Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Father Jack's:Saints: A Sinners Guide, or: Ten Most Important Facts about Repentance

Father John J. Lombardi

Two Revelations from this past week: A penitent-pilgrim recently said, in effect: "I now really mean it. I was always afraid of the Act of Contrition---but now I really want to change and mean it-'And I fully intend, with Thy grace, to sin no more, avoid the near occasions of sin.' "…. This soul really speaks for many-that, sometimes, we don't really put our whole heart into conversion or turning away from sin, or from certain sins. But: it's really a grace to have an "epiphany" like this and want to change, to become repentant and more Christ-like. I asked young Matthew (eighth-grader), upon visiting his family home, "What is your favorite prayer?" He thought a moment or three, and then blurted out, to my amazement: "The act of Contrition." Unusual, and good. Another epiphany.

It's time to change. No, it's not Lent, of course, not just yet. But within Eternity every moment is a time to turn away from sin and turn to Him, the Lord. Here's an unusual one: a public confession? U.S. House of Representative Boehner recently "confessed," amidst the congressional-lobbying scandal, to receiving checks given to him by tobacco lobbyists to give away on the floor of the Capitol's House of Representatives. Icky. But: you gotta' admit this guy's bravery at transparency and confession.

Let's face it, it's hard to turn away from sin--to really intend to stop doing sinful things we like, and embrace sacrificial holiness. St Paul says, expressing perhaps our own feelings: "For I do not do the good I want but the evil I do not want to do" (Rm.7: 19). Ever feel like that? Sure, we probably all have. I just heard a retreat master say to the Mount St Mary's seminarians: saints are made from sinners. Translated: we are all sinners (Rm.3: 23) and the more we realize this the more we should strive for grace and the absolute need of God in our conversions: We need a Savior. And: the saints weren't ready-made, plastic robots already fit with haloes. No, they were sinners, humans striving for holiness. It seems kinda' "funny" then: to make a saint you need a sinner, and realizing that one is a sinner is the first condition on the road to healing and holiness.

The Gospel for this Sunday is stark and simple: "The Kingdom is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel" (Mk.1: 15). Gospel means Good News. Before this, prior to Jesus, there was a lotta Bad News-enslavement to sin. So, to wit, now, The Ten Most Important Facets of Repentance:

1.Belive in the Kingdom: This means there is a King- Jesus Christ, and He wants to dwell, of all places in the cosmos He made, right in our tiny human hearts. This is the positive part of repentance, and its foundation-Christ wants a personal, pervasive loving relationship with you. Christ wants to influence our heads and hearts; our emotions as well as our brains-and though it should be pervasive (divinely immersing) it is not invasive: becoming one with God is a joy and freeing love, not a burden as many think. When we allow Him to be King He will make us nobles, not nincompoops. We humans need positive incentives and here is the Best One: it's all about love (I Jn. 4:6). The Lord loves us and wants to be one with us. That's the Message of the Atonement-the Creator in at-one-ment with the creature--us. When The Lord told St Peter He wanted to wash him, St Peter realized Christ meant cleanse Him of impurity (after all, anyone can take shower; but no one but God can forgive sins).

So Peter said: "No, wash all of me," indicating not only his body but also his whole soul and life: Do you have this insight, desire and realization? The Call to Conversion, though scary at first, is really a Call to a Love-Relationship with the Living Lord-and allowing Him to reign and rule in our hearts--desiringly. St Teresa of Avila, a beautiful rich young lady of sixteenth century Spain, originally egoish and worldly, but later, after conversion, selfless and divinized, described life as an interior journey of deeper prayer and mystical love by seeking and embracing the King-Jesus Christ-in the Center of the "Interior Castle." -our souls. He is like a "Mystical Magnet" who attracts by His splendor, Blissful Light and Divinizing Love. Remember: Like the Virgin and saints, you are meant to be like a "palace-hall" embroidered for, and embracing the Divine King and Crystalline Kingdom. 2.Repent means to turn hard away from sin (and turn toward Him-the Lord). Let's face it, we are half-hearted a lot of times regarding our sins-we don't really try diligently or want to change wholeheartedly.

