Evils done on our behalf…
Sometimes, though beautifully written, general confessions are not enough. In a sense, these words from the Book of Common Prayer cover the bases nicely:
we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved thee with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
They are followed a few lines later by these, also helpful reminders of what confession restores:
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in thy will,
and walk in thy ways,
to the glory of thy Name.
Spoken in the company of others, on my knees, these words do help me to acknowledge and reflect on how I have strayed from my deepest purposes, misdirected my energies, wasted my resources, walked past people who needed help, and put my own dubious pleasures before the common good. Other forms of confession are similarly helpful. The Ignatian examen—a five-step daily examination of conscience—offers a sturdy, flexible guideline for frequent course correction in the midst of the journey:
- Become aware of God’s presence.
- Review the day with gratitude.
- Pay attention to your emotions.
- Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
- Look toward tomorrow.
I love its focus on gratitude, on how one has responded to guidance and presence, on particular moments. It invites us always to remember that even in our “erring and straying” we are held, witnessed, accompanied and loved.
Still, it seems to me that the value of an examination of conscience depends heavily on two things: 1) specificity and 2) connecting the I and the We.
Probably the most frequent comment I’ve written on students’ papers over the past decades is “Be more specific.” What do you mean by “justice” or “the government” or “beautiful” or “war”? There’s no accountability without careful definition of terms. We don’t hold ourselves sufficiently accountable without very specifically naming our choices, actions, investments, and participation in what does harm, destroys lives, crushes hope.
Participation is a key term. It’s where the I and the We connect. How do I share responsibility for what We have done or are doing? One form of confession calls us to repent “of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” The first time I heard this form I found it startling—even breathtaking. That I might need to repent of evil done on my behalf suggested that I needed to stretch into a much wider, deeper sense of responsibility.
Am I responsible for Trump’s attack on Syria? Or for U.S. refusal to receive refugees? Or for the backbreaking hours young people spend in sweatshops making designer clothing? I vote against measures that seem to me to threaten harm. But I am an American, a driver, a consumer. I make compromises that, even if they seem to be “necessary evils,” need to be recognized for what they are.
Examination of conscience isn’t—as it’s taken me a long time to learn—a morbid practice of wallowing in guilt. Rather it’s a time to recognize how constant is the need for repentance, and that repentance is a healthy habit of seeking to look hard from a perspective of “Christ-consciousness” at what we have normalized.
Normal is a far cry from good—far, in this culture, from the common good, far from what is needful or healthy or conducive to spiritual growth. We can’t, individually, or even collectively, fix all that’s wrong in the vast systems we inhabit. But we can make small, specific choices that move in the direction of generosity and keep us connected to one another. Naming the evils that have enslaved us, those we have done, and those done on our behalf may enable us to pause over an important petition or write a letter that will be counted or show up or speak up. It is my hope that when I rise from my knees after confession it will be with a clearer sense of direction, and a deeper confidence in the ways divine direction comes and keeps coming—subtle and specific and amazingly gracious.