Traditionally, the Church associates Fridays with penance. The prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours focus on penance, the Psalms taking it as their theme, beginning with the praying of the Miserere –
“Have mercy on me, God, in Your kindness.
In Your compassion, blot out my offence.
O wash me more and more from my guilt
and cleanse me from my sin.
My offences, truly I know them;
my sin is always before me.”
The idea of ‘penance’ can sometimes seem abstract – we tell ourselves we are really not that bad, that our intentions are good. But the more we underestimate our personal failings and sinfulness, the less we see ourselves as being in need of forgiveness. Perhaps this is the reason why the Church reminds us of our need in this respect.
The choice of Fridays as a day of penance is not coincidental; the Lord died on the Cross on Good Friday – His death the clearest possible reminder of our personal sinfulness and our associated need of forgiveness and redemption. Christ did not die for love of an abstract concept, but for the love of each and every one of us.
The devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus focusses on the divine love of Jesus, expressed in the symbol of His Heart; but in appearing to St Margaret Mary, the Lord bemoaned the indifference and sinfulness of souls toward His loving Heart – and He asked for reparation.
Similarly, the Divine Mercy devotion takes this theme and moves a step further forward – here, the Lord expresses clearly that we are sinners and asks us that recognising this, we appeal to His mercy; and He reminds us, too, that failure to do so leaves Him no option but to exercise His divine justice.
There are a great many ways of looking inwards upon ourselves in order to see more clearly where we fail in our love of God and of neighbour – there are spiritual exercises, examinations of conscience, preparation for Confession and no end of particular devotions to assist us in this aim. All are good and worthy. Some will appeal to us – they may touch our hearts – more than others; we should make good and frequent use of these.
But in the same way that there are many aids to help us to overcome our predominant faults and our general sinfulness, so also are there many obstacles along the way.
In this present age, one of the greatest dangers to our spiritual well-being is also one which can offer us much that is good – our use of the internet and what we find upon it. The internet is, in itself, eight good nor bad – that comes only with the way we put it to use.
Similarly, our present culture is one of acrimony and of casting stones in the general direction of others. We do this most often in words, in both the spoken and written form. Consider what you have read online so far today; how often have you read words which criticise, judge, tear down and destroy the good reputations of others? How quickly have you seen people jump on the bandwagon of attacking someone else, often as part of an online mob? How frequently have you noticed a person see only the worst of intentions in another, rather than looking for the best? And we have probably all done these things ourselves, at some point or another.
Now, this is nothing new. It was happening even while the Lord walked the earth.
Saint John’s Gospel (cf. Chapter 8) recounts the story of the woman caught in adultery – interesting, I think, that it was ‘the woman’ who was caught and hauled before the Lord, even though adultery requires two parties – where, then, was ‘the man’? The Scribes and the Pharisees – well-known for their legalistic attitude, where what is superficial is important, not what is in the heart – bring this woman before the Lord as a means of testing Him. From the start, their motives were wicked. They were also filled with that most poisonous of all things – the spirit of self-righteousness; this spirit kills any hope of mercy stone dead because it cannot recognise it’s own sin and need for forgiveness. They badger the Lord, trying to get Him to agree that she should be stoned to death, as the Law demands. He tells them –
“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
The Gospel tells us that these righteous men then began to disperse, so that the woman was left alone with the Lord.
We are also told – on two occasions, for emphasis – that “Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground”. What on earth was He writing? At a conference a couple of years ago, a Dominican nun had some thoughts on this; her opinion was that the Lord was writing ‘I Am’. This, she said, was a reminder that He alone can judge, for Her alone is the Lord. Other thoughts on the matter opine that His writing had echoes of the writing of the Ten Commandments; or that He was writing out the sins of those who condemned the woman. We can only wonder, as we are not told.
Often, when I hear this story told, I also hear people commenting in repsonse that the Lord, while not condemning the woman, also “told her to go and sin no more”. And that is true. But it is to miss the whole point of the story – that judgement is for the Lord alone, not for any of us. We are not judge and jury over anyone. None of us.
Like the Scribes and the Pharisees of that Gospel account, we are sinners every bit as much as that woman. Our sins may the same as hers or they may be different to hers – but we all have sins. And we probably have some sins to which we are more predisposed, which we are more likely to fall into and to repeat, than others. That is the common lot of humanity.
For many of us, one of those predominant sins is likely to be our sense of judgement upon others, expressed through our words. Every such word is a stone we cast at another person – and we know already what the Lord thought of that.
Perhaps this is a moment to consider how we might overcome this fault if we are conscious of it’s presence within us.