy as we acknowledge “that all have sinned and all are forgiven because all are embraced by the love of God….What is being celebrated is not the depth of our sin but the height of God’s love.”

Does this mean I need to recite my sins to a priest? That I need to have a priest say the words of reconciliation. This is what some of my friends who are not Catholic ask me. They say “Yes, I see the value of confession, but I don’t see why you need a priest to do this. Why not talk directly to God.”

My reply is that there is something about the formality of the sacramental rite that is extraordinarily meaningful. There is not only value in the examination of conscience the prepares us to approach the sacrament, but there is something about articulating out sins out loud, about having to find the words to speak to another person those things that weigh heavy on our hearts that is liberating. The reality is that we can’t move forward with God if we are weighed down by remorse over our sins. We can’t share our joy and love with the world if we are mired in our sin. We need to accept that we are forgiven. To accept that, we are restored to right relationship with God. And hearing the words of absolution is like having an enormous weight lifted from our shoulders.

Jesus often told people: Go your sins are forgiven. In hearing the words of absolution during the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are reminded that in our blindness, in our lapses from grace, in our sinfulness – we are fully embraced by God’s love. And it is that love and forgiveness of God and our confidence and knowledge of that love and forgiveness that allow us to be better than ourselves – to go and proclaim the Gospel to the world.


Let Us Set Things Right

There are certain passages of the Bible – Hebrew and New Testament – that have an immediate deep impact on me when I hear them.  One of those is today’s first mass reading from Isaiah.  The prophet conveys to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah God’s instruction to turn away from their evil ways.  After the instruction come the words that touch me so deeply.

Come now, let us set things right, says the Lord: Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they may be crimson red, they may become white as wool.

I hear those words in a warm and encouraging (almost cajoling) tone.  I feel in them God’s desire for our reconciliation.

And in those words is the comforting assurance we all need from time to time: The promise that no matter what God is there to welcome us back.  No matter how far we may have strayed, how down we may be feeling about our actions (or inactions), God always invites us: Come…let us set things right.

I hear these words and I experience peace and joy.  I hope they have the same effect for you.

The Primary Confessor

One of the books I am currently reading is Freedom and Forgiveness: A Fresh Look at the Sacrament of Reconciliation, by Fr. Paul Farren. Since even many Catholics who don’t regularly avail themselves of the sacrament of Reconciliation do so during the Lenten season, it seemed a good book to pick up for my flight to Philadelphia yesterday.

Many people view Reconciliation as an unpleasant duty that must be undertaken from time to time, or a required appeasement of a judging God, thinking of it as something that makes God feel better, something we do for God. Something that gets us back into God’s graces.

That misconceives the real nature of the Sacrament. As Fr. Farren observes

The sacrament of Reconciliation is primarily that sacred place and moment when God confesses. The primary confessor in the sacrament is God. What does God confess? God confesses his love, his forgiveness, his gratitude, his confidence, his trust and his belief in us. It is God’s confession that enables us to confess. God’s attitude creates a safe and non-judgmental environment for us to be true to ourselves and to be true to the one who loves us most.

We see the truth of this observation several times in the Gospels.

We see it, for example, in the story of Zacchaeus. Here is Zacchaeus – a short man who couldn’t even see above the crowds. He is unpopular, not what we think of as a good person. This is not someone who was on the guest list of most people’s dinner parties. Most people wanted nothing to do with him. Those who didn’t think he was vile simply thought he was unimportant. But Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house – effectively saying: Zacchaeus, it doesn’t matter to me that you are a tax collector and that you are unpopular. I still want to be with you. I want to be your friend. And it is Jesus’ greeting Zacchaeus with joy that is the cause of Zacchaeus’ promise to give half of his possessions to the poor and make recompense to all he has cheated. God loved Zacchaeus first, and that allowed him to respond back in love.

Michael Himes makes the same point when he write that Reconciliation “is not about how wicked I have been but rather about how good God is. Like all sacraments, reconciliation is not primarily about my action, whether good or bad, but about God’s action.” Himes observes that this makes Reconciliation a source of joy as the community (in the form of the priest to whom we confess) acknowledges that all have sinned and all are forgiven because all are embraced by the love of God….What is being celebrated is not the depth of our sin but the height of God’s love.”

What we are really asked to do in the sacrament of Reconciliation is to accept the loving embrace of God. To accept that, in Fr. Farren’s words, “God believes in us far more than we will ever believe in God. God believes in us far more than we will ever believe in ourselves.”