The Lord didn't say "Don't sin and turn to the Gospel". Rather, He said, "Repent"-- which means change with your whole heart, your entire being, your soul and mind and will-with all your power, because, otherwise, you will not succeed. St Jerome, who translated the entire Bible for us, in the fourth century, was temperamental, stubborn and linguistically uncharitable (got that?!). But he was brilliant and spiritually bold-He loved the Lord, the Church and souls. So he persevered and struggled at controlling his passions and uniting himself more with Jesus the Savior. He went so far as to repent by beating his chest with a rock. Eventually this gritty man became a saint-precisely because of his loving, determined repentance. Perhaps his form of repentance is not appropriate for us, but the desire behind it should be. One Pope, passing his icon in St Peter's Basilica during Mass, recalling both Jerome's humanity and heroism, stopped the procession and said: "O Jerome, if not for the rock..." Do you really know your sin is blocking your full acceptance of, and entrance into, the Kingship of Christ? So, make concrete, loving, dramatic and heroic, consistent steps to overcome your sins.

3.We need knowledge of our sins and sinfulness. Put obviously, we need to know that, for instance, robbing banks is a black and white wrong, just as, less obviously, gossip and lukewarmness and stealing paper clips from our jobs are wrong. Unless we know that certain actions and thoughts are harmful and wrong, we cannot change our lives. We will continue knocking our proverbial heads up against the wall if we don't know the wall won't move (our sinful behavior). So: form your conscience in what is right and what is wrong and harmful; learn the ways to become holy and overcome sins and bad habits. Spiritual Solution: study your own sins and faults (sages say spiritual seekers usually have life-long battles with two or three sins or predominant faults) and then learn the opposite virtues of vices you have, and put these virtues (holy habits) into practice. Know what are near occasions of sin for you; realize your weakness precisely so Christ can be your strength. Study the following pairs of viscous/virtuous sins and virtues-solutions: Pride/humility; anger/love; gluttony/fasting; avariciousness/spiritual poverty downscaling; lust/chastity of eyes and heart; envy/gratefulness; sloth/zeal. …

4.We need to desire to turn away from sin: Unless we have the "gasoline-desire" of change we will not become saints. Sin blocks our path to God; desire opens it. Put simply (and alliteratively): Desire drives disciples deeper to Divinity. How to gain this "Faithful Fuel"? Cultivate zeal for sainthood; "spiritually avalanche affection" for Divine Union; learn the deeper meaning of the sacred Latin liturgy saying: asursum corda-lift up your heart (get out of the gutter and into Divine Glitter-cf. Rev. 21); put the "carrot" of perfection in front of your holy nose"; read the Lives of the Saints and then be filled with emotive choice to imitate their holiness and love of Jesus Christ. Bottom line: Inflame the inner Fire of your desire for higher Life.

5.We need disciplines to turn away from sin. Your desire for holiness and avoiding sin comes and goes-like the weather. You may not always be emotionally "up" and "high" on becoming holy and avoiding sin. Don't trust yourself! This is where holy habits--virtues--will help you. They will "kick in" when your desire is not there, as a disposition-a "second nature" knee-jerk reflex which automatically "co-pilots" you to holiness. For instance, some holy disciplines include: accountability to other holy human beings; keeping custody of the eyes (esp. against lewd, gory imagery which distorts the equanimity of the soul); filtering your speech by asking reflexively: Is it true? -necessary? -harmful? Regular Confession; reading about the saints who will inspire you away from lukewarmness and to holiness; partaking of the Holy Eucharist regularly; mortifications (think of St Jerome); denying self-of sleep or food or love; training your mind with sacred knowledge (The Bible and Catechism) and applying it in your daily life; hanging out with holy people; keeping clean your house and soul; regular examen of conscience (see below); fasting; praying more lovingly and deeply; uttering constant prayers (called: aspirations (to go higher) or ejaculations ("to hurl up").

Recently I was hearing confessions in St Patrick's Cathedral and noticed a middle-aged man approaching the altar, shuffling forward on his knees. He was doing a discipline of penance. As shiny and beautiful as the Church was, this humble soul was more so. Remember: your desire for change will not always be there, but your disciplined-holy-habits can be. 6.We need grace: A pilgrim recently observed that, sometimes, drug addicts who want to change actually cannot will to not do drugs-because their will is somehow captive to, and pervaded by drugs and the addictive syndrome. Jesus Himself observes: "Everyone who sins is a slave to sin"-Jn. 8: 34). So addicts and all must pray for God to "capture the will," to free it or transform and divinize this choice-making power of the soul and thereby sever the enslavement to sin or inordinate attachment. This is the life of grace: Entrust your will and soul to God's life and liberational Love. So, remember and practice these spiritual counsels: turn it over, offer it up, surrender to Him; abandon to God; let Him help. Though you may be an American or modernist, you can't do it alone, but: "I can do all things thru Christ who strengthens me" (Phil. 4:13). 7. It all adds up: Often you will try to change your sins and life and things don't seem to work-you keep sinning and get frustrated and perhaps even despair. Lukewarmness sets in and you stop trying.

