The Cross of Christ brings His glorious grace into the focus of contemplation. It is a difficult mystery to dwell on. The heart sometimes finds itself weary and sometimes even too discouraged to fix its gaze on the agony of the Lord. This is where frequent confession and humble examination of conscience can help the practice of mental prayer – which is a humbled gaze of the heart on the mercy of God.
Oftentimes, it is not the big sins that discourage prayer. When sin is obvious, the torment of being separated from God moves the prayerful soul to seek Him. Venial sins, however, do not always elicit our readiness for conversion.
A venial sin is that (almost) unintended plunge into mediocrity we take frequently! While it is not a decision to act directly against the love of God, you could say that it encompasses a whole multitude of less than noble acts or failures to act when God’s love bids us otherwise. Whatever the action or inaction it is marked by a certain careless or anxious self-reliance in living out the Gospel. We have been forgiven beyond measure, but instead of gratitude, we mindlessly punish the short-comings of others with heartless words (even if unspoken) or angry glances (even if unseen). At the same time, we easily make excuses for ourselves in all kinds of situations where we are at fault and in the next moment find ourselves indignant that others should ever mistakenly accuse us of wrong. What makes this even worse is that we indulge this pettiness presuming all the while that our mean-spirited attitude, the one we do not quite admit to having, is of no serious concern to our Crucified Master.
This supposition about venial sin is dangerous for those whom the Risen Lord has called to Himself. When we act out of false judgments, we are vulnerable to all kinds of self-deception and misunderstanding. If we will not humble ourselves regularly by examining our consciences and going to confession, this kind of indifference to sin is the pathway to hardness of heart. When our hearts are hard, when they are cluttered by unacknowledged failures to help our neighbor in distress, when they are darkened by unquestioned false judgments, it is no wonder we find the Cross of Christ repulsive – His agony discloses the uncomfortable truth about our lack of love before the mystery of God’s love.
The glory of Christ crucified reveals the truth we need for our lives – even when it is hard to look upon. When we know the truth through the eyes of the Suffering Servant, we have the ability to act with a freedom commensurate with the dignity He has fashioned us to enjoy. But how do we open the eyes of our hearts so that our faith might glimpse this glory?
Here, the journey down to our knees in humble contrite prayer is the pathway to contemplation. We can make this journey of prayer because we have died with Christ in the waters of baptism. In those living waters, every thought and judgment is submitted to Him. To fall to our knees before this river of mercy reminds us that He humbled Himself for our sake.
As we bow our heads before the mystery of His unfathomable love, we allow our hearts to be washed in His Blood. To let our self-sufficient attitudes die at His Crucified feet is to remind ourselves that we live no longer our own life, but the life of Christ in us. If we listen in the silence of our hearts, His gentle whisper gives us the courage to place everything at his feet, even our inadequacies and the humiliation of repeated shortcomings. Such a vision of the glory of the Cross is vulnerable to the Lord’s own suffering love, a love that leads us deep into the mystery of mercy where our tears and God’s tears intermingle.
Even when we are influenced by all kinds of unintended false judgments about God, ourselves, those we love, and those with whom we share difficult conflict, prayer that searches for the glory that streams from Cross finds compunction, humility and a new beginning. The tears that flow when we acknowledge our sinfulness before our Redeemer are a kind of second baptism. The sacrament of penance in fact is a beautiful action of Christ in the Church that restores our baptismal innocence by helping us surrender our sin, even venial sin, to His merciful love.
It is sometimes true that our lack of vigilance in being merciful may visit us soon after we have received absolution. At the same time, because the Holy Spirit has moved us with sorrow to confess the indifference and falsehood with which we view our neighbor, those familiar and convenient myths we once weaved to justify ourselves do not have the same seductive force. We have a little more freedom to see them objectively. At the same time, the eye of our heart is also more easily captured by the radiance of the One who died to free us from sin.
Because it can occasion deeper contrition, frequent confession even helps us face deep spiritual pain, the interior wounds which give rise to so many involuntary judgments about those who have hurt or betrayed us. As we submit even this kind of misery to Christ, our desire to be more vulnerable to God in prayer becomes more intense and powerful in our lives. Here, a new kind of compassion and a mysterious gift of intercession for our enemies take hold of our hearts like those beautiful movements of Christ’s own Heart as He offered Himself for us. The freer our hearts are from sin and its effects, the more open they are to be filled with His glory.
Art for this post on the glory of Christ Crucified: Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy, Caravaggio, 1594, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.