Joy In Heaven Over The Sinner Who Repents

Last night, as is typical for many retreats I’ve participated in or led, we had a Reconciliation Service, which included the opportunity to individually confess and receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. As I’ve written before, although I know this is a sacrament that has gone our of favor with many people, it is one I always find powerful.

The reading for the service was one of the three parables Jesus tells in Luke 15 – the parable of the lost coin. As with the parable of the lost sheep that precedes it, Jesus tells a story that makes little sense from a practical standpoint. No shepherd having 100 sheep would leave 99 of them to search for the lost sheep. And it is equally unlikely that a woman would call all her neighbors to rejoice and celebrate with her after finding a single coin, even if she has searched high and low for it. (The celebration probably cost more than the value of the coin.)

But Jesus overemphasizes the joy of the finder in both parables to make a point about God’s reaction to our repentence: “I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance….In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

That joy was the focus of Fr. John Schwantes’ reflection on the reading. And I think it is a good focus.

I feel great after hearing the words of absolution, and it is easy to keep the focus on how I feel, what the sacrament means to me. But there is something very powerful and, at the same time, touching about the reminder that this experience is something special for God also, a source of great joy for God.

The Devil’s Greatest Trick

Over the weekend, Dave, Elena and I saw a simulcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Gounod’s Faust, which was terrific. (If you have a chance to see en encore performance, you will not be sorry if you make the time to see it.)

Notwithstanding the title, the opera is more about Marguerite than about Faust. I can’t do justice in a short synopsis, but briefly: Faust makes his deal with the devil (Mephistopheles), allowing him to seduce Marguerite. Faust abandons her when she is pregnant with his child. In a duel, Faust kills her brother, who curses her with his dying breath. Distraught, Marguerite goes to church to pray for forgiveness, but hears the voice of Mephistopheles telling her she is damned. Marguerite kills her child and is imprisoned for infanticide. Faust and Mephistopheles go to the prison in an attempt to “save” Marguerite, but she resists their efforts and in the last scene, angelic voices proclaim she is saved.

Faust is a great tale from an Ignatian perspective. The enemy spirit (devil, evil spirit, whatever term you want to use) is constantly trying to turn us way from God. It tries to tempt us in various ways, holding out the promise of all sorts of gain if we abandon our path of faith. (Think of Jesus’ temptation in the dessert).

Of all the tricks of the enemy spirit – and there are many – the greatest is to try to persuade us that we cannot be reconciled with God, that whatever sin we have committed is too great to turn away from – that, in Mephistopheles words to Marguerite, we are damned. The great hope of the enemy spirit is to drive us to the despair of Judas, making us think we are beyond redemption.

But the reality is that, whatever we have done, no matter how bad, God is always there waiting anxiously for us to turn back to him. Marguerite is terrified when Mephistopheles tells her that her prayers are useless, that her soul is damned. But ultimately, she refuses to believe him and she continues to pray and beg God’s forgiveness. And in the end, we see her moving now down to the darkness, where Mephistopheles and Faust have disappeared, but up to the light, saved by the resurrected Christ.

Reconciliation is always possible.

Isaiah 1:18

The Book of Isaiah opens with what is called the Book of Judgment – a scathing indictment of the people of Israel, who have turned their backs on God. God calls the people of Israel a “sinful nation, people laden with wickedness,” an “evil race” who “have forsaken the Lord.” He calls them Sons who have disowned him and tells them: “Your incense is loathsome to me….I close my eyes to you.” God seems to condemn completely the entirety of his people, accusing that “From the sole of the foot to the head there is no sound spot.”

But as harsh as the indictments are, God cannot sustain them consistently. Even in the first chapter, God also invites with words that always touch me to the core: “Come now, let us set things right…Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they may be crimson red, they may become white as wool. If you are willing.” (Isaiah 1:18)

Those words have such power, conveying to us the incredible reality that God constantly invites us back; is constantly there with arms out saying, I’m here and we can be together….We can be reconciled. You have the choice to come back to me.

When I talked about his line from Isaiah in my talk at the first session of the UST Advent Retreat on Monday, my friend Tom pointed out that the King James Bible translates the first line of Isaiah 1:18 as “Come now, and let us reason together.” The “let us set things right” language I quoted in my talk comes from the New American Bible. Tom wrote to me later that evening saying he had checked out some other Bibles and the line is variously translated as “let us set things right,” “let us reason together,” “let us settle the matter” and “let us settle this dispute.” I then contacted Rabbi Norman Cohen, who I’ve referenced before in posts, who told me that the Jewish Publication Society translation is closer to “let us reach an understanding.”

