Ampleforth Abbey

14 December 2017

Homily for Good Friday Service of Reconciliation

Given by Fr Gabriel, the Triduum retreat giver, prior to confessions on Good Friday evening (2017)

St Benedict lived in a time before (actually maybe only just before) there was private confession of the sort for which this short service is a preparation. So he did not know about private confession between a penitent and a priest in a confessional box or reconciliation room, nor for the preparation for it, which for many of us is akin to the highly unpleasant and nervy experience of sitting in a dentist’s waiting room.

Still an early question once one actually gets to see the dentist or the doctor is usually ‘how are you?’ and ‘what are we wanting to see me about?’. One needs to have thought through one’s answer to that, because otherwise one risks walking out of the surgery, without having actually mentioned what one is really there for, what the trouble really is. If the medical waiting room is not exactly our most preferred moment in life, it is often, if not always, balanced by the sense of relief and accomplishment on walking out. I want to prepare you a little tonight to walk well out of the confessional.

And for this it is probably quite good to begin by praying that the Lord will be our light, by praying that he will help us to see and know our sins, because we can bury them and not find it easy to look at them or to be honest. Beyond such a prayer to him who knows us better than we know ourselves, but who still needs to hear us say and own our sins for ourselves, there are of course lots of ‘sin lists’ designed to help with what is known as examination of conscience, that is preparation for confession, some of them traditional and some more modern and certainly for some they are a help. For the purposes of this talk, I am going to give some indications of how St Benedict, based on the Rule, might have led an examination of conscience, such as we are about tonight. I am going to make three brief points, drawn from the Prologue to the Rule.

At the beginning of the Prologue, the divine voice which calls out to the ear of our heart, tells us to come back to God from whom we have drifted ‘through the sloth of disobedience’. Thus the first obstacle to our response to God, to living the life God knows will bring us happiness, is in fact laziness. This might make us think of the love we might have shown and have neglected, the sins of the drifter and the lazy – what is it in our lives that we just cannot be bothered to do. For love of us, after all, Jesus endured the agony of the cross; do we have more to give? I think that is a good question with which to go into confession.

Then in verse 17 of the Prologue, St Benedict quotes from Psalm 33 ‘keep your tongue from all vicious talk’ and in verse 27 there is a quotation from Psalm 14 that those who come to the tent of the Lord must not wrong a fellowman in any way, nor listen to slanders against a neighbour. We can be inclined to go the other way. Based on long pastoral experience one of the sins to which Pope Francis has most often referred in his weekday homilies and in addresses to their eminences and excellencies of the Roman Curia is gossip, which is a poison pouring sin of the speaking and of the listening. How poisoned are our tongues by a partiality for gossip and our ears by the hearing of it? How well do we speak and think of others?

Just a couple of verses further on in the Prologue again in the context of who comes, and how we come, to the tent of the Lord to dwell with him, Benedict extols those who judge that it is the Lord’s power, not their own, that brings about the good in them. We are to trust in the Lord, but we find that hard and it seems to come more naturally to us to trust in ourselves, so we go the other way towards a prideful trust in self. In moments of need do we turn to the Lord in prayer? Why indeed do we pray? Is it to put ourselves at God’s disposal? Within a resistance to putting ourselves at God’s disposal, there lurks a pride hungry for the inflation of our own ego. In the Letter to the Hebrews Jesus is represented as saying with the psalmist ‘Here I am Lord I come to do your will’ and in the gospel ‘He came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. When will we lay down our defences and can we trust less proudly in ourselves, and more humbly in God?

Now St Benedict has other big bêtes noires: grumbling, for example, very very favourite occupation of monks but Benedict says don’t; and sticky fingers where one’s private possessions are concerned. But time is marching on. Laziness, gossip, prideful trust in self. If, by the way, you think you have not really hardly started at all, then that thought is probably a thoroughly good thing. St Benedict says he writes a little rule for beginners. If we let that really sink in, we will be half way up (or down) the steps of humility before we know it.

Then a concluding thought about besetting sins. These are the ones that dishearteningly we have to come back to time and again in confession, and which give us the depressing feeling that absolutely no progress is being made, maybe rather the reverse. Smaragdus was the first commentator on the Rule in late 8th / early 9th centuries. He wrote to monks ‘Among all the contests of Christians none are harder than the battles of chastity, where the fight is on every day and victory is rare’. That may seem rather depressing, though it could also be quite liberating – welcome to the human race, climb down from your pride. God somehow seems to have planned things this way. Then a modern monk. Thomas Merton, 20th century Cistercian monk, said that the Christian should fight deliberate and evident vices, but if one’s methods are insufficient there is no alternative to dogged perseverance. Again God seems to intend this as his path of humility, the humiliation he gives us is not the humiliation we choose.

And then lastly there is a punchline. At the end of all his tools for good works in chapter 4 of the Rule, St Benedict’s final, capping tool is ‘and finally, never lose hope in God’s mercy’. Letting that really sink in, will take you up (or down) the second half of the ladder of humility.