We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…
A PERSONAL EXAMEN
In these few verses Mark draws what appears to be a particular conclusion from Jesus’ teachings, but uses it to bring us to a very deep place, a place of specific personal reflection. What comes from within us and what work must we do if what we bring forth is at variance with the Gospel, or spiritually unhealthy, or morally unacceptable.
We recall from the previous lectio that Jesus wishes us to realise that law and the following of law is always about a discerned marriage of both letter and spirit – what a law says in black and white, and what the intention is which lies behind it. Now, in a sense, Jesus asks us how we respond to that reality, and how law shapes us and our behaviour. The analogy with food – and that’s what it is, this little parable or wise saying – is wonderful. We eat food and it passes through us and out into the sewer – that’s essentially how our body deals with “what comes from outside”. This requires development – what about all the other things which come to us “from outside”?
Jesus is asking us to notice, just as he is fond of doing himself, the context in which we live. It takes a new sort of awareness, almost a faculty which we have to “switch on”, for this to happen. The first rather surprising thing to say is that we can be extraordinarily lazy with regard to our noticing what is happening around us. In many ways we allow our surroundings, our encounters, words spoken to us and gestures made towards us, to be received only superficially and then we allow them to pass by or roll off us. And in many cases that’s probably the approach we should take towards them – not everything, after all, demands the same, detailed and focused engagement which we reserve for the most important moments and meetings. And yet, no moment or meeting, or word or gesture is entirely empty – each one has the potential to reveal God’s presence to us, or reveal our absence from God’s presence.
Jesus is acutely aware of just how all these moments shape us, and that we respond from within according to their varying influences. Hence his saying – “It is what comes out of man that makes him unclean”.
Uncleanness here has a much richer sense than we might at first think. It is the uncleanness which we might associate with ritual purity, and this is entirely in context – Jesus has just finished scolding the Pharisees and scribes who have criticised him on a relatively minor – in fact quite insignificant – point which has regard to ritual purity: the washing of hands. Now Christ asks a much tougher question – what effect does a sinful heart have on those relationships which stand at the centre not just of ritual but of my entire life, situated in the always dynamic matrix of self, neighbour and God?
Of course, there is much which we receive from around us which has the potential to twist us, strangle us, destroy us. But it also has the potential to not “pass through us”, as food does. On the contrary, Christ asks us about those things – experiences, encounters, mistakes, poor judgements – which, once they have been met by us, make a home within us – they settle down deeply within us, in our “hearts”, as the Gospel has it. Now this is a very different proposition – suddenly we are faced with the disturbing bubbling up of these things and their effects within us. Now we have the possibility of understanding what Jesus means when he says that it is the things which come out of us that make us unclean.
There is undoubtedly a clear implication here that we decide to bring these things forth – we decide to make them part of our lives and part of how we relate to others. Once we begin to “dance” with these very negative aspects of living they will imprint within us in a way which is transformative – and not in a good way! Rather, the transformation which they bring about is contrary to the Gospel transformation which is the result of a life lived in grace, in the heart of a relationship with Christ. This is interesting, and something which we are invited, if you like, to prove with our own experiences – the life of grace is a life which is infinitely more rewarding and joy-giving than a life lived gracelessly, in other words, a life which is marked by sin and its effects. There is no doubt about the effect of sin – it degrades and eventually destroys the relationships which are, for us as human persons, pivotal.
Things haven’t changed much, it would seem, since Jesus’ day! The list that rolls off his tongue here is obviously a reflection of what were very much part and parcel of his own day: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly. This isn’t a list which is being projected back from today into a time far, far away! Human nature, fallen and damaged and prone to rebellion against God and the good, has a tendency towards these things (and others – the list isn’t exhaustive, and each of us could add our personal peccadillos for good measure!). And we can say, with hand on heart, that these ways of behaving and abusing ourselves and others are very much present with us today, if not exactly in our own lives, certainly in what we see and hear around us.
The invitation cannot be ignored here – Jesus is talking about the deep interior and personal work which we all must undertake to prove ourselves to be people of truth and honesty and integrity, people who have a desire to live the Gospel way of life and not the often perverse and self-seeking way which the world, more and more, proclaims. While each of those very grave sins can be taken as a particular deviation in itself, each one exists with a dark and worrying penumbra which surrounds it, which is insidious and which behaves as a context and canvas upon which other related behaviours can be painted. Fornication is a very specific sin – sexual relations with another person outside marriage. But it implies here a misuse and abuse of the sexual personality and self which is entirely closed to the other and entirely directed toward my own satisfaction. And so on with each of the other sins which Jesus offers for consideration – while being easily identifiable in themselves they also bring with them a deeper and wider consideration which can become the moment for personal reflection and conversion.
And if we are serious about our desire to walk with Christ, then we must ask ourselves – what are the things that I do want to bring forth from my heart into my life with others and God? What are the things which reveal me as a man or woman who strives to live a life of virtue, a life of charity, a life of holiness?
