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.


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.

Neither Do I Condemn You

Today’s Gospel is the familiar story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.  It is a passage I have always found powerful and even more so ever since I played that woman in the Trial of Christ (something I wrote about here).

Here is one video version of the scene:

“Neither do I condemn you,” says Jesus to the woman.  Notice Jesus does not say he condones her acts.  Quite the opposite; “Go, and sin no more,” he tells her, acknowledges the wrongfulness of her prior way of life.

But while Jesus disapproves of her sin, he does not condemn her, he does not pronounce her as deserving the ultimate punishment the Pharisees were willing to impose on her.

Who do we condemn?  Who do we write off?  And, in so doing, do we forget our own failings?


Lent Reflection Series Session 2: Lent as a Time to Reflect on Sin

Yesterday was the second session of the four-session Lent Reflection Series I am offering at the University of St. Thomas School of Law this year.  During our first session last week, my talk focused on the traditional Lenten observances of fasting, almsgiving and prayer.

Since Lent is a time of renewal, a time during which we deepen our commitment to making decisions in and through Christ, yesterday’s subject was sin – our need to honestly and soberly reflect on both our own personal sins and our participation in what we refer to as social sin, recognizing our need for God’s help and opening ourself to God’s love and grace.

Sin is not something we particularly like to talk about. It is much easier to focus on God’s love for us. But we need to see ourselves not just as loved, but as loved sinners.  And we need to recognize our patterns of sinfulness in order to be able to overcome those patterns.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 29:28.) A copy of the the handout I distributed to participants, which I talk about near the end of my talk is here.

Creation and Fall

Yesterday was the first of a four-session pre-Advent scripture study/prayer I am offering at Our Lady or Lourdes in Minneapolis. The series, titled from Creation to Annunciation is designed to help us prepare for our Christmas celebration of the coming of Christ.

As I observed at the outset of my talk today, the different Gospels begin the story of Jesus in different places. John and Mark begin with the preaching of John the Baptist. Luke begins with the foretelling of the Baptist’s birth. Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus Christ, a genealogy that he begins with Abraham. But to understand the full story of Jesus Christ, we have to go back even further – to the story of creation.

Thus, today’s focus was on creation and fall. I began by talking about the Genesis account of creation – and what it reveals about God’s plan. I then spoke about how we might think about the entry of sin into the world. From there I moved on to God’s response to sin – the decision to incarnate.

Following a question and answer period, I described the handout for the series (which I will try to post later this week in an update to this post) and made suggestions for the participants prayer during the week. I then led the group in a guided meditation on creation, after which we had some small group sharing. It was a wonderful start to the series.

You can access a recording of the first part of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 25:33.) My apologies for the technical error on my part that prevented my recording the part of the session that continued after the brief question and answer session.

To Confess Our National Sins

Yesterday, Professor Robby George of Princeton quoted on his Facebook page a portion of Abraham Lincoln’s March 30, 1863 Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day:

We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.

Quoting that language, Professor George asked, “151 years later, is it not the case that the very same words could be said, the very same diagnosis offered, the very same remedy prescribed?”

I think there is enormous truth in Lincoln’s words and agree with Robby that the very same words could be said today. We live in a world in which there is an absence of what the Beatitudes term “poverty of spirit” – our recognition of our absolute an utter dependence on God. And we live in a world in which runs rampant not only individual sin, but what in Ignatian terms we call “social sin” – institutional or structural sins. And it does behoove us to humble ourselves in the face of our sinfulness.

The difficulty with Lincoln and Robby’s prescription that we confess our national sins is that we have no widespread agreement as to what those national sins are. (Not that there was any greater agreement on that subject in 1983.) I wonder if Robby and I (or any other two or more people for that matters) were asked to list the top five national sins of the day, how similar or different would our list be? (And I shudder to think how many would not have ever given thought to the question.)

In part this reflects the fact that our definition of social sin in this country is heavily tied to our political leanings, with the result that we don’t have widespread agreement as to what are our national sins. Sadly, however, it also reflects the fact that our list of national sins is quite large.

16.2 million children in America don’t get enough to eat.

Almost two-thirds of all US drone strikes in Pakistan target homes.

More than half a million people in the US are homeless on any given night.

US surveillance practices violate fundamental civil and political rights.

About 10.5 million Americans are working poor, that is people who spent 27 or more weeks of the year in the workforce but whose income still fell below the poverty line.

