In this season of reflection and penance, the Church calls Advent, where we prepare for the coming of Christ in our hearts rather than just have the same old, meaningless merchant’s Santa Claus, I try to remind myself that my adoption as a son (daughter) of the Father carries with it consequences. I shun the secular Christmas devoid of meaning (with the one redeeming value of having chocolate sweets).
I see myself this year as rebelling against the forfeiture of reason and civility in politics to the dominance of “gut the person who tells me that I am wrong.” Christ was a penitential person, in the sense that he had a mission to buy back the stagnation and strangulation that Original Sin had on each human born into this condition.
The price that He had to pay was to empty not only his divinity but his humanity as an act of gratitude and healing for the whole human race. Adam and Eve are archetypes of humanity.
In Genesis, there is a time when relationships were resonant with God. God did not cause evil in the world or the presence of suffering. That was the result of Adam wanting to be God and Eve wanting Adam to be divine so she could rule the Garden. Genesis is one attempt to describe human nature as the authors (at least four of them) observed about what it means to be human and posit some explanation of how humans ended up in dissonance from God and with effects that included death as the consequence of this act.
The Christ Principle comes not from humanity because the offense is measured by the offended (divine nature). Human nature could only hope for a savior (dare we say Messiah) to leave the security of the divine nature to take up the mission to buy back Adam’s work to merit alienation from God. Philippians 2:5-12 is a wonderful passage to tell how it feels to be a follower of a loving God.
When God accepted you as an adopted son or daughter in Baptism, several things changed, things you may not have or even still do not notice.
You became a pilgrim in a foreign land (the world until you die) and must live out your life with the residue of sin as the context of your existence.
You were gifted with adoption as an adopted son or daughter of the Father, although you can’t see God because of the majesty of God’s nature.
You can see Christ, and Christ is our mediator with a divinity we can’t even begin to comprehend. What we can comprehend is how to love others as Christ loved us. That’s it.
This mission is why Jesus became human, to love us and teach us how to love others. We do that, not with human love, as noble as that is, but with the energy of the Holy Spirit. To receive that energy, we must be humble of heart and penitential in looking at all our failures to treat others with respect and love, as Christ would have. We must be penitential persons at the core of how we look at reality.
Your way of thinking must not be that of the world. (St. Benedict, Chapter 4, Rule)
Even though you ask forgiveness for your sins from God or through the Body of Christ (the Church), there is a consequence of all of your faults and failings, of your mortal and venial sins. The priest gives is a token or minimum way to ask for God’s mercy and forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
When you are Baptized, you receive a tattoo from God on your soul, the mark of how you must now view reality differently from the world. You must be a penitent person to continuously keep that sign from atrophying and drying up. This is done through good works, where you seek to be a penitential person in constant need of capacitas dei (He must increase, I must decrease).
Living each day as an adopted son or daughter carries with it not only responsibility to seek meaning from a source outside of yourself, but also do place yourself physically in a situation where you and Jesus can sit next to each other on a park bench in the middle of winter, and enjoy each other’s company.
It takes energy to keep up your guard against the Evil One each day. This energy is like a force field that keeps the enemy at bay and gives you some protection. When we don’t pray or seek to be penitential, our guard, that force field, can become weakened, and we are in danger of being a victim for the Devil who wanders around seeking whom he may devour. God’s energy must be replaced by you, or your cup runs dry like all energy. I use Cistercian practices and charisms as a Lay Cistercian to place myself in the presence of Christ and “fill ‘er up” with the energy of the Holy Spirit.
A PENITENT LAY CISTERCIAN
The Benedictine, Carthusian, and Cistercian adaptations of the Rule of St. Benedict attempt to live a life of austerity and penance with simplicity, silence, and solitude at its core. Although it seems like a contradiction, as a Lay Cistercian, I try to do the same thing, albeit in a different context of the world in which I live.
In this world, I am the sum of my past choices, both authentic ones resonant with God’s energy and others where I preferred my will over what I knew to be God’s will (sin). Even when I ask God for forgiveness for my wobbling and waffling away from the way, the truth, and the only life, I am the sum of my choices, and these choices remain stuck to my life. As a fallible human, at any time, like temptations, my will is presented with choices from my past that cause me to holler out, “Oh, no!” when I think of the disrespect I have for others and how I was not so much sinful as a jerk, seeking my own pleasure and power and not being humble in the sight of God. At such times, I just throw myself on God’s mercy and plead for God to remember my good things and not all the bad or insensitive stuff. St. Benedict, in Chapter 4 of his Rule, states:
41 Place your hope in God alone.
42 If you notice something good in yourself, give credit to God, not to yourself,
43 but be certain that the evil you commit is always your own and yours to acknowledge.
