Be Merciful to Me, a Sinner

(Homily for Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C)

This Sunday's Scripture readings address a difficult topic: the recognition of ones own sinfulness. To help us understand what is at stake, I would like to begin with a quote from the English author, Evelyn Waugh. You may remember that he wrote Brideshead Revisited which was made into a popular television series. This quote is from Waugh's historical novel based on the life of the Empress Helena - the noble lady who, in search of the true cross, went to Jerusalem :

When Marcarius (bishop of Jerusalem) examined his conscience it was with the method and trained observation of a field-naturalist in a later age studying the life of a pond. Less scientific penitents noted merely the few big fish; the squeamish recoiled from the weed and scum and with closed eyes blurted out an emotional, inaccurate tale of self-reproach. But through all his long life the Bishop had refined his knowledge of the soul until each opacity, each microscopic germ had a peculiar significance for him. He knew what was noxious, what was harmless, what was of value.(Helena, p. 130)

To make a good examination of conscience is no easy thing - yet it is an essential step toward salvation. In today's Gospel the publican went home justified – that is, in a right relationship with God – precisely because he made a proper examination of conscience. He identified himself as a sinner and asked for mercy. By way of contrast, the Pharisee could only examine his neighbor's conscience. Although he attempted to justify himself, we wound up unjustified, that is unforgiven, not saved.

Those who have participated in a Twelve Step recovery program know the importance of examining ones conscience. The fourth step involves making “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of oneself, then admitting to God, to oneself and to another human being the exact nature of ones wrongs. Recovery from addiction to alcohol, drugs, pornography, food, gambling – you name it – requires a courageous self-examination.

The Twelve Step program drew upon our Catholic tradition of examination of conscience and confession of sins. However, we did not invent it. It comes from Jesus himself as we see in readings such as today's Gospel. To do it right can be a bit tricky. It is easy enough to see the “few big fish,” which Waugh refers to - those things which immediately spring to mind because of their embarrassing quality. A person asks: How could I ever have done something so stupid? Yet I not only did it - I chose to do it. Because a good examination can be embarrassing, it is easy to get tangled up in the “weeds and scum,” that dark subconscious world which we carry with us, but seem to have little control over. As Waugh notes, such a focus can easily lead to a scrupulosity which causes a person to blurt out “an emotional, inaccurate tale of self-reproach.”

Between scrupulosity and superficiality, there is a middle way. Although it demands a certain risk, it can yield great benefits. A person who made a thoroughgoing examination of conscience was Dante Alighieri. In the middle of his life, he had lost the right way. To get back on track, he had to visit the various levels of hell where he met every class of sinner. But in a real sense he meets only one sinner – Dante himself. Not that he is guilty of every sin, but he recognizes his own tendencies to lust, gluttony, anger, indolence, greed and so on. And at certain points, his interest intensifies because he not only recognizes the tendencies, but the very acts in his own life. So it is with all who read the Divine Comedy. It has endured as a classic of literature because people of succeeding generations have seen themselves in Dante’s characters.

I am not saying you need to read the Divine Comedy in order to make an examination of conscience – although it would not be a bad idea. Still, simpler methods are available. A person can review the Ten Commandments or the seven capital sins. One pastor I worked with put great emphasis on a three-fold examination: How am I doing in my relationship with God? With my neighbor? With my own self?

When I made a thirty day Ignatian retreat, the director encouraged us to make an examen, that is, a review of each day. In fact, he said that if you have to choose between the examen and, say, the rosary or some other prayer, go with the examen. It can be done using a notebook or simply reflecting back on the day. He said to start with God’s mercy, trying to see the Father's face behind the various events of the day. After doing that, then consider the ways in which one has fallen down. This method (going from light to dark) makes sense because it is only when we step into the light that the shadows begin to appear. The examen then proceeds to ask two questions: When did God and I act together? And when did I go off on my own? For example, when I took time to listen a certain person, it was Jesus acting in me. But later, I cut that guy off in traffic. Let’s face it, I was doing my own thing.

At some point, like the publican, I need to face the facts - or as they say, get down to brass tacks. For sure, like the Pharisee I have done some good things, but that is not the point when I stand before God. The distance between his holiness and my actual performance is beyond measure. What I can say is, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”


Spanish Version

From Archives (Homilies for Thirtieth Sunday, Year C):

2016: Boots Laced Week 6: The Good Fight
2013: How to Pray, Part Three: Mass as the Publican's Prayer
2010: Posture at Mass
2007: The Cry of the Poor
2004: Be Merciful to Me, a Sinner
2001: A Lesson in Humility

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