This wouldn’t be the first time that I think the church has things completely backward.
Back end front, and all that.
Perhaps it’s the challenge of being a mystic that is at the root of this dissension.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the church – any Christian church, really – does a great job in finding ways to point out to people how wrong they are.
It’s just that they do this from a people perspective.
And people aren’t God.
This passion to point, condemn, and feel satisfied in the condemnation could be separated out into its own little sideshow and entitled, This Is Exactly What You Do That Pisses Off Others. I think that would handle the phenomenon.
And put it in its place.
But the church, in the matter of sin, doesn’t distinguish between people judgment, and God judgment.
I remember listening to Mother Angelica, the stalwart founder of EWTN, rant one afternoon about those stupid Christians who think a general confession during Mass was an adequate way to address own one’s missteps of the week. No, she said. Each and every sin must be named.
How else can one be given absolution and have it mean anything?
Again, here the responsibility for identifying one’s spiritual corruption falls on the shoulders of the person. Not God. Only this time it’s the shoulders of the person himself and not the congregation around him.
The longer I work with God, the more I see how vastly different he is from people.
Not that that growing awareness should surprise me. Or anyone else.
But it’s how he’s different that impresses me. Or stamps me, like hot metal in soft wax.
Here’s a good example.
I once participated in a period of judging. Whether it was done just for my benefit of learning, who knows. Whether it was even real, again, who knows.
But I did participate and watched the results.
One person who was being focused on endured the process. Very bravely. Very nobly, even.
And it was the only person whose result I was privileged to learn: he was deemed, in the end, to be frivolous.
And I remember thinking, well, that’s not so bad, is it? What’s the real harm in being frivolous?
Is there any harm in being frivolous?
I couldn’t see any, really.
But, shortly after the judging, the man’s life took such a seriously drastic turn for the worse, it was almost as though the stamp of the judgment was coming to the surface of his life and telling us just what God thinks of him.
And it was really, really not a pleasant thing to watch.
Which, of course, is not to say that all calamity comes from disapproval from God.
It’s just that, in this case, to my mind, the two things were tightly bound together. He was judged. He suffered.
But he was judged to be frivolous.
I hope you are catching my drift.
Earlier in my life I had been taught, over quite a long period of time, that the two worst sins, in the eyes of God, were presumption and immodesty.
Both of which have definitions that confounded me. And would probably confound you, too.
But where and how are these two sins addressed in church?
Every once in a rare while, presumption comes up under a different name and is addressed. Perhaps.
Immodesty, in the way God uses that term, pretty much never.
So, then, if presumption and immodesty and even being frivolous – and who knows what all else – are qualities that God looks for in judging, and if the church doesn’t have a clue about this, how, then, is the church able to help us put our souls in order?
Well, I think, with all respect to Mother Angelica, that a general confession does do a lot of good. For two reasons.
The first is that it gives us the chance to say, I’m sorry for dissing my neighbor and “forgetting” to feed his dog as I agreed to do, and bring to mind and heart other acts that we regret; but it also gives us a blank check to hand over to God and say, Here, you fill in the blanks.
You fill in the blanks.
You know what I’ve done that really has been inappropriate. I may not remember them, or I may have not even recognized them at the time and now, here on my knees, I still can’t see them. But you can.
We’re not just blind to our own faults, we may not even be able to define them.
Like all those colors that other animals can see, but our eyes filter out.
We live in our world, not God’s. We define our sins by what we understand about life. Life here on Earth.
Not in terms of our eternal life, our soul’s life.
We barely even admit to the existence of the soul, let alone grasp any of its workings and subtleties.
And now for the second reason that I feel makes the General Confession such a great prayer.
How do we, in our infinite limitedness, know our sins?
We can listen to other people, sure.
We can take to heart what we absorb from the world around us.
Or, we can sit at the feet of Jesus, in prayer, and just let the light that he shines on us reveal our rotten spots. Our places of decay.
We can just rest in his gentleness, mercy, and grace and let our inadequacies rise to the top of our consciousness.
We can learn about our own sin by letting ourselves acknowledge his purity.
We can become like children, imperfect and ignorant, and be shown how to reach for something less imperfect and less ignorant.
And then we can practice.
Because absolution is always there when we stumble and err.
There is always a hand, even when we don’t know that we’ve fallen.