Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Crying the Confiteor

Dear Theophilous,

I’ve always been a little bit on the sappy side. Ever since I was a kid, it hasn’t taken a whole lot to get me to tear up. At a very young age I learned why they called them tearjerker movies, but I never could really understand why there were tearjerker commercials on TV. Even today, if there is the least bit of emotional sentiment being expressed, I find my eyes begin to well up and I need to choke back the tears.

As I’ve gotten older, I have become better at keeping my emotions in check as my surroundings dictate. I really need to be caught off guard by a film I’m showing in class for the tears to come (can’t be letting the kids see me cry). If I do feel the tears starting to come, usually the classroom is dark enough for me to get to the door and step out into the hallway until I can get things back under control.

In other words – I don’t cry in public…

…until one day this past summer.

During the summer holidays I like to get to daily Mass at least once a week. The day of the week changes based on what we’ve got going on, or if I can get myself out of bed in time; but I do make the effort to get there at least one day through the week. I like the simplicity of the daily Mass, and I like the quiet. I especially like the quiet (in particular those moments of silence when music fills the void on Sundays – not that I mind the music, it’s just sometimes silence is nice too).

At this one particular daily Mass in the middle of August, as the 2 dozen or so of us in the congregation were saying the Confiteor the tears started coming, and there was no way I could stop them.

The long and the short of the whole story – I realized what I was saying, and I realized how unworthy I am of God’s mercy.

Although it has taken me a while to get up the courage to share this with you, dear Theophilous, I would like to share the Confiteor with you, and then take you through the thoughts that stirred so much emotion.

I confess to Almighty God,
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,
through my fault, through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;
therefore I ask the blessed Mary ever-Virgin,
all the Angels and Saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.

So now bit by bit, couplet by couplet, my reflections on the Confiteor…

I confess to Almighty God,
and to you, my brothers and sisters,

Confession is nothing new. My family and I try to make a regular habit of it (though it is admittedly more irregular than regular). I had been away from the sacrament for some time, and found it difficult at first, but now I find I get antsy if we haven’t been in a while.

On this particular day, at this particular Mass, with these particular words, I began to realize just how personal my confession is. It’s not just some list to be rattled off by rote, or a pat “The usual” or “The same as last time”. This time I was acutely aware of the reality of my sins and that they hurt my relationship with God. I also became more conscious of the fact that the Father already knows my sins, and that I He would be more merciful if I came clean and repented myself.

This time I was also struck that I was confessing to the whole congregation – my brothers and sisters. Not only did my sins affect my relationship with God, but with the entire Body of Christ – the Church. It felt weird at first to be confessing to others in the congregation, but then I was comforted by the words of St. James’ letter: Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. (James 5:16) It brought me solace to know that no matter how great of a sinner any of us are, we’re in this together. That we are the Body of Christ, and that when one part of the body is ill, the rest of the body pulls together to heal itself.

that I have greatly sinned,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,

Even on the days when I’m just rattling through the Confiteor, these lines act like a mini examination of conscience for me. My mind starts racing and I can never seem to get through the list before we’ve moved on to the next couplet.

This, however, was really the moment when I realized the seriousness of what I was saying. The moment when the tears started coming.

This time I stopped, though. I slowed down and listened to what I was saying… I have greatly sinned. There should be no trivializing of my sin. No rushing through the list to make sure I didn’t miss anything. If my sins are great enough to list, then they are great enough to have offended God. Although there is a difference between venial and mortal sin, all sin offends God. All sin drives a wedge between ourselves and the Father who loves us. All sin is great in its harm.

So then I dug deep. I recalled not only my sins of action, but also the thoughts that had germinated those sins. I also recalled the thoughts that started me on the road toward sin, but through the grace of God I was able to catch before they came to fruition; thoughts that are still sin as Christ taught us. (cf Mt 5:28)

And then there is the kicker: in what I have done and in what I have failed to do. Not only to I need to recall all of my sins, but I also need to remember when I should have done something but I didn’t. How many times had I passed the homeless on the street, turned a blind eye to someone who needed help, shirked away instead of defending the Church.

I have sinned… lots… and I have sinned greatly… and I just at that moment realized what that meant to my relationship with God and others.

And matters were only getting worse (and the tears copious) as I knew that this sinning was…

through my fault, through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;

I had nowhere to hide; no one to blame it all on. These sins are mine and mine alone. I knew what I was doing (but maybe pretended I didn’t). I had made the conscious decision. It’s always a humbling experience to admit it… but these sins were my own fault and nobody else’s.