44 Live in fear of judgment dayhttps://christdesert.org/rule-of-st-benedict/chapter-4-the-tools-for-good-works/
45 and have a great horror of hell.
THE REMNANTS OF SIN
Sin leaves a residue, a remnant, as the consequence of choosing poorly, just as it is explained in Genesis. The effects of Original Sin are the condition in which we find ourselves as humans. We are capable of so much nobility, yet there is a thin line between our animality and our rationality. St. Paul states it succinctly, when he says,- in Romans 7:
Sin and Death.*13Did the good, then, become death for me? Of course not! Sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin, worked death in me through the good, so that sin might become sinful beyond measure through the commandment.i14We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold into slavery to sin.j15What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.16Now if I do what I do not want, I concur that the law is good.17So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.18For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not.k19For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.20Now if [I] do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.21So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand.22For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self,23l but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.*24Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body?25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore, I myself, with my mind, serve the law of God but, with my flesh, the law of sin.mhttps://bible.usccb.org/bible/romans/7
This passage, far from saying that humans are evil, actually affirms that we are good but that the flesh (represented by the dark side of our human nature) is evil if we make that our god. With the Christ Principle is central to how I look at reality, I struggle with both what is good for me and what is bad for me that I think is good for me, but I have in me the mind of Christ Jesus to address this conflict of dissonance if I am strong.
Because there is a residue from my failures and faults, I must be a man of constant sorrows, a penitent person who realizes that, even though I have confessed my sins, they are an important part of who I am as a human. I must convert them each day from my false self (St. Paul calls this the flesh) to my true self (one with Christ). Being a penitent Lay Cistercian means constant conversion through the Cistercian practices and charisms (silence, solitude, work, prayer, community).
THE SEVEN PENITENTIAL PSALMS
David committed three sins against God’s laws. https://bible.usccb.org/bible/2samuel/11 He coveted the wife of Uriah the Hittite, then he committed adultery with her, then he sent her husband to certain death in battle. Remember the part about sin having a residue or a remnant? Because we can’t undue thing things that we choose, we are condemned to carry them as part of who we are. Sins drain the energy of grace because we must actively struggle against not only sin but the effects of sin throughout the rest of our life. A hint of what this means to humans is reciting the Penitential Psalms, an accurate representation of the effects of sin on us as we live out the rest of our lives. Penance during Advent and Lent is a time to convert ourselves liturgically to ones who must throw themselves on God’s mercy again and again.
I encourage you to do what I do with these Psalms.
Read them three times very slowly: once for the meaning, one time to get inside the mind and heart of the Psalmist to feel what they feel about being sorry for your sins; and the last time to ask God for mercy and the energy to convert from your false self to your true self. The results (for me) are truly amazing.
A psalm of David. For remembrance.
2LORD, do not punish me in your anger;
in your wrath do not chastise me!a
3Your arrows have sunk deep in me;b
your hand has come down upon me.
4There is no wholesomeness in my flesh because of your anger;
there is no health in my bones because of my sin.c
5My iniquities overwhelm me,
a burden too heavy for me.d
6Foul and festering are my sores
because of my folly.
7I am stooped and deeply bowed;e
every day I go about mourning.
8My loins burn with fever;
there is no wholesomeness in my flesh.
9I am numb and utterly crushed;
I wail with anguish of heart.f
10 My Lord, my deepest yearning is before you;
my groaning is not hidden from you.
11 My heart shudders, my strength forsakes me;
the very light of my eyes has failed.g
12 Friends and companions shun my disease;
my neighbors stand far off.
13Those who seek my life lay snares for me;
they seek my misfortune, they speak of ruin;
they plot treachery every day.
14But I am like the deaf, hearing nothing,
like the mute, I do not open my mouth,
15I am even like someone who does not hear,
who has no answer ready.
16LORD, it is for you that I wait;
O Lord, my God, you respond.h
17For I have said that they would gloat over me,
exult over me if I stumble.
18I am very near to falling;
my wounds are with me always.
19I acknowledge my guilt
and grieve over my sin.i
20 My enemies live and grow strong,
those who hate me grow numerous fraudulently,
21Repaying me evil for good,
accusing me for pursuing good.j
22Do not forsake me, O LORD;
my God, be not far from me!k
23 Come quickly to help me,l
my Lord and my salvation!
During the past three or four years, I have lived these Psalms at night when I think about how utterly selfish and devoid of Christ I was. I groan on my bed and wake up saying, “Oh, no!” When I think of how terribly I have treated others. It is not that I was without human love for everyone, but instead, I did not love them as Christ loved us. I am beginning to know what that feels like, and the disparity between what I was and what I have become causes angst.