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Retreat - The Essentials of the Religious Life

Religious Life and Penance

December 30, 1983 — Afternoon Conference

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

We are on the last phase of our reflections on prayer in the religious life. Having reflected on the role of the Holy Eucharist, we now wish to address ourselves to penance. There is one whole Canon in the New Code regarding religious life and explicitly dealing with this subject. It happens to be Canon 664. It reads:

Religious are earnestly to strive for the conversion of the soul to God. They are to examine theirconsciences daily and to approach the Sacrament of Penance frequently.

Unquote. By way of introduction we might note that we are here being told three things; there are three nouns and three verbs and adverbs. First, earnestly to strive for conversion; conversion, to be striven for earnestly. Second, the conscience to be examined daily; and third, the Sacrament of Penance to be received frequently. We then have the logical outline for our reflections: conversion, examination, and the Sacrament of Penance.

We notice that all three directives have to do with sin. Each is a frank, honest recognition that we may be religious all right who are, with God's grace, struggling toward perfection, but as we all know, we are not – how true – we are not perfect. In other words, all religious are sinners.

First then, conversion. The need for constant conversion, lifelong conversion, has been recognized by the masters of the spiritual life from the beginning. Remember Peter's sermon on Pentecost Sunday? Having told the assembled multitude about Christ, and they asked, "What should we do?" the first imperative of the apostolic Church was the verb "repent." It is the foundation of organized religious life in the Catholic Church. The great Father of western monasticism, St. Benedict, was so conscious of the need of this that, in addition to the three traditional vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, he required of his followers to take a vow, conversion of morals. And even those who are not in the family of St. Benedict do not explicitly take the 4th vow of conversion – explicitly I say – the Church assumes that we all better take the vow implicitly.

What are the essentials of this conversion which is stage one in the Church's directives to religious as sinners? The first necessity is to turn away from the sinful creatures in our lives. Conversio as you know, in Latin means a turning. Well, it's a double kind of turning; it is a turning from and a turning to, a turning from sinful creatures and a turning to the sinless God. Evidently, we shall turn away from sinful creatures only if we first know what they are. What leads one person into sin may be totally indifferent in another person's life. What may leave one person cold will set another one on fire. The occasions of sin in our lives differ as much as we differ as persons. In order, then, to even begin to begin to turn away from sinful creatures, we better know what they are in my life. He or she has her responsibility, or his, I have mine. Is it a person, is it reading? Is it my wanton eyes? Is it my daydreaming? Is it my congenital laziness? Because remember, as the Church now keeps reminding us at the beginning of each Sacrifice of the Mass, we beg God's Mercy not only for the things we have done wrong but for the good things we failed to do. And always, at the heart of every sin is a sinful thought. Even as sanctity begins in the mind, so does sin. You just don't become sinless unless you know what train of thoughts in your life, as surely as you are you, will lead you to have sinful desires that will lead to sinful actions. Once I know what is an occasion of sin in my life I then must resolve – one of the main reasons – I'll change it, the main reason for making a retreat – then I resolve with the help of God to give that creature up. And the third step, very simple but the hardest: give it up. That's the first part of conversion: turning away from sinful creatures.

The next is: turning towards God. We know this is not muscular movement in space. It is a deep down, interior – 'turning' is a mild word, it may mean a wrenching of my will from what I want, to what over the years its been so plain what God wants, that I bend, I twist, I turn, that stubborn will of mine to the God Who wants only one thing from me – this is all that God requires – that I give Him my free will. But then, there's a problem. We are still on the level of conversion, and frankly, we could spend, I assure you, a very profitable hour reflecting on conversion.

