Moving Past the Judgment

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.


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.


Baptism and Confirmation

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Baptism of Our Lord. To add to the celebration of this feast, two babies were baptized at the Mass I attended. I always find it moving to participate in a liturgy where we welcome new members of the Body of Christ.

Today was also the day we talked about Baptism in our RCIA program at Our Lady of Lourdes. (I’d love to claim I planned it this way, but at the time I put the RCIA schedule together, I had not realized today was the Baptism of Our Lord.)

Introducing our coverage of the sacraments, my talk today introduced the subject of the sacraments and covered two of the three Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism and Confirmation. At the end of my talk, I gave the participants some time to reflect on the presence of the spirit of God in their lives, after which we had some time for discussion.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 33:39.)

An Incarnational and Sacramental Faith

There have been any number of books written by Catholic writers on the theme of “Why I Am [or Stay] Catholic.” The books are one reflection of the frequency with which non-Catholics put that question to Catholics and with which Catholics ask the question of themselves or of other Catholics. They are also one reflection of the struggle many Catholics have trying to answer for themselves why they stay Catholic despite their own struggles with certain aspects of Catholicism and the departure from the faith of many of their friend and family.

As anyone who knows me or who regularly reads this blog knows, I’ve had my share of struggles with the question of what it means to call oneself Catholic. Difficulty accepting certain teachings of the Church, anger at bishops’ handling of clergy child abuse (and other issues), and so on, all contribute to the question rising at various times. It came up for me again the other day, as I sat having coffee with a friend who observed, “You know, I’m not sure I’m Catholic anymore.”

Part of my own wrestling with that question has prompted me to ask a number of friends of mine – priests and lay people – some variant of the question of what it is that they see as what defines one as Catholic or what they think the core of Catholicism is.

As I’ve reflected on the issue, it seems to me the best answer has to do with incarnation. To call Catholicism an “incarnational faith,” means more than that God became human, as central and as important as the Incarnation of Jesus is to Catholicism. As Tom Groome put it in a recent book review published in America magazine, central to Catholicism is that “it encourages people to enflesh their faith, to realize it in their lives, far beyond the purely confessional…Catholic Christian faith must get done ‘on earth as it is in heaven.'” Our faith has to make a difference in how we live our lives, not motivated by heaven or hell, but as a response to the love of God who so loved us that God became human.

Groome goes on in his book review to talk about what he calls the “other side of the incarnational coin,” that is, sacramentality. Indeed, sacramentality is frequently the answer I get from people when I ask what they view as the central element of Catholicism.

By sacramentality, I (and they) mean more than the seven capital “S” Sacraments recognized by Catholicism. Rather, I mean the recognition that there is no aspect of creation that is not permeated with God’s presence. Our recognition of the special presence of Jesus on bread and wine consecrated on the altar does not negate the reality that God is present everywhere. If we believe that, it has to affect everything – how we see and who we are in the world.

In his book review, Groome suggests that these “twin principles” of incarnation and sacramentality “are what make Catholicism most worthwhile, why anyone can well stay, regardless of disappointments and complaints and the scandals that beset the church.”


Our annual Conference of Catholic Legal Thought gatherings always include, in addition to daily mass, a session devoted to spiritual reflection. Some years I lead the session and in others, the session is led by Greg Kalscheur, a Jesuit who teaches at Boston College Law School. This year, Greg led our session.

One of the things Greg invited us to pray with is the final contemplation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the Contemplation to Attain Love. In introducing the contemplation, Greg shared an excerpt from a piece by Michael Himes titled, Finding God in All Things: A Sacramental Worldview and its Effects. Himes writes

In the Catholic tradition, we call the occasions when grace is made effectively present for us sacraments….By sacrament, I mean any person, place, thing, or event, any sight, sound, taste, touch, or smell, that causes us to notice the love which supports all that exists, that undergirds your being and mind and all the beings of everything about us.

How many such sacraments are there, asks Himes. The answer is a “virtually infinite number,” for there is absolutely nothing that cannot be a sacrament.

If there is one thing that defines what it means to be Catholic, I think it is this sense of sacramentality. As Himes observes, the “Catholic conviction is that if one sees what is there to be seen, one will discover grace, the love that undergirds all that exists…[A]t its best and wisest, Catholicism is shaped by the conviction that grace lies at the root of all reality.”

If we only but look, we can find God in all things.

Touching Holy Ground

If I had my druthers, I’d never wear shoes, but would walk barefoot all of the time. Putting on my shoes is the last thing I do before leaving the house and taking them off is the first thing I do when I walk in the door.

I especially like walking barefoot outside – whether it be on dirt or grass, or even the pavement. I love feeling the heat of the sun on the black pavement, and, although this isn’t the time of year for walking outside barefoot, I confess I took advantage of the relatively warm days we’ve been having to run out for the mail barefoot the other day. There is something about feeling the ground beneath my feet that I love – it makes me feel connected with everything around me.

Given my love for the feel of the ground beneath my feet, I was delighted to read the following passage from Brother David Steindl-Rast’s Common Sense Spiriuality. Leave it to Brother David to turn walking barefoot into sacrament:

There is only one condition for seeing life sacramentally: “Take off your shoes!” Realize that the ground on which we stand is holy ground. The act of taking off our shoes is a gesture of thanksgiving, and it is through thanksgiving that we enter into sacramental life. We shouldn’t forget the grace received in going barefoot either. Going barefoot actually helps. There is no more immediate way of getting in touch with reality than direct physical contact: to feel the difference between walking on sand, on grass, on smooth granite warmed by the sun, on the forest floor; to let the pebbles hurt us for a while; to squeeze the mud between our toes. There are so many ways of gratefully touching God’s healing power through the earth. Whenever we take off the dullness of being-used-to it, of taking things for granted, life in all its freshness touches us and we see that all life is sacramental. If we could measure our aliveness, surely it is the degree to which we are in touch with the Holy One as the inexhaustible fire in the midst of all things.

So take of your shoes and gratefully touch the ground, touching God’s healing power through the earth.