Grace: To grow in sorrow for my sins, to be overcome with shame and confusion before God for my sinfulness.
Text for Prayer: Lk 5:1-8
Reflection: The graces that St. Ignatius suggests we ask for at this point in the Exercises are shame and confusion, and they can be especially difficult graces for us to ask to receive. However, as we grow in our awareness of our own sinfulness, it is important that we do not conceive of shame and confusion as a lack of clarity that leads us to despise ourselves. Instead, we should come to realize that shame is concerned with justice and that confusion is concerned with understanding. As always, we must begin with an awareness of God’s presence and of His love for us, of the fact that He has created each of us in His image and for His glory. The God whom we seek to know is a loving God, and it is only in the light of this Love and with the help of this God that we are able to consider our own sins for what they truly are: deliberate rejections of God’s love that we know are not for our own good (even as we commit them!). Thus the shame and confusion.
When we pray about our sin, Ignatius recommends that we consider particular periods in our lives: the places where we lived or travelled, our relationships, and what we did with our time. Ask the questions: What were my sins from that period? How do I see them now? Taking one period at a time, we then move through the various periods of our lives, taking account of the number and repetition of particular sins.
This experience of praying on sin is often a difficult one, precisely because it reminds us of the pain and disappointment that comes when we fall into the trap of believing that sin is not bad for us. It is often only when we have turned from God that we are able to see our sin for what it truly is. By then, it may seem to be too late, and we may find ourselves feeling trapped with bad habits that make it harder and harder to return to God. However, this sense of being trapped is always yet another lie, and we must not believe it if we are to grow in trust of our God’s power (and eagerness!) to save us.
Bearing in mind this way of deception that often plays into our experience of sin, perhaps it would be helpful at this point in the retreat to consider our sin from God’s perspective, seeing it as the incredible rebellion that it really is. We might conceive of our sin as toxic waste that seeps into God’s good creation, spoiling and contaminating everything it touches. Our sin is not merely a violation of an arbitrary rule that has no connection to the reality of our humanity. Instead, all sin is genuinely bad for us and for the whole world. In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, “God is not offended by us except at what we do against our own good.” All sin is ultimately self-destructive, and it should never cease to amaze us that we can do so much to destroy ourselves and still go on living. It is as though the branch of a tree saws itself off from the trunk and still remains floating in the air. Sin is not just defying God; it’s defying gravity.
Not all sin is deadly, however, and it is important that we don’t forget the venial sins in this appraisal of our history. In Heart of the World, Hans Urs von Balthasar likens mortal sins to toads that (while revolting) are easily swallowed all at once, but venial sins are like gnats that buzz around and defy the One who seeks to take all sin unto Himself.
“For sin is mostly small. It is petty, lacking both greatness and dignity. Sin is pettiness itself, repulsive and greasy. You know what I mean: the sort of spiritual bartering and endless calculation. How far can I go and still not have to confess it? What further concession can I make to my lust? Where is the borderline between mortal and venial sin? (The latter I’ll take on myself!) These trade agreements with God! That’s the way things mostly are with us. What’s your opinion of this our lovely attitude, O Son of Love? …Be careful not to disdain or overlook any one of these “small” sins. You must savor each one separately, because otherwise your work would not be complete. Even the course of one single day in the life of one person is an uninterrupted chain of small betrayals, of innocent jabs against love. Oh your work is great! There are many of them… and they will descend upon you like swarms of locusts and not one green leaf will remain on you.”
While mortal sin is obviously more deadly, all sins are serious; all sins are tremendous offenses against God that ought to enkindle in us a sense of awe that, in spite of all that we have done to turn away from our God, He still never ceases to love us and provide for us all the days of our life.
Finally, there is one more category of sin left to cover. St. Gregory the Great says that, “If [a sinner] still does good only out of fear, then inwardly she has not withdrawn from evil; for she commits sin by desiring to sin, if only she could sin without punishment.” How often in our lives do we look back to our sin with longing, desiring the fleeting comfort that choosing a way apart from God brought us? Perhaps we might realize that Christian discipleship is hard, that the cross we must bear is heavy and burdensome. In these moments, the sins that we have repented of are once again present to us, and we renew them through our longing for what we know is against God’s law. Knowing what is right and following God’s will, we put our hand to the plow and look back to what has been left behind (cf. Lk 9:62 and Gn 19:26). This, too, is a sin that might come to mind as we review our lives.
Once again, the goal of this whole exercise is to come to a deeper repentance of our sins in order that we might come to know all the more fully how great God’s love for us truly is. We are not to wallow in the filth of dirt and sin. Instead, we must look up and see the One who pulls us out of our sin; we must give thanks to our God, whose kindness endures forever.
Questions: Does recalling my own sins and sinfulness lead me to be grateful to God for His mercy? How often do I fail to recognize my own sinfulness? Does this ever lead me to look down upon or condemn other sinners? How does God look upon them? How does God look upon me? Aware of God gazing upon me, what do I wish to say to Him? Spend a few moments in conversation with God.