The silent retreat I’m participating in is shaped by Ignatian influences. In this tradition, part of a retreat should be spent considering our sinfulness before God. Yesterday my Spiritual Director gave me a guide for doing this very thing.
I prayed as she taught:
“Holy God, I grieve for what I have done and left undone.
Holy God, I grieve that I have made myself disordered and my life unfocused.
Holy God, I grieve over sin’s horror on the earth and the vanity and emptiness of human affairs.
Holy God, draw me to your Holy Self.”
I was guided to ask God “to reveal to me the mystery of sin in myself more and more fully, and to give me the gift of repentance and of weeping for my sins.”
I was urged to pray three times: “I want to feel ashamed of what I have done and left undone, and to have a sense of revulsion from the disorderliness of my desiring and enacting…fill my heart with tears, and my eyes, if You will give me that.”
I was instructed to bring to my mind, in a comprehensive way, my sins, the weight of those sins, the God against whom I have sinned, and how God’s creation continued to nurture and care for me in spite of those sins.
Then, as a climax, I was asked to consider a day in the future when I will die. I was to imagine myself ailing in a hospital and to imagine who might have gathered around me. What would I like to have done between now and then? What attitudes or actions would make me fear on that death bed? What will seem valuable to me lying there? On my obituary, what would I want to blot out? What would I wish with all my heart it would include?
To deepen this experience, I decided to visit a nearby cemetery while practicing this somber exercise. During a run earlier in the week I had seen the Spring Hill Graveyard. Tucked in a wooded and upscale neighborhood, it was established in 1844. But its occupants lived and died even before this.
For over an hour I walked among the oaks and the tombstones.
The dates on the stones ranged from the 21st century to the 18th century. For example, John Blair was born in 1798. Lloyd Addison was born in 1799. Thomas McMillan was born in 1804 (in Scotland – there were many in the cemetery born in places like Scotland, England, Ireland and Germany).
I stooped and felt the hard granite of the stones. I ran my fingers along their carved lettering. One day I would lie under one just like these. One day, unless Jesus comes first, I will be laid to rest. And it could be sooner than later. There were stones marking the burial place of infants, teenagers, young adults and senior citizens. Death had hit them all.
But what most caught my attention that afternoon were the things written on the tombstones. Some of them attempted to summarize the person’s life or something important to that person. For example, Vernon Fowlkes was remembered for loving his family, playing his dulcimer, and drinking malt scotch whiskey! Mary Lucy McKnight was remembered simply as “A best friend.” It was said of Presiding Circuit Judge Joseph Hocklande, “He lived as he died, with dignity and courage.” And Mary Owen’s tombstone remarked, “She loved everyone and saw good in everything.”
Most surprisingly, Samuel Vance had the following written as his life-summary: “There is no God. Religions are but myths. The only truth is science. And engineering is its distillate.”
As I read these statements, I couldn’t help but wonder what statement might be on my marker, especially in light of the sins I had spent the afternoon confessing. What if my sins found their way onto my tombstone? What if my failures loomed so large they became the one thing that could be said about me at life’s end? Could my sins discount everything else so that they were all that were remembered?
Sufficiently heavy-hearted, I left the cemetery and walked thirty minutes to Sodality Chapel, where my fellow retreat participants and some from the community had gathered for daily mass.
Kneeling, we confessed together: “Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.” We remembered our common faith and the “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” As the priest held out the bread and the wine, we confessed together, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” The priest proclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world!” And we ate the bread, the body of Jesus. We drank the wine, the blood of Jesus. And we left forgiven and free.