Our rhetoric on abortion has gotten so vitriolic that it can hardly be termed debate, with the result that seeking common ground seems an impossible task. And the same can be said about the tone of debate about contraception, medical care, climate change, and a host of other issues.

And those are just the things that come to mind off the top of my head.

That doesn’t mean I disagree with indictment or the prescription. I think we take structural sin far less seriously than we ought to. But our inability to agree on what those are (and, increasingly, to demonize those with whom we disagree) is itself part of the problem. And it is a part that is worth thinking about.

A Scriptural Examination of Conscience

In Freedom and Forgiveness: A Fresh Look at the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Fr. Paul Farren suggests that just as there are two great commandments, there are only two great sins – the sin of Adam and Eve and the sin of the Innkeeper – and that all other sins are a manifestation of these two. He describes the sin of Adam and Eve as wanting to be God and not allowing God to be God. The sin may be manifest in many ways, but always involves a failure to accept ourselves as the loved creation of God. Farren describes the sin of the Innkeeper as not having space for the poor and those who are in need, failing to live as a community of love, a community of people in relationship.

Thus, when we are examining our conscience, we are asking where we have failed to live the two great commandments of love – facing those times we have committed the sin of Adam and Eve (breaking the commandment to love God) and the sin of the Innkeeper (breaking the commandment to love our neighbor).

Farren further suggests we might engage in an examination of conscience using as our basis the story of the story of the rich young man in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 10:17:22). Here is the examination he suggests:

The rich young man knelt before Jesus.
Do I acknowledge Jesus in my life? Do I have space for God?
Do I seek, respect and respond to his Word?

The rich young man wanted to inherit eternal life.
Do I want to be close to Jesus always?
Do I want to do the best I can with the gift of my life?
Do I believe that I can accept the gift of heaven by the way I live on earth?

Jesus asked the rich young man did he keep the Ten Commandments?
Do I keep the Ten Commandments?
Do i realize that rather than stopping me doing things they free me to be myself?
Do I respect myself as the beautiful creation that God made me?

Jesus looked steadily at the rich young man and loved him.
Do I believe that Jesus looks at me and loves me?
Do I believe that Jesus invites me to share in his life?
Do I believe that Jesus believes in me?

Jesus told the rich young man to sell everything he had and give the money to the poor.
Do I make space for Jesus in my life through loving and caring for others?
Do I recognize the face of Jesus in those who are marginalized, disrespected, those who live in poverty and those who are vulnerable?
Do I recognize everybody in the world as my sister or brother equal in the eyes of God?

Jesus then told the rich young man to follow Jesus.
Do I believe that Jesus has a plan for my life? Do I make an effort to discover that plan? Do I trust Jesus enough to accept his plan?

The rich young man went away sad.
Do I choose the way of Jesus or do my own thing?
Do I allow God to be God in my life and do I welcome Jesus into my life?

You doubtless have other ways you engage in an examination of conscience, whether in preparation for the Sacrament of Reconciliation or otherwise. But this struck me as a helpful way of going about the process.

2014 Lent Retreat in Daily Living: Week 3

Yesterday was the third weekly gathering of the Lent Retreat in Daily Living I am offering this year at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Our retreat this year is a truncated version of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

During this past week, participants prayed with Ignatius’ Principle and Foundation, something that Ignatius viewed as the key to the spiritual life. At the beginning of today’s session (as we always do in these retreat in daily living) participants shared in small groups about their prayer experience during the week.

After the sharing we spent a good amount of time discussing some implications of the Principle and Foundation in light of soem of the retreatant’s experience during the past week.

During our remaining (relatively short) time together, I talked about sin, the subject of Week 1 of the Spiritual Exercises.
I talked about what we mean by sin, why it is important for us to reflect on our sinfulness and our need to focus less on individual sins than on our patterns of sinfulness.

You can listen to the talk I gave at our gathering here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 19:06. You can the prayer material for this week here. Because next week is our spring break week, you will see that the handout has two weeks of prayer; our next gathering will be April 1.

Presence of Grace vs. Absence of Sin

As I was going through some paper I accumulated during my New York visit, I came across a parish bulletin from St. Francis Xavier, where I attended Mass and spoke about my book on the Sunday I was in New York.

The bulletin entry concerned the Feast of the Immaculate Conception that had taken place the day before. It observed that although the literal sense of the feast is the idea that Mary was born free from original sin, the broader understanding of the Feast “expresses the experience of the faithful that what we know about Mary indicates she lived a life in which she knew she was freely and completely loved by God.” The Feast is thus an illustration that “within human nature God takes the initiative to surround the life of all human beings with love and fidelity.” Thus, it suggested, although we think about the doctrine of Immaculate Conception in terms of absence of sin, it is more importantly about the presence of grace.

