The photo is of the basement laundry room at Eastern Point. I took it to try to capture for my spiritual director the sense of warm prayerfulness I encountered in that space. For, as a good friend wisely remarks, "It's all about the laundry!" This is the first of four columns for the Standard on the principle graces of the Exercises.
This column appeared in the Philadelphia Archdiocese's Catholic Standard & Times 26 March 2009.
For this reason I kneel before the Father, that He may grant you in accord with the riches of His glory to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner self, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. — Eph. 3:14a, 15-19
Lather, rinse, repeat. The standard instructions on the back of shampoo bottles are an apt description of my experience of Lent this year — I feel as if I have just been through Lent’s wash cycle and have been inadvertently returned to the laundry bin.
As the calendar year began, I was sequestered in silence, making the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. The exercises are structured around four “weeks” or graces, as my director said. The first grace sought was to know how profoundly we are loved by God and how often we have failed to respond to that love.
Just as we hear the call of the prophet Joel in Lent to “Rend your hearts,” so in that first period of the exercises Ignatius invites us to open our hearts to God, to see what sin has done to the world, to us and our own role in it. In a word, Lent, collapsed into a week.
Spending a week asking God for the grace to see evil at work in the world and in your own life sounds miserable, but Ignatius builds his exercises on the same foundation that Paul offers the Ephesians: rooted and grounded in God’s love. It is only from this stance that we can risk looking so deeply at how we, together and individually, in this time and in our history, have violated our covenant with God.
It is from these depths that we can begin to grasp the enormity of the love and mercy that was and is ours. The ultimate point of this exercise, as it was in Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, is not to wallow in sin, but to enable us to “be filled with all the fullness of God.”
No matter how much time we spend looking into this mirror, we are ultimately myopic. We can never know quite how tightly sin has bound us, how deeply its strands are embedded in our lives. Still the merciful grace of God flows over it all, whether we see our failings clearly, dimly or not at all. Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner puts it bluntly in a Good Friday homily, “the world could not escape His mercy.”
Late in the afternoon of the very last day of that first week, God’s mercy found me in the basement of the old retreat house. Standing amid almost 50 years worth of cast-off furniture and dishes, waiting for the dryer to finish, it seemed just the place to examine my conscience one last time. After dinner I would gather my almost 50 years worth of cast off sins and make a general confession — and return to my room with clean clothes and heart.
I’ve lathered and rinsed — is there any point in repeating, in taking another look at my sins? Buoyed by St. Catherine of Siena’s advice, “The more you see, the more you will love. Once you love, you will follow and you will clothe yourself in His will.” I’m ready to look again, to see more, that I may love more. I can do a bit more Lenten laundry — and be clothed again in God’s will.
God of power, God of mercy, You bring forth springs in the wasteland and turn despair into hope. Look not upon the sins of our past, but lift from our hearts the failures that weigh us down, that we may find refreshment and life in Christ, our deliverance and our hope, who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, holy and mighty God for ever and ever. Amen. — Opening prayer for the 5th Sunday of Lent Year C