We all have a sin-prone nature. Consequently, whatever else this conversion is all about it means recognizing in the depths of my soul tendencies that, unless I conquer them, will lead me away from God. This combat, the great masters of sanctity call it the "spiritual combat," listen to this: in the vocabulary of sanctity this is the fundamental action in the spiritual life. This is the active part of the active side of religious life: struggling with and conquering one's sinful tendencies. I thought, “Should I do it?” and decided I would. As often as I read this passage or, as I'm sure you have either read or heard it, it's worth repeating. It is so awfully true. The great St. Paul in his famous chapter –remember? – of his letter to the Romans; this is Paul talking: "The law, of course, as we all know, is spiritual, but I am unspiritual. I have been sold as a slave to sin. I cannot understand my behavior. I fail to carry out the things I want to do and I find myself doing the very things I hate. When I act against my own will, that means I have a self that acknowledges that the law is good, and so the thing behaving in that way is not myself but sin living in me. The fact is I know of nothing good living in me, living, that is, in my unspiritual self. For though the will to do what is good is in me, the performance is not; with the result that instead of doing the good things I want to do, I carry out the sinful things I do not want. When I act against my will, then, it is not my true self doing it but sin which lives in me; in fact, this seems to be the rule, that every single time I want to do good it is something evil that comes to hand. In my inmost self, I dearly love God's law, but I can see that my body follows a different law that battles against the law which my reason dictates. This is what makes me a prisoner of that law of sin which lives inside my body. What a wretched man I am. Who will rescue me from this body doomed to death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord." Unquote St. Paul. I don't think he minds the long quotation – it'll be the only long quotation in this retreat but I consider it the most important. It's not just Paul talking, it's every one of us.

Daily examination. Daily examination of conscience is absolutely necessary in the religious life. Anticipating what we are going to say in our third part, any time you miss the examination of conscience through negligence, confess it, it's a sin. We need it. There has never been a Constitution approved by the Church which did not prescribe daily examination of conscience. And this on the prior assumption that we are all sinners who have something worth examining. St. Ignatius, my father in God, was the soul of kindness when men were either not well or, as with Xavier whom we mentioned earlier, so busy that he sometimes could not, and he asked Ignatius, What should I do? neglect the apostolate and give myself to the prayer that I dearly love? Xavier, one of the Church's great mystics. Ignatius would excuse his followers from all other spiritual exercises but never, even on their deathbed, would he excuse anyone from the examination of conscience.

By now I trust we have read and heard a great deal about various methods of making the examination of conscience. In general, there are two: the so-called general examen and the particular. Both should be the stock in trade of every serious religious. Every religious should first of all daily make a sweeping overview of his or her conduct during the past day or, with us, twice a day. Ignatius, by the way, regularly timed himself, made the examination of conscience times a day, on the biblical testimony that "the just man falls seven times a day." How have I done? how well? and how poorly? And the general examen should always span both aspects, both examining and finding out in God's presence what I have done well with His grace for which I thank Him, and what I have done poorly, for which I tell Him I'm sorry.

The particular examen, as I am sure also that we all know concentrates on one or another of a dominant failing that I have

I hope you've heard this before – if you have, it's worth repeating. Benjamin Franklin, no Catholic he – I suppose he was a Christian of sorts, but – during his long stay in France representing our new American Republic, came into contact with the practice that the Jesuits in France introduced to their students: the Particular Examination of Conscience. Franklin liked it, so what did he do? He examined his conscience and he figured, I, Ben Franklin, have twelve principal weaknesses. So, being methodical, he divided the year into four segments of twelve weeks each, and each week he would concentrate on one failing. He admitted to having a bad temper; one week he’d concentrate on gentleness. May be well to know Franklin worried about his eating and drinking too much. One week he'd concentrate on that. After the first series was over he would start over again, and he said in his autobiography which, by the way, is worth reading, that he owed all of his achievement as one of the founding fathers of the United States to that practice. I repeat, the Particular Examen is a very useful means of growing in sanctity.

Over the years in counseling souls I recommend making the examination with two purposes: one as an inventory of the past and the other as a program for the immediate future. I further recommend making some small jotting in writing to keep a record. And – by now I've got over the embarrassment of telling people about my spiritual life – I've been doing this since my novitiate. It works wonders.

Now, the main focus of our reflections in this meditation: frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance. It is well to know that the frequentation of the Sacrament of Penance, even in the absence of grave sin, goes back to the early Church, and you may have to read a lot of books or articles in learned journals before you'll find one scholar saying that, but it's true. From the very beginning of organized religious life it was assumed that religious would daily examine their consciences and frequently receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It was assumed, of course, that they did not have grave sins to confess. I thought to myself: what can I best say to be of some value on the Sacrament of Penance? So what did I do? You won't believe it. I asked myself a question, and I am doing so now out loud. Why is the Sacrament of Penance so valuable? And I watched the clock – I didn't quite make it. Thought I'd get here in time for 3:00. But I ended up with twenty benefits of the frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance. Let me tell you from experience, each one is true. Why, then, is this Sacrament which the Church tells us – no option here – tells us to receive frequently, why is it so valuable?