Rather: know God's love for you, that He wants you to keep trying to overcome your sins, to rely on Him and practice holistic conversion and, eventually, sometime, mysteriously, you will reach the "tipping point" of conversion and you will overcome. You may try to pinpoint how this happens and it will not be clear. It may emanate from the overall practice of holiness-all your varied disciplines, the infinitesimal desire for Divine Grace and all the clumsy choices of a life of discipleship--the pervasive and permeating love of God and human cooperation-with all this you can be victorious. Our holy Catholic Religion, the Bible and God give us so many ways and means to convert and become holy: don't be narrow minded! The sacramentals (blessings and holy water and rosaries); pilgrimages; communal variety and inspiration, the saints, prostrations, midnight vigils, serving others, loving Jesus and Mary-it all adds up-mystically (i.e., invisibly). Every little thought, word and deed combined for conversion will be the "straw that broke the sinful camels' back." Remember St Paul's observation of liberation: "But now we are released from the law, dead to what held us captive so that we may serve in newness of spirit" (Rm 7:6).

8. Confession and the Act of Contrition: Go to Confession, which is really Reconciliation, and Jesus' Divine Mercy administered thru the priest as His "stand-in;" receive graces. Go at least once a month and entrust yourself to God and the Church. Get it out-the sin, that is. And nightly pray, as if on your deathbed, the Act of Contrition with all your heart: "O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You, and I detest all my sins because they offend you, my God Who are all deserving of all my love. And I firmly intend, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more, to avoid the near occasions of sin, to amend my life, to do penance and sin no more. My Lord, Jesus Christ suffered for me, so in His Name, have mercy." Memorize and mediate upon; repeat again and again until you really mean it. And, O yes, memorize the Jesus prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." It's the Gospel in miniature. 9.Read about the saints: remember--they were sinners who became saints by God's grace and their human cooperation with Him. The greatest of these conversion stories include St Paul (overcoming his anger, religious triumphalism) St Augustine (paganism, restlessness), Mary Magdalene (transforming her sensuality), St Francis of Assisi (overturning his machismo and materialism); St Margaret of Cortona (against parental disobedience); Ven Matt Talbott (a drunk who became divinized)… St Phillip Neri ("Joyful saint", juggler and joke-teller) once said: "Lord, keep your hand on Phillipo, for today he may betray you." So: study how God worked in the saints and become one yourself.

10. Examination of Conscience: This is like "spiritually flossing" your soul. Lovingly review your day and the times you sinned or faulted, then realize the occasions, and then tomorrow be aware of the possibilities of the habit of sinning and then will to change the bad habit. Repeat-often.

Admonish sinners: this is one of the spiritual Works of Mercy and, though unpopular today ("Don't push your values on me"), it is necessary. Help others out of their sin by loving conversion: it's our spiritual duty! Jonah (in the First Reading) didn't want to, but then he did and the Ninevites repented and converted: you never know what will happen, so just do it!

Common sins-challenges today: Gossip-avoid at all costs…Homosexualism: an agenda of Hollywood's recent movies-"Capote", "Transamerica" and "Brokeback Mountain"-- all "message movies" pushing an agenda which hurts families, culture and individuals. Witchcraft-on the rise today to subtly seduce souls thru seemingly harmless spells and entrancing popular fictional characters. Materialism: -In the book, "Satisfaction"-- we read of pursuit of happiness to the point of a "hedonic treadmill" and which, even lottery winners with millions are never really deeply happy: it's an illusion; we need God, instead…Culture of Death: thru abortion, contraception and euthanasia (The Respect Life March is this Monday: Pray and sacrifice for us and babies!) Remember: Turn hard away from sin and turn to Him, the Lord and King of your heart Who wants to live and reign and dwell therein.

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