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xRembrandt

Shining a flashlight into the darkest of places

None of us likes to reflect on our failures, mistakes and misdeeds, but meditating on our sins can have surprising consequences, as Susan Mansfield finds as the Ignatian Lent Retreat progresses

I once bought a book of Lenten reflections based on the writings of St Augustine. As usual, my intentions were good, but it was hard going.

I have no issue with Augustine, who was one of the great early scholars of the Church, but his Confessions, on which the Lenten guide was based, is a rigorous cataloguing of sins. Each day seemed to bring a new sin to examine and confess, and the effect was cumulative. I think I lasted about a week.

None of us enjoys reflecting on our failures, mistakes and misdeeds, and the hurt we’ve caused others. And yet, St Ignatius, my companion on the journey through Lent this year, also makes it a priority, early on, to invite us to reflect on our sins.

Ignatians

I’m working through the Lent Retreat designed by Ignatian Spirituality Centre in Glasgow, and currently being followed online and in book form by hundreds of people across Scotland and further field.

It is based on the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, the prayer programme designed by the saint for his followers.

The Spiritual Exercises has a four-week structure and, in the First Week, the emphasis is firmly on sin. Ignatius is methodical. We start with the sin of Adam and Eve and move on to examine the sins in our own lives, including the ones we try to keep secret, even from ourselves. Then come the sins of the world, a web of damage where it is often impossible to identify origins or apportion blame, but which affects all of us.

St Ignatius advises us to pray for ‘shame and confusion; a deep understanding of how sin affects me,’ or ‘a sense of how I, and all humanity, am implicated in a disorder larger than ourselves and how I, consciously or unconsciously, participate in and contribute to that disorder.’

Sin

I asked Fr David Birchall, the director at ISC Glasgow, who designed the retreat, why Ignatius focuses on sin in the First Week.

He said: “I think Ignatius is wanting a couple of things. The first is to admit the reality of sin, of evil in the world and my participation in this. Secondly, he wants us to see that God doesn’t hold our sin against us, but forgives us and calls us to follow.”

The Spiritual Exercises are inspired by the saint’s own spiritual journey. A young Spanish nobleman who seems to have enjoyed nothing better than fighting, fine clothes and the courtly pursuit of women, he was converted while recovering from a terrible leg injury sustained at the seige of Pamplona in 1521. When he was well enough to walk again, he set about changing his life.

He went to the Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat where he examined his past sins, confessed, hung up his sword and dagger at an altar to the Virgin and gave away his fine clothes. Then he spent several months in the nearby town of Manresa, begging for food and spending long hours in prayer.

Salvation

Fr David says: “He felt a great guilt when he was in Manresa, worrying about the evil he had done in his past life. He reached the stage of thinking suicide was the only way out. Then, finally, he realised that the Christian message was one of salvation, he was loved and saved by Christ. There was nothing he needed to do except accept this forgiveness.

“By facing all that is wrong, and that has been wrong, in our lives up till now, we can put guilt aside. We can be renewed and face the rest of our lives with enthusiasm.

“Ignatius wants to get this negativity out of the way at the beginning of the retreat so we can move into a positive following of Christ as beloved sinners.”

I realised, during these reflections, that we are invited to examine our secret sins not as a fault-finding exercise but in order to release us from their power. A sin that one hardly dares to admit, even to oneself, is a heavy weight, a shameful package hidden at the back of a wardrobe which we don’t talk about, yet we know it’s there. Only by shining a flashlight into dark places, by bringing what is hidden into the light can we accept God’s forgiveness, and move on.

Predispositions

There are also things to learn about the predispositions in our own personality, the patterns of unhelpful behaviour we are vulnerable to. Monty Williams SJ, in his book on the Exercises, The Gift of Spiritual Intimacy, writes that in the First Week, Ignatius is setting up a programme of ‘radical self-examination’. “Its aim is not to destroy us, but rather to help us abandon the false self-images we have of ourselves and the false stories we maintain about ourselves.”

One of the reflections on the Lent Retreat is on Psalm 51, David’s beautiful prayer begging for God’s forgiveness. Presented alongside this is Rembrandt’s famous painting, The Return of the Prodigal. One seems to answer the other: on one hand, a man’s passionate prayer to be forgiven; on the other, the Father, embracing the lost son, welcoming him home, regardless of what he has done.

The father in the parable is watching out for his son’s return (how long, we wonder, has be been doing this?) and gathers his robes and runs to meet the young man as soon as he sees him on the horizon.

Forgiveness

To run would have been considered unthinkable in the culture of the time for the dignified head of a household, but he doesn’t care, so keen is he to embrace his son, to let him know he is forgiven. And this is the picture Jesus gives his followers of God the Father.

Only by understanding the depths of our sins can we begin to understand the depth of that love. If we excuse ourselves because our misdemeanours seem fairly minor, we won’t see it. We won’t reach the point, as Ignatius did, when he realised there was nothing he could do but accept God’s grace. Put another way, there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do to make God love us less.

Ignatius’ focus on sin in the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises is about leading us into a profound experience of divine love. Monty Williams writes: “First, we discover the truth of our very self, and the dynamic context of love in which all of our lives are held. We find ourselves falling in love with a God who has fallen in love with us event before we knew it.”

To find out more about Ignatian spirituality, visit www.iscglasgow.co.uk or contact Ignatian Spirituality Centre at 35 Scott Street, Glasgow, G3 6PE, tel 0131 354 0077.

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