First, it sensitizes our conscience. If we're going to grow in sanctity we better become sensitive in conscience. It's remarkable how many people who are sensitive in just about everything else can be remarkably insensitive in conscience. To be able to recognize the least shadow of something that is displeasing to the All Holy God.

It fosters humility. You don't kneel down before another sinner whom you may know as a sinner, and tell your tale of woe without humiliating yourself. One reason when I go to confession over the years, has been face to face since twenty-five, thirty, years ago; for us priests – he will pull up another chair, "Thanks, Father, I'd rather kneel." "No, sit down." "I appreciate your kindness." This sacrament fosters humility.

The Sacrament of Penance is an expression of deep faith in Christ's divinity. Remember the story in the Gospel about the paralyzed man whom they couldn't squeeze into the room through the door so they, well, opened the roof -- then, of course, people made room – and dropped him in front of the Master. Knowing what was going to happen, Christ first told the paralyzed man – which was not the reason he was dropped through the roof: "Be at peace. Your sins are forgiven." The man must have said to himself: "Lord, I know I am a sinner, but really, you know why I came down here. I want to be healed." Then the unspoken objection of the Pharisees: "Who does this man (hear it?), who does this man think he is? Only God can forgive sins." All very true, except that Man was God. And that God-Man on Easter Sunday night, as He told the apostles, gave to them the power which the Father had given Him: "Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven, whose sins you shall retain they are retained." Ah yes, the Sacrament of Penance is a firm affirmation of my faith in Christ being God, Who as Man during His visible stay on earth, forgave sins and before He left the earth in visible form gave to other human beings a share in His divine power.

Why is the Sacrament of Penance so valuable? It is a constant expiation for sins committed. Whatever else we do when we expiate, or should do, is something that we don't naturally like. You don't sit down to a hearty meal, roll up the sleeves, roll out the napkin, and dig in and say, "Lord, I am hereby going to expiate my sins." Don't misunderstand me. We should elevate even such homely and pleasant actions as eating a good meal. But expiation, by the Church's definition, is doing something I naturally do not like in order to make up for my commission of sin by doing what I wanted, what I liked. The Sacrament of Penance is a wonderful act of expiation.

This sacrament strengthens our will against that concupiscence which we have all inherited from our first parents, even though, as we know, when we were baptized we were justified and infused with the life of God in our souls, nevertheless – and what an important nevertheless – the sinful urges, tendencies, impulses – you name them – which are not of themselves sin but which come from sin, to use the Church's language, and lead to sin unless controlled. We need help. This sacrament is a divinely instituted means of coping especially with the sinful tendencies to which we are most prone that we have the humility to confess.

How is this sacrament valuable? It enlightens our minds regarding temptations. In every Lord's Prayer we pray: Lead us not into temptation. Clearly we cannot mean: Lord, preserve me from ever being tempted again. That would be asking for instant death. What we're asking for, and this sacrament provides, is the light we need to know what temptations we should avoid, and when they're on us, how to cope with them. Takes wisdom. Takes light. The sacrament provides the enlightenment.

This sacrament of Penance develops a horror of sin. It almost drives you out of your mind when you reflect on the massive crimes, so widespread in our own beloved United States. The mass murder of the unborn, the broken families, the broken homes, the broken hearts. The 1982 figures for American suicides registered 100,000 Americans took their lives in '82; and the figures will be much higher for '83. People often driven out of their minds because of the cruelty, the coldness, the careless indifference especially of those whom perhaps they loved with all their hearts. What, then, does this sacrament do? It develops what we all need: a horror of sin so that we might become apostles of repentance to a sinful world.

The sacrament fosters honest self-knowledge. The hardest thing in the world, I honestly believe, is honest, real, cold, honest, knowledge of myself. We are so bent in worship over ourselves. We are so blind to our failings; so preoccupied with the failings of others; so in rapturous admiration of the least good in us and so unaware of our sins that we need, how we need, to have developed an honest self-knowledge.

