Grace: Shame and confusion about myself, when I see how many people have been banished from heaven for committing a single mortal sin, and how many times I have deserved eternal banishment for my sins.
Text for Prayer: Romans 1:18-25
Reflection: We have pondered and prayed about God’s immense plan for creation: to exist in him and be glorified. God’s very act of creating, his calling things into existence (“Let there be light!”), is at the same time a call to return to Him, their ultimate destination. We have also seen our place within this plan. That is, human beings are created to praise, reverence, and serve God. By accomplishing this we are saved, we are brought into the glory of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But as we all know, this is much harder than it looks.
There are many seemingly insurmountable obstacles to praising, reverencing, and serving God in our world today. Each day all sorts of distractions bombard us. And those are just the ones that are external to us! There are just as many distractions that come from within us—daydreams, worries, and temptations. These obstacles complicate the task of being a human being created by God for his greater praise, reverence, and service.
Sin is one such obstacle. In fact, it is THE obstacle that prevents us from partaking in God’s plan of love for the world. Yet the idea of sin is like a book that has been shelved in many of our minds, gathering dust. In this meditation we are going to pull the book off the shelf, wipe off the dust, and begin to read.
Simply put, sin is a rejection of God. It is a rejection of God as love, mercy, goodness, beauty, and truth. Because of this, sin is the doorway to suffering. Yet the rush of day-to-day living draws our attention elsewhere and we forget this crucial reality. For the next few days we will ask for a deep understanding of sin, so that we might know the level of our own participation in it and feel the shame and confusion that we tend to bury beneath the laundry lists of our daily life. This shame and confusion, however, is not simply feeling some sort of psychological guilt or sociological complicity. It is rooted in the spiritual. Sin is a spiritual reality that has devastating effects in both the spiritual the material world. In the meditations that follow for this week we must keep in mind that the goal is not to forget about love in order to think about sin, but allow that wounded love of Christ to speak to us in the deepest part of our hearts.
St. Ignatius proposes a meditation on three examples of sin, and for good reason. We can understand sin better by looking at how it works itself into the choices we make and the effects it produces in us and in the world.
The first example St. Ignatius asks us to meditate upon is the sin of the angels, the sin of Lucifer. Despite being superior to us (being pure spirits, having great power and wisdom, etc.), the angels are just as much creatures as we are—obligated to serve their Creator. Nevertheless, some fell from grace and were banished from heaven. Their sin was the sin of pride: “We will not serve such a God!” Their sin distorted their identity: they fell from truth and love into falsehood and hate. They became demons.
The root and beginning of all sins is pride. The angels that fell did not have weaknesses. They were not ignorant. But they could not accept a God who would love human beings, creatures with such an imperfect existence. They were too proud. Their pride blinded them to the fact of their own dependence on God. We must reflect upon the gravity and the consequence of their rejection of God’s love: banishment from heaven.
The second example St. Ignatius asks us to meditate upon is the sin of Adam and Eve, our first parents. Many times the sin of Adam and Eve is presented as a sin of disobedience. But this is not the complete picture. Their sin was also the sin of pride—the pride that usurps. In eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they attempted to become like God. In their sin was implicit the sin of the angels: the desire to decide for themselves what is right and good for human beings, and conversely what is wrong and bad for them.
It is hard to see the true nature of sin when we are being tempted. Taking Eve as an example, we read that the fruit with which the serpent tempted her was “good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that it was to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). Temptation is a distortion and twisting of truth. The fruit was good, delightful, and desirable—but ultimately forbidden. The serpent twists this truth in such a way as to emphasize only half of it. We must dwell on the gravity and the consequence of Adam and Eve’s rejection of God’s love: banishment from paradise and the “enormous corruption it brought to the human race” (SpEx ).
The third example St. Ignatius asks us to meditate upon is the sin of anyone who has gone to hell because of one mortal sin. This is not to say that we know who is in hell, but rather to say that someone can go to hell for one mortal sin. A mortal sin is, in essence, a sin so grave that it involves a complete and utter breaking of the relationship between God and creature. Sins of this kind are tough to talk about for reasons that we do not need to get into here. Suffice to say that the only way to repair the bonds that a mortal sin has broken is to go to confession.
We can draw much spiritual fruit from considering the fact that the love that a person who knowingly commits a mortal sin rejects is an unconditional love. Also, we should consider the effects that mortal sin has on the soul: driving it to its own self-destruction, hatred of God and of others, the disappearance of its interior light. Ignatius suggests the following: “I will call to memory the gravity and malice of the sin against my Creator and Lord; then I will use my intellect to reason about it—how by sinning and acting against the Infinite Goodness the person has been justly condemned forever.”
Now is as good a time as any to suggest a few things so that your meditations might improve in quality. The following suggestions will help you to be fully present in your prayer—not distracted by the demands of the day, but focused and at peace.
(1) Knowing what to pray before you pray: When you go to pray, keep in mind the trajectory of the meditation. That is, know beforehand what things you would like to pray about. That way, when distractions inevitably arise, you can remind yourself of your “prayer agenda” and get back to praying! Having this “itinerary” will help you keep focus and stick to the material.
(2) Using the memory, understanding and will: For Ignatius meditation, using these powers, or faculties, of the soul is important. Our memory allows us to call to mind the text we have read beforehand—whether it be a Bible passage or a reflection. Our understanding or intellect allows us to ponder more deeply the content that our memory has brought to mind. We can consider the text from different angles and perspectives. Our will enables us to direct our attention to the sorts of things that will arouse our emotions. We cannot choose to feel excited, for example, but we can choose to think about things that will make us feel excited. In this meditation, we should use the will to choose to think about things that will arouse in us the emotion of shame and the mental state of confusion.
(3) Preparatory prayer: At this point in the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius recommends that each prayer period begin with the same “Preparatory Prayer” which goes as follows: “My Lord and My God, please grant me the grace that all my intentions, actions, and operations may be ordered purely to the service and praise of your Divine Majesty.” George Ganss, SJ, in his commentary on the Spiritual Exercises, explains that the “intentions, actions, and operations” are “all my physical and mental efforts during this prayer period.” Specifically, “’Intention’ is the directing of the will to an end, ‘actions’ can be understood as exterior activities, and ‘operations’ as interior or mental activities.”
(4) Composition of place: Throughout the Spiritual Exercises Ignatius proposes that we imagine a certain place in order to help us focus on the matter at hand. “It is the mental act of putting things together. This act is done by the exercitant in order to put himself or herself into the right disposition for praying” (G. Ganss, SJ). In this meditation, we should imagine ourselves as being held captive by our sins and their effects, and as present before Jesus crucified on the Cross. If we place ourselves in this place, the quality of prayer will be deepened considerably.
(5) The preparatory prayer, the composition of the place, and the asking for specific graces are “means of recollecting oneself and performing the prayer in a better, reverential manner” (G.Ganss, SJ).
(6) Colloquy: Throughout the Spiritual Exercises Ignatius proposes that we end our prayer with a short conversation with God the Father, Jesus, and/or Mary. Ignatius says “a colloquy is made in the way one friend speaks to another, or a servant to one in authority…” This conversation can be about anything you feel has arisen during the prayer period. In this meditation on sin, Ignatius proposes a colloquy, or short conversation, with Jesus on the Cross, hanging in so pitiful a state. The following questions are meant to guide your meditation, and can be brought up during the colloquy as well.
Questions: How is it that Christ our Lord, although he is God, has come to make himself a human being? How is it that he has passed from eternal life to death here in time, and to die in this way for my sins? What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I to do for Christ?