But it would be entirely wrong to sit in misery on this particularly stinking heap. At no stage in the Gospel are we allowed to become overwhelmed by sin if there appears a modicum of desire for personal conversion. That moment of grace to which we all, hopefully, travel, brings with it the torrential outpouring of God’s mercy and the reality of the crucified Christ’s redemptive suffering and death. In the very moment of recognition of our sin, mercy becomes a reality – that single moment transforms.
The Irish Dominican friar and poet, Fr Paul Murray OP, in a haiku which he composed, sums up for me the magnitude of this moment of grace, which awaits all of us. His lines speak about the dynamism of the journey of our lives – pilgrimage, of course! – and our inexorable movement toward God. But this is the pilgrimage of every moment of our lives, and into every moment of our lives, if we would only see that, recognise that, grasp that! God inhabits not the past or the future, but the present now.
We try to think for a moment, or recall – even better – when the grace of this one moment has struck our hearts with all its force and lifted the veil of unhappiness, or isolation, of guilt and shame, and a new light has shone into our lives, an untold brightness which is forgiveness, mercy, healing.
Imagine, for a moment, the woman taken in adultery, whose story is told by St John in his Gospel (8:1-11). Try not to be one of the scribes or Pharisees who eventually must give way and go away. Try for a moment to be the woman. She is here, known, caught, apparently guilty (caught in the very act, after all), humiliated, frightened, shamed, waiting to be condemned, dragged away, stoned, facing death, hopeless, bewildered. Noise surrounds her, accusation shouts at her, her own sin seems to stand up and condemn her. She can hear nothing, and even if Jesus were to speak now (and he just writes on the ground) she wouldn’t hear what he has to say to her. In the midst of all of this, and her own depressing recognition of who she is and what she has done, forgiveness comes her way that day. He comes her way that day. And all the others must go away to look at themselves, just as she and Jesus look at her.
Of this moment – and it is a single, timeless, grace-fiilled moment – St Augustine says in his sermons on St John’s Gospel:
Relicti sunt duo, misera et misericordia. Two are left there, misery and mercy!
Misery – my misery – is the very door through which mercy enters!St Augustine’s sermons on St John’s Gospel
Unless our examination of our faults and failings is tempered precisely by the remembrance and invitation of God’s mercy made real in Jesus Christ we run the terrible risk of descending into an unending pit of despair. Our sins, rightly, fill us with dread, and can rob us, if we allow them to run wild through our lives and break our hearts, of the hope which Christ promises, and which is poured into our hearts, at the moment of our baptism, along with faith and charity. The Sacrament of Reconciliation cannot be replaced, since it makes entirely real this hope.
Growing out of this very particular examination which leafs through the pages of our conscience, there is a related, but very different, examination, which traditionally has been called the examen. It doesn’t focus on sins and faults and failings alone. Rather, it offers the space and time for us to review the whole content of a day and see how God has been moving there, how we have noticed him or ignored him, and in the review which we make we consciously ask him to accompany us, both in order that we can recognise the graces that we accepted and those that we missed, and to prepare ourselves for the following day, that we might be more attuned to his presence and grace as he makes himself known to us. The examen is practiced today by Cistercians: twice a day, usually at the midpoint, sometime around the Office of Sext, and once again at the very close of the day, at the time of Compline, we make the review of the examen. They are moments when we can gather in not only our thoughts but our entire selves, thanking God, marvelling at his presence and at our own blindness, and recommitting to hearts open to his presence.
But perhaps the most detailed presentation of the examen is that recommended by St Ignatius of Loyola to his followers, the Jesuits. Once again, it must be a twice daily discipline. It requires time and personal commitment, and is a graced gift which allows for a definite living into the grace of the moment. While there are many ways to pursue the examen which Ignatius recommends, perhaps it is good to see it hung upon this particular framework, which might become a model for your use this week, and from now on. The method presented here is adapted from a technique described by Ignatius Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises. St. Ignatius thought that the examen was a gift that came directly from God, and that God wanted it to be shared as widely as possible. One of the few rules of prayer that Ignatius made for the Jesuit order was the requirement that Jesuits practice the examen twice daily—at noon and at the end of the day. It’s a habit that Jesuits, and many other Christians, practice to this day.
This is a version of the five-step Daily Examen that St. Ignatius practiced.
1. Become aware of God’s presence.
2. Review the day with gratitude.
3. Pay attention to your emotions.
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
5. Look toward tomorrow.
In itself, it is a very simple structure. And yet, to give it both the time and attention which it requires asks of those who practice it a real openness to the movement of God’s Spirit in their hearts and lives, and the grace of being able to notice – to see fully and speak it back to God – what has happened in my life that day. For those of us who may wish to look in more detail at the examen and try to begin to adopt it as a practice – and certainly that is to be recommended – follow this link:
It is all too easy to become overwhelmed by our sin and our personal sense of our sins. But God, on the contrary, wants us to be overwhelmed by his mercy.
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-