This weekend we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday, which is devoted to an emphasis on the infinite mercy we continually receive from our loving Father in Heaven. As fallen humans, we have so much need for this divine mercy. Fortunately for us, the font from which it flows is bottomless. However, it is not enough for Jesus to simply pour His mercy over us. We must respond to that mercy with gratitude and a willingness to amend our lives of sin and grow in virtue. The gift is empty and meaningless if we do not use it as it is intended to be used.
I recently came across an exercise that facilitates reflection on God’s abundant mercy and I’d like to share it on this appropriate weekend. St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) is the founder of the Jesuit order. He famously developed and wrote a prescription of spiritual exercises with the goal of helping the members of his order root out sin and increase in virtue and holiness. The exercises are intended to be worked through during a four week retreat under the guidance of a spiritual director. Each exercise and each week build on top of one another and foster a profound interior transformation. The spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius do for the soul what regular exercise does for the physical body and both are meant to be nurtured equally.
Toward the end of the first week of exercises, St. Ignatius prescribes a “general confession.” A general confession is not a typical confession where you simply confess all of your sins since your last confession. Rather, it is an exercise in which you reflect on the sins you’ve committed over the entirety of your life. The idea is to find a good examination of conscience with many questions based on the Ten Commandments and to then reflect and write down if you have EVER committed any of those sins over the course of your entire life. If the sin is mortal, and if possible, the number of times the sin has been committed should also be noted. After the retreatant has done a thorough examination of conscience, he takes his written list into the confessional and does a full and complete general confession. It is important to note here, that a general confession does not negate any absolution or grace you have received from previously confessing a particular sin. Those sins were forgiven at the time and are still. The purpose of the exercise is for the individual’s benefit, not for God’s. So, what are the benefits of a general confession? I will lay out five significant effects here.
1 – A general confession reveals the infinite mercy God has offered you over the course of your lifetime. When you reflect on a lifetime of sin, you may see patterns or darker periods in your life. It reveals when you’ve allowed the temptation of Satan to take over and under what circumstances. It is common to not feel God’s mercy in one’s life, as it is masked by the pain of sin, but when you reflect with hindsight, you can see how God was offering His mercy and working on you through it. When you look back on a lifetime of sin, it is difficult to deny just how loving your Father is and how much He has forgiven you.
2 – A general confession reveals how you have responded to God’s mercy in your life. As you reflect back on a lifetime of sin, hopefully you see an emersion of maturity and spiritual growth, a leaving behind of old ways and a pursuit of more virtuous behavior. Perhaps you see times in your life in which you slipped or went astray, but responded to God’s mercy and found your way back on track. Perhaps you fell into mortal sin and the shock of it caused you to amend your life. I had a priest remind me that he was a teenager once. In other words, we have all made poor or sinful choices at some point or another and we have been forgiven. None of us are immune to sin, as it is part of our fallen human nature. The point is to respond to God’s mercy and grace by using it to choose virtue. Doing a general confession will reveal how you have been responsive to God’s mercy and it provides an opportunity for deep gratitude for that mercy.
3 – Likewise, a general confession will reveal the areas in which you need more work. After you’ve expressed gratitude for how much you have grown, you can reflect on areas in which you still need more work. Even the greatest saints were constantly on the lookout for where they could be more virtuous and holy. For example, St. Francis de Sales greatly struggled with a fiery temper and worked on getting it under control for a very long time. Later in his life, his contemporary, St. Jane Frances de Chantal suggested that he get a little worked up over those who were trying to block the building of a monastery and he responded, “Would you like me to lose in a few minutes the little gentleness that I have had much trouble in acquiring in twenty years?” So, rather than accepting your flaws as being “just how you are,” or becoming despondent in them, follow the example of St. Francis’ perseverance and keep using God’s mercy to work on your weaknesses, even if it takes 20 years. God’s mercy is like a crutch for you to lean on as you heal habitual sin and transform it into habitual virtue.
4 – A general confession is an exercise in the virtue of humility. It is common in our culture today to hear things like, “no regrets,” “don’t look back,” and “the past is in the past.” While there may be some prudence in these statements at times, if we do not focus on where we have fallen, we run the risk of becoming too prideful. After all, if the past is in the past and I haven’t committed a mortal sin in the last five years, then there’s no problem, right? Without humility we are in danger of falling even further than we have in the past. Humility is recognizing where you are weak, or where you’ve been weak, and coming to God to ask for the mercy and grace to be strengthened in those areas through Him. It is true, that with every confession your slate is wiped clean with God and the past is actually in past. It is also true, that we need to continually recognize our weakness in humility to foster our own spiritual health.
5 – A general confession also softens your heart should you lack mercy toward other people and/or situations. Sometimes we carry grudges rooted in deep wounds from our past. We allow situations and people to poison our peace. When we reflect on a lifetime of our own personal sins and how each and every single one of them is a nail or a spear into Jesus’ body, we can be a lot more empathetic toward the struggles with sin that others, around us have. It enables us to drop the sin of self-righteousness and grow in love and compassion for others as we want the absolute best for them: redemption through the infinite mercy of God. By focusing on the logs in our own eyes rather than the specks in our neighbors’ eyes, we are more apt to be a reflection of God’s mercy to others.
This week, consider writing out a general confession. Whether you actually take it into the confessional before a priest or not, it is still a worthy exercise for your spiritual growth. It can be useful to do a few different examinations of conscience, as they tend to ask questions differently, or with a different focus. They can easily be found online. As you do the exercise, thank God for His abundant mercy in your life and ask Him to reveal the areas where there is more mercy to be sought and found.
Also, consider joining the Divine Mercy prayer group, which meets every morning after daily Mass to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet at our parish. It provides an opportunity for daily meditation and contemplation of the infinite mercy of God, of which we should never lose sight. All around us, in our world today, there are souls that are desperate for a personal encounter with God’s abundant mercy. Joining the daily Divine Mercy prayer group provides a real opportunity to pray for that encounter.