This morning I did what’s called an “examination of conscience.” It’s basically a self-assessment based on the ten commandments, and it’s ideally done relatively often. My family and I came back from vacation this past Sunday. I hadn’t done much of anything other than sleep, eat, and read Lord of the Rings over the course of two weeks. It was honestly a little boring, and that is my kind of vacation. Because I did nearly nothing, I began to question where I was at, spiritually.
As best I can remember, I have done an examination of conscience twice before. I’m afraid of doing it, not because I’m afraid of God’s justice, but because I don’t like looking at my sins. Before I did it this morning, I took a pen and a piece of paper, and I prayed. At the top of the paper, I wrote “I am good. I am beautiful. I belong to Jesus.” I wrote that because I thought I’d be writing a laundry list of ugly things. Then I asked Saint Faustina, who was the catalyst for the Divine Mercy devotion, to pray for me, I asked my guardian angel to be with me, and I asked the Blessed Mother to walk me through it. I also asked the Lord to be gentle with me, because He is gentle.
If you’re not Catholic, those first prayers might seem a bit weird. As Catholics we believe that we are connected to the entire Church, even after death. That means we can talk to, and even be friends with the saints in Heaven, and the righteous souls still working toward perfection in Purgatory. I won’t get into Purgatory here, partly because there’s plenty about it on the internet, and partly because it’s not the point of the post. The point is, I can ask Saint Faustina, who knows so much about God’s Mercy to pray for me, as a friend on earth might pray for me. I can ask my guardian angel to do whatever he needs to in this situation, because I don’t know exactly what that is. I can ask Mary, Jesus’ mom, and by extension, my spiritual mom (again, there’s a ton about this online) to just walk with me through it, before I even start.
A self-assessment is difficult, especially when it comes to the spiritual life. It means I have to look at what I don’t really want to see. I remember realizing for the first time that what I wanted most was to become a saint. To be a saint means attaining perfection. Part of that means looking at what I don’t want to, asking for God’s forgiveness, and letting Him help me. It means figuring out what I can do to change where I can, and mostly it means letting Him work on me, whatever that might look like. It’s hard for me to deal with the fact that He does most of the work. It’s hard to let go of control.
Recently, I realized that God’s Mercy doesn’t always look like what one might expect. I realized that often, His Mercy looks like making sure there’s a time and place for me to go to confession when I need to. I didn’t find a four-page laundry list of sins. I found four things. It’s one thing to be able to make the self-assessment and be honest with myself; it’s another to actually go to confession and state how I’ve gone wrong out loud. I know that I’m really going to Jesus, and I know that I will receive His Mercy. I just don’t like having to verbally admit that I’m not perfect.
The Lord knows that I’m as jumpy as a rabbit, but He also knows that I will go because if I’ve sinned, it means I’ve hurt my most intimate friend. He’s been kind enough to make sure the priest I go to is gentle. Nonetheless, going to confession makes me anxious. I’m not alone in this. The last thing the priest says is “Go in peace.” The feeling after confession is amazing because sin is heavy, and it quite literally feels like that load has been taken away.
This is why not forgiving someone is such a huge problem. When we pray the “Our Father,” we ask the Lord to “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Our forgiveness and mercy is meant to be exactly like His–infinite. It doesn’t mean it has to be immediate because forgiveness is sometimes hard (when you’re not God), but it has to come around eventually. God wants to forgive, but we do have to ask for it because that’s part of a genuine relationship.
I should acknowledge that there are two different kinds of sins. Small (venial) sins can be forgiven simply if we pray for forgiveness, and if we really are sorry. More serious (mortal/deadly) sins are what we have to go to confession for, but sometimes it’s helpful to go to confession even for smaller stuff. An inevitable question is, “Why do Catholics have to go to confession at all?” The Church is the Body of Christ and we’re all spiritually connected. That means that stuff I do, even if it doesn’t obviously affect anyone, does have a spiritual effect on the whole Church, myself included, and because we are connected, it hurts the Lord, too.
As a member himself, the priest is, in this context, a representative of the Church, as well as a representative of Christ, through whom Jesus administers the sacraments. That means when I go to confession, I can acknowledge that I’ve hurt the Church, I’ve hurt myself spiritually, and I’ve hurt Jesus, and because God is Mercy, He can take the load from me. I still have to do some sort of penance, though, because I did make a mess in the first place. An analogy might be a brother and sister playing together get into an argument, so the sister breaks the brother’s toy. The sister then feels bad and says she’s sorry. The brother forgives her, but the toy is still broken, so the parents decide that the money to pay for a new one has to come from her allowance.
None of that is to say that I’m still guilty after confession. Penance should be natural if I really am sorry because out of love, I should make amends for causing hurt. Because we are God’s adopted children, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. We’re a massive, crazy, dysfunctional family, which is seriously awesome. I have written a post before about “agape” love. It’s love that simply wills the good of the other. It’s the kind of love that, by nature, looks outward. We should be attentive to our inner spiritual lives in order to most effectively maintain this agape love.