I wanted to do more than pound my chest. I wanted to wail and rend my garments. I was devastated. My sins felt greater than me, that I could not overcome them to receive God’s mercy.

Thank goodness we have friends greater than this world to help us through…

therefore I ask the blessed Mary ever-Virgin,
all the Angels and Saints,

A sense of calm began to wash over me. I could ask for help. All those who are close to the Lord would pray for me: Mary, His Mother; the Angels who surround, serve and worship the Lord; and the Saints, those humans who would tell you that they were the greatest sinners. They would all be praying for me, as well as for you.

With the list of sins that had just flashed through my mind, I needed all the help I could get; and the closer the help was to God, the better.

and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.

And yes, I knew I had to pray for all of my brothers and sisters in Christ, because I sure knew that I needed their prayers. Just like St. James exhorted us to do, we needed to pray for one another for healing. The journey through life is too arduous to do it alone, we need one another’s help. When one of us falls, the others need to pick them up through prayer and spiritual guidance.

Reinforced with the knowledge that I had all of that prayer behind me, the tears subsided and the sniffling stopped. As we moved into the liturgy of the word, my mind and heart felt like fertile ground for the seed of God’s wisdom. And the Eucharist, my heart itself was moved to a warmth that spread through my whole body.

Although I’ve never said the Confiteor by rote since; always aware of what I’m saying, aware of the damage my sins have done; I’ve never been so acutely aware of my sins and God’s bountiful mercy for those who seek it, as I was on that August morning in a quiet suburban church.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Gate is Narrow and the Way is Hard

Dear Theophilous,

Every week when the local paper shows up at the door, one of the first things I do is flip to the back and scan the obituaries. Whenever I get caught doing this I’ll glibly reply that I was just making sure my name wasn’t there and I can continue breathing.

Joking aside, I have noticed an interesting trend from obituary writers, most of who use opening lines such as:

… has gone to reside in the Lord.

… has become another angel in heaven.

…has joined mom/dad in heaven.

Reading the obits these days, it seems as though everyone gets into heaven and no one is going to hell. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that we all don’t go to the Lord, we do since He is our final judge, but it seems that we think we have already figured out what His verdict of our loved ones will be.

This is our calling, and this is our hope; that we will be reunited with our Lord in paradise. This is something I pray for everyday; for myself, for my family, for my friends and for those who have no one to pray for them.

Yet, in a world that’s rife with evil, we need to acknowledge the existence of hell. We need to recognize that not everyone accepts the will of God. We need to understand the truth behind one of Christ’s most difficult teachings; a lesson I’m certain it pained him to share:

Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Mt 7:13-14)

This teaching of Christ struck me recently while I was reflecting on my misspent youth, and I realized the irony of the titles of two of my favourite songs from my teenage years: Highway to Hell and Stairway to Heaven. It seems these two rock bands understood Christ’s teaching on traffic flow. Even within the songs’ lyrics we can see hints as to cosmic battle for souls:

No stop signs
Speed limit
Nobody's gonna slow me down
Like a wheel
Gonna spin it
Nobody's gonna mess me around
Hey, Satan
Payin' my dues
Playin' in a rockin' band
Hey, mamma
Look at me
I'm on the way to the promised land

I'm on the highway to hell
Highway to hell

(excerpt – Highway to Hell – AC/DC – 1979)

To which the answer would be:

If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now,
It's just a spring clean for the May queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There's still time to change the road you're on.

(excerpt – Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin – 1971)

Intentional or not, these songs fit so nicely into Jesus’ teaching on salvation.

The pathway to destruction is wide and easy, very much like a highway. Although it may not be the Autobahn without a speed limit, once we get rolling along that highway to perdition it becomes very hard to slow down, change lanes and take the off ramp. And Satan makes no bones about it, even though he promises you greatness and pleasure in this life, he promises neither joy nor comfort in the life to come.

The pathway to life is hard, just like spring cleaning or climbing a stairway that seems to go on forever (or an eternity). However, be not afraid, don’t be alarmed, because the May queen, Mary, is here to help. Christ’s mother draws us closer to Him with a simple phrase: Do whatever He tells you. (Jn 2:5)

There’s till time, dear Theophilous, for both of us, as well as the whole world, to change the road we are on; to find the narrow gate; to take the way that is hard; and to climb the Stairway to Heaven.