The different translations evoke very different feelings in me. As I said when the issue arose during the session, “Come, let us set things right” is language that soothes my soul. It brings me back to my early days of returning to Christianity, during which I had great insecurity of where things were between me and God…and the joy when I finally felt that things were “right” between us. So, to me, “let us set things right,” expresses God’s desire for exactly that joyful state with His people.

“Let us reason together” and “let us reach an understanding” are compelling in a different way. They feel less like God scolding us like misbehaving children than inviting us into dialogue, into a collaborative process of healing the relationship, and not letting disagreements stand between us.

“Settle the dispute,” as Tom pointed out to me in our discussion puts one in mind of God’s “legal” case against Israel for breaking the covenant between God and His people.

I am no Biblical scholar and have no ability to judge which of those is the “right” translation. (Indeed, Rabbi Cohen suggested when we spoke that the differences go to prove that whenever we are engaged in translation, by definition there is interpretation involved.) But we don’t really have to come to a firm view on that. I think there is value in praying with the different translations side-by-side to come to a fuller sense of what God is conveying to us. God’s fidelity. God’s desire to see the covenant restored. God’s amazing love for us. And, on our side, our need to accept what God offers, to open our hearts to reconciliation with God.

Reconciliation and Absolution

As it typically the case, this retreat included a Reconciliation Service the other night, which offered the opportunity for receipt of the Sacrament.

Some of my non-Catholic friends bristle at the idea of Reconciliation. “Why do you need to confess you sins to a priest?,” they ask. “Why do you need a priest to give you absolution?”

However, as the celebrant observed during the part of the service at which people could go to one of the priests there present to confess their sins and receive absolution, the priest represents the community. We don’t confess our sins to a priest in his individual capacity. Rather we acknowledge our sinfulness to the community, represented by the priest. And, although the priest speaks the words of absolution, it is God who ultimately dispenses forgiveness for our sins, not the individual priest.

In more human terms, my response is this. For me, there is value in articulating the sins out loud. In having to find the words to speak to another person those things that weigh heavy on my heart. And, if the priest is a good confessor (and I usually have good fortune in this regard), he will have something to say – some suggestion or thought that might help in resolving or moving forward with the issue confessed.

Finally, although I don’t need the actual words from that priest to know I have God’s forgiveness, there is something about hearing the words of absolution that is always very powerful to me. I feel lighter; I feel that a weight has been lifted from me.

Do I “need” to go to Reconciliation. Probably not. But, like all sacraments, it brings joy and peace.

God Loves Us First – A Reflection

Last night we had a lovely Taize prayer service at St. Hubert Church. It was a beautiful hour of song, readings, and prayer. During the service I gave a brief reflection on the theme of Reconciliation, using Luke’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the tax collector Zacchaeus as the starting point of my reflection.

The story of Zacchaeus reminds us of the important fact that God loves us first and always. That we need do nothing to earn God’s love. That God does not love us because we do something to earn that love. Rather, it is God’s love that allows us to respond in love and gratitude. During the reflection, I share how I came to understand this following my conversion back to Catholicism after my years as a Buddhist.

You can stream the reflection it from the icon below or can download it from here. (Remember that you can now also subscribe to Creo en Dios! podcasts on iTunes.) I apologize for the fact that I appear to have done something to the recorder that erased the last minute or two of the reflection, so it ends in mid-sentence.

Come Back to Me, With All Your Heart

One of the songs I love that we hear often during Lent is Hosea, in which we sing words of God’s invitation to us to “Come back to me, with all your heart.”

The invitation to come back with all our heart is not always easy for us to fully accept. The next line of the song says, “don’t let fear keep us apart,” but I wonder whether it is always fear. To be sure, it requires an absence of fear, or at least a willingness to go forward in spite of fear, to completey drop the defenses between us and God. But it seems to me more is at play, something more akin to St. Augustine’s, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” I want to come, Lord, but not really completely, not really with all my heart. Maybe only just a little bit or maybe a lot, but just not all the way. There are some things here I’d really rather not put aside for your sake.

I think part of the invitation of Lent, then, is to focus on what is it that makes it difficult for us to fully embrace God’s love, to fully respond to the invitation to come back with all of our heart. Where is our hesitation? What are we worried about giving up?

God is patient. He has waited a long time for us. And he’ll keep waiting for us to figure it out, and will be ready to welcome us with open arms when we do.

We sing God’s words in Hosea:
Long have I waited for
Your coming home to me
And living deeply our new life