The explanation resonated with me for two reasons. First, I have always thought that it makes an enormous difference whether we view our starting point as sin or grace. The reality is that our starting point is grace – we enter the world through the love of God and are gifted with God’s grace in each moment of our existence. Grace comes first, then sin. I think that is something we sometimes forget.

Second, while Mary is an important figure for Catholics and many other Christians for a number of reasons, the explanation makes the Feast about more than Mary. What makes Mary special is that she so fully lived in the grace of God. But that grace is something that is available to all of us and we are each invited to live as Mary did – as people (to paraphrase the bulletin) who freely live and move and make life decisions within that graced horizon. In this, as in so many things, Mary is a model for our lives.

Advent Retreat in Daily Living 2012 – Week 1

Although Advent doesn’t begin until Sunday, yesterday was the first gathering of the Advent Retreat in Daily Living at UST Law School. We began by each person sharing a little about their understanding of Advent. I then offered a short reflection about the meaning of Advent and talked about the prayer materials for this first week of prayer.

I began by talking about the story of creation, which helps us understand what we are waiting for in Advent and why.

Our Scriptures open with the story of creation – In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God then created and light and separated it from the darkness. Then God separated the water from dry land. God then brought forth vegetation and then living creatures on the land and in the sea and in the sky. And then “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female – he created them. God blessed them.”

Out of chaos, God creates an orderly universe. The opening lines of Genesis highlight the goodness of creation and God’s desire that human beings share in that goodness.

But something happens to disrupt what God intended. Genesis 2 offers a myth to explain that reality – the story of Adam and Eve eating the apple at the instigation of the serpent. Some people believe the account in Chapter 2 is a literal account. But it is not all the important whether one believes it or not. What is important is the reality the story is designed to convey. Joseph Tetlow, in his contemporary rendition of the prayer exercise in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius dealing with what Ignatius calls the Sin of Adam and Eve puts it this way:

I think about this. Even though I may believe that God brought humankind onto the face of the earth through evolution, I have to believe that at some point in time and on some spot on the globe, the earliest humans came into life. They grew intellectually aware of right and wrong, and some among them – the church has always believed it was the very first – chose to do evil. They abused what was given them. They chose to use what was forbidden by their own consciences. They decided willfully to make their own value system instead of letting the Spirit of God instruct them. From that sin came others, more and more. From that sin came death. So, from this earliest sin came flooding down all the misery, wretchedness, evildoing, and death-dealing in the world.

It is not about an apple. Or a serpant. And it doesn’t really matter whether it was a woman or a man. The point is Sin entered the world. And from that first entry of sin into the world, more sin came. And we see the effects of that all around us. Violence. War. Famine. Pollution. Racial and ethnic strife. You see the effect everywhere.

I asked the participants to imagine the heart of God seeing all of this. Seeing much more than we see – we see only a limited piece. God sees all of it – past, present and future – in a single image all of the time. What does that do to the heart of God? To contemplate the goodness of what he created and see this. To see in a single moment: Auschwitz, the sacking of Constantinople, the bombing of Hiroshima, early Christians being fed to the lions in Rome, slavery, child prostitution, the effects of drug abuse. And we can go on and on. God looks out at what he created – what he termed good – and beholds all of that.

The first meditation I inivited participants to pray with this week asks us to imagine just that. The meditation is that which begins the Second week of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Ignatius asks us to “look at all the people of the earth” – the different ethnic, racial and religious groups, some in families, some alone, some young, some old. And to watch God watching all of thie. Then he asks us to see the realities of the world around us – the reality of sin. AND to imagine God looking down on it. To see what it does to the heart of the Trinity to “look down upon the whole surface of the earth, and behold all nations in great blindness, going down to death and descending into heal.” He wants us to feel the Trinity’s love for humanity and their pain at our suffering. And to listen to the thought of the Trinity: This is what we’ll do. We’ll become human and show them the way. It is a powerful meditation.

After that, I talked about the remaining prayer material for the week. Having neglected to check the recorder before I started speaking, I didn’t notice that it was low enough on battery that it stopped recording three minutes into my talk. So I have no podcast of the talk to post this week. However, you can find a copy of the first week of prayer material here.