Just for the record, we are on No. 9. This sacrament purifies the soul to be able better to know God and His Will. Blindness, I honestly believe, is the cause of more sin and more crime than deliberate, cold hatred. Who but the devil hates God? But our souls need to be purified to see – and what a difference it makes – to see that what I want, maybe want with all my heart, God may not want, or what I dread with all my heart and my lips tremble in telling God with Job: "Lord, you're Master. You gave and you take away."

What is one of the great benefits of the sacrament? It increases the life of God in our souls. We know on faith the moment a child is baptized, years before it reaches the age of reason, the supernatural life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is infused into that young soul. But as we reach reasonhood and begin to think and act that life is meant to grow and increase and deepen. We're to become more vital, more vibrant, more alive with the life of God. The infallible Church tells us, every reception of this sacrament increases this blessed life of God in our souls.

What does this sacrament do? It reminds a person of his own helplessness. Oh what a salutary lesson that is: that of ourselves we are weak and inconstant, indeed, absolutely nothing. One of the profoundest statements that Christ gave us, remember, at the Last Supper, when He told us, "Without Me you can do nothing"? Well, that has two meanings, and both are sharpened and clarified by the frequent reception of this sacrament. It means, that of myself I can do nothing good on the way to Heaven; Christ and His grace must provide the ability. But it also frighteningly means: of myself I can do nothing – meaning what? Of myself all I can do is destroy. All I can do of myself is ruin. All I can do of myself is annihilate. And what capacity the human will has for destruction. As I confess my sins and go back over what I tell in the sacrament, it's brought home to me – that's right, I am helpless, weak, nothing.

This sacrament cultivates a healthy realism in the spiritual life protecting us from running ahead of our grace. In other words, we are to be faithful to the grace that God gives us but be sure we do not attempt or strive ambitiously to do things beyond what we have grace from God to accomplish.

How valuable is the sacrament? It makes a person more patient with others, once I realize how prone to sin I am myself.

Why is this sacrament so valuable? It obtains as nothing else under God’s will, special graces of mercy from the merciful Lord.

Why is the sacrament so valuable? It sanctifies the Mystical Body because just as sin disfigures so sinlessness elevates, not just me, not just my religious community, but the whole Church of God.

Why is the sacrament of Penance so useful? Because it makes a person more effective as an instrument in the hands of God. Over the centuries, whom does God use for His greatest works? Simple. He uses sinless people. If I want to be used by the Almighty I better look to my sinlessness.

Why is the sacrament valuable? It reveals to us that we really need a Savior, that we have sinned. In other words, as often as we reverently pronounce the Name 'Jesus' which means Savior – but remember, it's one thing to give lip service to that title, it's another thing to realize in the depths of my being that I, I need a Savior, I need a Jesus, I am a sinner. In other words Christ takes on profound meaning once I realize how desperately I needed – past tense – and need – present tense – to be saved.

We're on the eighteenth. What makes this sacrament so valuable? It makes us – how I like to say this – more worthy to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist because just as, absolutely speaking, a person who would dare to approach Holy Communion in the state of grave sin would gain no grace but would commit a sacrilege, so, the more free from sin we are the more grace we receive from every Communion, from every Mass participated in, and from every visit to the Blessed Sacrament.

Why is the sacrament so valuable? It enables us to accept the sufferings of life as reparation for sin. It makes sense of pain. As I think I've said before, but it's worth repeating, there are two monosyllables that belong together by Divine Will and they are: sin and pain. The more conscious and aware I am through the frequent reception of the sacrament, the more conscious I am of the fact that, having sinned so much I should suffer and endure accordingly.

Finally, this sacrament makes us more agreeable to others because we become less selfish, less self-conceited, in a word, we become more loving as we become more sinless.

Let me close with a short prayer.

Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner. Teach me to see myself as You see me. Help me to grow in sinlessness all the days of my life. Through earnest conversion of heart, through daily examination of my conscience, and through the frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance, your blessed sacrament of peace. Amen.

Retreat given to and recorded by the
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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