Written by: Paul Lickteig
Loosely translated, Magis means “the more.” It is a will to strive, to give all of oneself to God. The Magis is not about being a work-a-holic, but about being someone who seeks through intent and action a fuller expression of the love of Christ. This is not easy. We are not saints. Yet, we are all called to be saints. The problem is, we tend to fall short. So, many of us go to spiritual direction as a way of helping us learn how to live in a better way. Strangely, it seems like we have sort of forgotten about something that Ignatius (for one) considered important, namely, confession.
I have sometimes heard people dismiss the sacrament of Reconciliation as either antiquated or presumptuous. I have heard some say “we do not go to confession these days, we go to spiritual direction, therapy or we talk to friends. I do not feel like we need to tell our sins to someone (who may be more sinful than we are) just because the Catechism says we do. Further, there are certain things that are better left unspoken; they are just between me and God.” As it is, the Church prescribes going to Reconciliation once a year, but I am not sure if that is the average. It is an ancient tradition, but somehow it seems like it does not have a place for many people in the current era.
Reconciliation let’s us enter into an awareness of God’s grace as we strive for the more. We will fall short, but we are given the grace to strive because we know that we will ultimately be forgiven. It is in the confessional that we can lay out the deepest parts of ourselves and know they will not be revealed somewhere else. It is in the confessional that we can recognize our failures for what they are and communicate them to another human being without fear. It is in the confessional that we can come to understand something about mercy, grace and the will to continue growing in better imitation of Christ with another human being present. Reconciliation is Sacrament not because we should do it, but because we need it.
Still, for many it is a confusing practice, I think mainly because we are not always taught how important it is. I once had a conversation with a spiritual director where I told him a number of the things that I had been struggling with. I named my sins of omission and commission, laying things out as clearly as I could. By the end, he looked at me and said that I did not have a real sense of my sinfulness. Since I begged to differ (as I do to this day…believe it or not, spiritual directors are not always dead on), he went on to explain what he meant. The question for him was not the list of things that I was doing wrong, the things that I thought were sinful. The question for him was one of primary orientation. Where was I moving, what spirits seemed to motivate me most of the time, and how was I noticing a sense of goodness in my life?
This director was an excellent minister, and his theology was sound, even if incomplete. In this understanding, sin is more of an attitude than an event. If I was living in a place of gratitude and goodwill then I would tend to do good things. If I was living with anger or cultivating a resentment, then I would do bad things. In short, sinful deeds and good deeds were emblematic of what was going on more deeply. It was on these deeper movements that he wanted to focus. Thus, as we talked, I started to ignore actual sin and pay attention to “interior movements.” In one way this was helpful, but in another way it was not. I was only getting one half of what I needed. There was a distinction working itself out. I was going to Spiritual Direction, not confession. Focusing on my disposition was seriously important. However, so was noticing the ways that I was letting sin emerge in my life.
The difference between spiritual direction and Reconciliation is not always a clear one. What makes it clearer for me is understanding the difference between my fundamental orientation, or attitude, towards God, and the actions I commit. The thing is, we cannot handle both attitude and action as though they are the same things. When we do this, we fall into a trap of sorts.
“I am still a good person” said the student caught cheating on an exam. Well…not exactly. You are not condemned. You are beloved. You are full of the potential for grace. But your actions are not in accord with the good and there are consequences.
“I am a good person” said the wealthy man begrudgingly giving money to a homeless person. Again…not quite what it is about. If you are giving with a closed heart you are going through the motions. Without love, “charity” loses its character and will not come to much. While your money is appreciated, there is some concern about your heart.
This was the problem I had always faced when meeting up with spiritual directors – I knew Jesus loved me. I could feel a sense of his presence. I trusted the sense I had of Him in prayer. At the same time, there was always a tendency towards committing certain actions that I knew were not right. I sometimes found myself acting selfishly and hurting others. (I still do, in fact. To paraphrase Paul, it is a great mystery that I can still “do the evil I do not intend”). While it was imperative to understand the “why” of it, there was also a need to recognize the basic insanity behind sin and address the act itself. Sometimes there is no grand “reason” for sin, no immense mystery or self-realization that will completely remove it from me. I am a sinner, called with others to follow Christ. I know through prayer that Jesus loves me, but that does not make me a “good” person. I am loved, graced, and blessed, but that does not mean I am “good.” I still have to choose how I am going to act. Sometimes I need to open myself up to forgiveness for what I have done, not in an abstract way, but through another human being.
We are always striving towards the good. There is attitude and there is action. In the spiritual life we are asked to look at both. This is part of the Magis. In the process of learning how to be more loving, kind and generous, we will always fall short. This is the place for grace and mercy, and the sacrament of Reconciliation opens us up to receiving these in a more personal way. Spiritual direction tends towards our relationship with God and what we are called to. Confession focuses on the immediate and manifest ways that we live, and allows us to name those things that lead us or others away from God. We are attempting to bring our actions into accord with what we believe. It is important to watch our behavior so that we can act in a way that is good to others, and so that we can cultivate habits that create peaceful interaction. It is in confession that I learn first to name those things, and in doing so, begin to cultivate that connection between my actions and the holy desire to love in better ways that God has placed in my heart.
Photo: Adie Reed “Confessional” on flickr. Used under Creative Commons.