Praying for tears: Good Friday.
I packed this little book when I went walking last month working through the first week of Ignatius’ Exercises. I am very familiar with the Exercises having spent weeks on short retreats in my younger days and have worked through the full long retreat (30 days) once and an even longer immersion of about six months several years ago.
Delayed reaction to prayer.
God gives us what we need just at the right time. On this occasion it was related to the second meditation in the first week – on one’s personal sin. My upbringing on sin was scanty and thinking myself pretty honest and not in any way belligerent, except with telephone companies, my sins are all to do with sex. However, with my body aging, my heart suggests that the Catholic emphasis on sexual sin seems largely misplaced in the universe of human relationships and much sexual sin is pretty trivial, if not actually rather good for us.
So I spent a day examining my conscience in the way Ignatius suggests – finding in my memory places I have sinned, people with whom I have sinned and the jobs in which I have sinned. The trouble I have is that I know I re-write my own history all the time, so I don’t even turn out to be a real “baddy”.
This mediation begins with asking for what I want and, in this case, it is “ for a mounting and intense sorrow, and tears for my sins.” Not once, in going through these Exercises over the years have I got near to tears.
A mounting and intense sorrow, and tears for my sins
Three days after I had returned home from my walk, feeling fitter and pleased with myself, I was going to bed when I began to be aware of a surge of emotion within me which grew and grew until I was sobbing uncontrollably. My whole life was before me, not in any details, but with a profound sense of waste, of my failures to take the opportunities and graces and love I had received and the barriers I built to prevent God working through me. But the experience was not at all in my head, nor in my conscience. It was physical, in my body and my heart, my stomach and my lungs. I was not feeling guilty, just an intense, cramping sorrow at my own waste, a profound chest-tightening expiration of toxins. My prayer was being answered, and I now relate it to the answer to my prayer for more compassion.
God works deep within us, like the seed planted in the ground which grows, day and night, just on its own, as Jesus said. Like compassion, sorrow for my sins came into flower and it was not like anything I could have expected nor when I expected. Moreover, I was certain, absolutely sure that I was in God’s hands, loved and cared for.
Revealed through prayer: what I hide from myself.
Since it was lent I hung on to this gift of sorrow for my sinfulness still able to access it easily in prayer. Maybe I was a bit complacent about receiving the gift. Then I visited one of my children who asked me straight out about my divorce 15 years ago, “During the divorce did you want to hurt mum and get her into trouble when you told the people in England things?” This was all over messy financial and property complications.
As I answered him I realised I was re-writing the story again, certainly putting a positive gloss on my behaviour and justifying what I had done. The matter could have rested there. However, I was still in this second meditation and could see my self manipulation, my self deception at work. I had a “mounting sorrow” for my actions and a growing awareness of how often I rely on my skill in covering-up for myself my real capacity to damage others. How false was my premise, ” thinking myself pretty honest and not in any way belligerent”!
And so another chip comes off the ego which cracks a bit more. I begin to make sense of Ignatius’ mediaeval imagery “I look at myself as though I am a running sore.” How long will this go on and how many more times on the Exercises? It doesn’t seem to matter. In God’s hands these things happen just at the right time. Good Friday is all about His love for sinners.