Someone said to me recently after they had done something they regretted, “I’m telling you, if it weren’t for Confession, I would probably have despaired long ago over all my crap; I mean, my sins. It’s my favorite Sacrament, no offence to the Eucharist intended.” I asked them if I could quote them, and they said, “If it helps someone go to Confession, by all means.”
That made me reflect on how I deal with my own piles of inner junk, which led me to write a post for all of you fellow sin junkies out there.
The Heaviest Cross: Me
I went on an Ignatian retreat a number of years ago, and my director shared a trove of insights with me after my general life confession. Here is my journal recollection of his advice:
You must be attentive to the wiles of the Enemy alluring you to abandon fidelity to your state in life, and what God commands of you. You must also be aware of others’ failings and sins, but only inasmuch as they might affect you adversely and require a prudent response, or might require you to offer them charitable correction, or maybe even require your forgiveness and intercessory prayer for them. But what should really grab your attention and effort are your own sins and weaknesses and failings. In the end, God will judge you only for your response to His will in the face of others. But even as you are attentive to your own inner mess, your focus must be never be on the mess per se, but on God’s mercy that both exposes your sins for what they are and at once drowns them in his healing Light. That’s the Cross, right? Light is stripped naked by our sins, lays bare our guilt before God and humanity, and is plunged into our deepest darkness so that our darkness might be overcome by the Light. It’s interesting that right after John 3:16, which is about God’s love for the sinful world, it says, “…everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light…” If you want to taste of God’s love for your sinful world, you must step into the light every day when you examine your conscience; when you are corrected by someone else who speaks the truth to you. Those who hide from the truth, run from it, deny it, reject it, betray it, rationalize it away discard mercy. But once you experience mercy, and its liberating joy, you are freed to admit all of your faults because you are freed from the exhausting work of constantly constructing cages created by your endless self-justifications. That’s why St. Neri would run out of the confessional, laughing and saying, “I can’t wait until I fall again to be raised up by such a Redeemer!” People who fear the truth about themselves are a sad, joyless lot. The desert Fathers often spoke about praying for the gift of tears, which for them meant tears of repentance, of being enabled by God to unveil in the secret of one’s heart the depths of guilt, the roots of one’s sins, so that God could get his grace into those roots. Those tears, the Fathers said, were sacraments of “joy bearing mourning,” the joy of salvation.
…you are your own heaviest cross, you are your own worst enemy, and embracing that fact will preserve you from a life of cage building. Facing the truth of your sinfulness, owning your pettiness and vices, keeps you humble and makes room for divine mercy. Who needs mercy when they’re preoccupied with the smoke and mirrors game of self-righteousness or the turned inward anger of self-loathing? Receiving mercy makes you able to be joyfully merciful with others’ faults and failings. Jesus says only those who are forgiven much can love much. And he doesn’t mean only those who have committed lots of sins can be forgiven much, but that those who allow their many sins to be forgiven are the only ones who can really love; and love in the most extreme way, which for Jesus means love in the form of mercy. That’s perfect love [Luke 6:36]. Welcoming humble correction from God and others, which is a natural reflex for the humble, is the prerequisite for being qualified to offer it. In the end, when it comes to sin-gazing keep your eyes fixed on Jesus as the one “from whence comes your help,” and not fixed on yourself or on others. Only he keeps you humble and hopeful.
He then shared with me the story of desert Father, Abba Moses the Black, which I’ve shared here before. St. Moses entered the monastic life after abandoning a life of gang violence (who was a leader of bandits in the Nile valley), alcoholism and crime who was known especially for terrorizing his victims. He was also a huge, imposing figure. One day a member of the monastic community was caught committing a particularly heinous sin, and the abbot of his monastery asked the revered Abba Moses to come to the church and render judgment. He came reluctantly, carrying on his back a leaking bag of sand. When he arrived, the brothers asked him why he was carrying such a thing. He simply said,
This sand is my sins which are trailing out behind me, while I go to judge the sins of another.
At that reply, the brothers forgave the offender and returned to focusing on their own salvation rather than the sins of their brother.
A side note. Abba Moses was martyred at the age of 75 by a gang of desert bandits whom he, after telling his brother monks to flee to safety, greeted with open arms.
So I tell you, [his] many sins have been forgiven; hence, [he] has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little. — Luke 7:47
Fr. Tom, preach it!
Consistent readers of this Blog know well how much I love Orthodox theologian Fr. Tom Hopko, whose work I could read every day and never tire. Let me leave you with his wisdom today to punctuate my theme.
Endure the trial of yourself and your own faults and sins peacefully, serenely, under the mercy of God. This is very important. St. Seraphim of Sarov said: “To have the Holy Spirit is to see your own wretchedness peacefully, because you know that God’s mercy is greater than your wretchedness.” St. Therese of Lisieux, a Roman Catholic saint who died at 24, she wrote to a friend: “If you are willing to bear the trial of your own wretchedness, serenely, then you will surely be the sweetest dwelling place of Jesus.” We have to bear our own faults, serenely. St. Paul said: “Where sin has abounded, grace has superabounded.” And we cannot let the devil rejoice two times. Pythagoras said: “When we fall, the devils rejoice. When we stay down, the devils keep rejoicing.” And nothing puts the devils more to shame than having fallen, we stand up again. So we must bear peacefully, calmly, our own weaknesses, our own failings. Expect them. Don’t make them happen, but expect them. We are not God.
When we fall, get up immediately and start over. As often as we fall, we stand up again. And we will fall. It says in Scripture that the wise person, the wise man, falls seven times a day, that meanas a lot, but he gets up again. The fool does not get up again, and the fool doesn’t even know that he has fallen. The wise person knows when he falls, but he gets up again. In fact, the tradition says: “It belongs only to God, never to fall.” It belongs to demons to fall and not get up again, but it belongs to human beings, certainly to Christians, to fall and to get up again, to fall and to get up again. One Desert Father even described human life, according to Christian faith, in that way. When he was asked by a pagan, what does it mean to be a Christian, he said: “A Christian is a person who falls down and gets up again, who falls down and gets up again, who falls down, is lifted up again by the grace of God to start over.” And you can start over every moment anew.