I really struggle with examining my conscience. Not so much out of pride, I’m actually eager to accuse myself. I still have burned in my mind the opinions of others that I was very prideful when I was young (junior high and high school). I was naïve; I was zealous with the energy common to that age; I was thoughtlessly outspoken. Those things tempered with time and experience, I am grateful to say.
How did I struggle then, if I was so eager to accuse myself?
I would think the very worst of myself and this would make me holier. I never called myself beautiful, though I, at first, thought I was. I called myself a weed and not a flower. This attitude toward myself, at that important developmental age, internalized and my self-esteem plummeted.
High in conscientiousness, taking after the teachings of my parents, I pay attention to detail. In high school, when I confessed twice a week, I could tell the priest just how many times I used bad language.
As the effort to make formal examinations of conscience (aka: tally sheets) worked negatively on me, I began to reject the effort. Avoiding sin became a rigorous action, without heart. “If cussing wasn’t a sin” I told a friend while hiking, “I’d do it.” I loved the Lord, but my perspective of sin and holiness was skewed through immature self-education.
There was plenty to condemn myself with. As a teenager, I lived a life of contradiction. My desire to be holy conflicted with my desire to belong, to be loved, to be attended to. I was a flirt.
Those who pointed out the contradictions in my life provided me with the mental fodder I would eventually use in condemning myself. Soon everything I did, I saw as a source of immense grief for our Lord. “Our sins put him in the cross,” resonated with me all too deeply. I had wounded my Lord. I blamed myself for his pain. Mercy was not an attribute I practiced on myself.
A woman from Arizona taught me about freedom in the Lord. She was older than me, though similar in spirit, and at peace with her wild ways. Not at peace with sin, but at ease knowing that she was human, would mess up, could repent and God would always forgive her. Her prayers and conversation, through the act of the Holy Spirit, freed me from that spirit of condemnation. I learned, in the space of the week she visited me, to see that God could love me, that I did not drive the nail in his hand. I had always wanted to love him. I had things to repent, but did not need to emotionally flog myself for my sins.
In college I asked the priest how to do an examination of conscience. I did not know how without creating a tally sheet. “Ask yourself: how have I turned from the Lord,” he answered. This gave me focus. Rather than leaving a void by removing the score card, I had something positive to fill it with. The answer to this would be more abstract, more personal, would indicate not that I had cussed and how many times, but the source of that carelessness with my language.
I find myself in a strange place yet again. I want to seek the Lord, but lack the mental space and focus to do it. Relying on good intentions, offering up the toils of the day, I still have plenty with which to accuse myself, but not enough time to make the list, not enough conscientiousness to remember.
Now comes the revelation: “A simple definition of sin is a refusal to love” (Mark Haydu, Meditations on Vatican Art).
A refusal to love. It is a refusal to love when I yell at my kids. It is a refusal to love when I get so wrapped up in my weakness of anxiety that I cannot see anyone else but whatever it is that is overwhelming me. It is a refusal to love when I do not help my husband. It is a refusal to love when I could get up quicker to get the baby, but instead let him do it.
I’m not condemning myself. If I were, it would be more that “I failed, I was selfish, self-centered, prideful, arrogant, rude.” If I can identify what I lack (not what terrible attributes I have) than I can see clearly the upward path I must take. I can love. I need not label myself. All those labels add up to a terrible degree of self-hate. But I can love. I can love. God is love. If I say “a refusal to love” when my life is a string of endless opportunities to love (vocation provides those), I see I can “just do better.” I know how to love, not at all perfectly, but enough to know what it is like and that I need to do more of it.
And there is an endlessly sweet satisfaction in coming to a deeper level of understanding. I’m so grateful for that today.