Friday, March 18, 2011

Column: Listing Sins

In other spaces I've been writing and talking about the Examen, pointing out it should not be confused with an examination of conscience. This piece, however, is about examining your conscience.

There are at least two lists on my desk in the photo.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 17 March 2011.

For I am well aware of my fault, I have my sin constantly in mind. Ps. 51:3

“How do you know what to say?” wondered a friend, curious about the Catholic practice of confessing your sins, not in general, but in particular. I was tempted to say, “There’s an app for that!” which of course, there is. My teen-aged son Mike downloaded it last week, just in time for Lent. An inventory of sins, suited to your age and state in life. Tick off what applies and take your personalized examination of conscience along with you to the nearest confessional.

I will fully admit to being a list-junky. There’s a form on the fridge where my guys can check off what we need from the grocery store, a list of what I need to accomplish today tucked in my bag, and a list of chores to be done scribbled on the kitchen door. Probably not surprisingly, I’ve a file folder full of lists of questions to help you in examining your conscience, picked up at retreats and sacramental preparation classes when I taught religious ed. But when it comes to preparing for confession, I try to put the lists to one side. Why?

One size does not fit all. I find some lists, particularly the ones that read as if they’ve been drawn from Dante, leave me complacent — thinking to myself, at least I haven’t done that. Reconciliation is about my failings, not someone else’s.

This is not the grocery list, where if it’s not checked off, I’m off the hook for remembering to buy it. Just because a fault isn’t on a list, doesn’t mean it’s not a fault I need to pay attention to.

This is not an interrogation by God, determined to find out what I’ve done. God knows. I’m the one that’s in the dark.

Above all, the lists are just that, lists. I want to go toward God with my whole self: heart, soul, mind and body. When I was younger, my dad — a gifted carpenter — taught me to sand a piece of wood to get its shape just so. Measurements, even careful ones with calipers, only went so far. In the end, it was his hands running over the whole piece that told him where a touch of sandpaper was needed.

In much the same way, the Catechism of the Catholic Church doesn’t give us a list to use when examining our conscience, even a very general one, but instead urges us to consult the Word of God. Let God’s Word in Sacred Scripture run over my life to see where it catches on a rough spot, or where the shape is not quite right. While the ten commandments might seem a logical starting place for my list-loving self, I find St. Paul’s advice to the Corinthians a better lamp by which to search my soul: Love does not seek its own interests.

St. Hugh noted that God’s sacred Word could be read not only in scripture, but also in nature and our experiences. Taking Jesus’ words in Matthew to heart: “How can you say, ‘let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your own?” I pay attention to what is annoying me, or making me angry, in others. All too often these are the splinters that point me toward the wooden beams of my own faults.

The lists in my life keep chaos at arm’s length, I’d be loath to give them up. But in preparing for confession, I seek to know the havoc that sin has wreaked in my life, not keep it at bay. For this I need not a list, but God’s loving eye on my life.

God our Father, teach us to find new life through penance. Keep us from sin, and help us live by your commandment of love. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen — Opening Prayer for Monday, the second week of Lent


  1. This Lent I have been having an ongoing tricky discussion with a Catholic friend and an Evangelical friend, neither of whom are really convinced about Confession for a range of reasons. Plus even though I am also a list maker of note I don't like lists of sins either - they do a similar thing to me.

    But I love the clarity that I suddenly had when I read 'God knows what I've done but I don't". You have given me words to explain why I go and why I don't use a generic list approach. Thank you

  2. So beautifully put Michelle. I also love that "God knows what I've done but I don't." How true.

    Thanks for this thought provoking post. Good for the soul.