The process of approaching God for the Sacrament of Reconciliation is truly something beautiful, though I would daresay most people do not see it that way because it has never been presented to them as such. Jesus taught that we should not judge and we should not condemn. If He taught us to act this way, it should be obvious that God prefers to offer mercy rather than judgment in His dealing with us as well: He wants us to find His mercy, not condemnation. So we begin by spending time in reflection upon our own lives to see what areas might be broken, wounded, weak, or especially prone to sin. There are many options for doing this. We can seek out the Catechism, or pore over the Commandments or Works of Mercy to see which areas are in need of forgiveness and grace. But we cannot approach it by only thinking about which ‘rule’ we have broken; we need to look at it through the eyes of mercy. Yes, we should feel sorrow for our sins, but we cannot confuse our sinfulness with the beauty of who we are intended to be. The point is to get in touch with the rhythm of our heart and to keep our sins in the context of God’s love for us. Love is the heart of the gospel and so we must always examine our conscience while being aware of the mercy and love of God. Once we begin to sweep out the broken parts we also come to see the beauty that lies beneath the stain of our sin. In reconciling these areas with God we find new freedom through the grace He offers us. Listening to what is inside is important to keeping in touch with who we are created to be by God, which is our truest, most beautiful self, and it allows us to come to find God in a more intimate way.
Etty’s transformation was amazing in that it took place after a life filled with emotional distress from having been brought up in a very chaotic, unstable household. At the suggestion of a mentor she began a process of trying to listen inwardly for a half hour every day, which at first was more than a small struggle. But once she was able to get past all the confusion and noise in her own head, she realized it was her heart she sought, not her head. Eventually the listening led her to ‘fall to her knees’ for no apparent reason. What she discovered in that experience was God. What makes this so amazing is that up to this point Etty had led a somewhat immoral life and was not at all religious; she was not seeking God, but He was seeking her. Her life was transformed through His presence deep within her and she found peace for the first time, a peace which seems to have lasted for the short duration of her life.
We are offered quite an opportunity on March 4-5. For those who have not gone to Reconciliation in a while, it is a wonderful chance to be able to experience God’s mercy in a new way. And for those who go more frequently, there is always the invitation into greater intimacy with God through the outpouring of His mercy. No matter who we are it is never too soon or too late to enter into the gift of such an encounter with the living God. As the life of Etty Hillesum points out, what can change for all of us is our ability to listen. In learning to listen she could find God, and therefore beauty, even within a concentration camp. She found inner riches because she looked within and began to hear that deeper rhythm which is the rhythm of the love and mercy of God. We can enter into the invitation of God to do the same. That indeed is the most important thing we have to learn in life.
©Michele L. Catanese
*Magnificat, February, 2016, pg. 363-64. Of note is that Etty was also quoted by Pope Benedict XVI on Ash Wednesday, 2013 when he abdicated the papacy; he was touched by the story of her life and her desire to truly listen to the Lord.
** Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed by Patrick Woodhouse, Bloomsbury, London, 2009. This quote came from chapter 2, but all the information on Etty that I used in this entry is from this book.
The first image is a photo of some stained glass I took while visiting England. I chose it because it is a depiction of the Good Shepherd tenderly holding one of His sheep. This is the image I have for what takes place in Reconciliation: Jesus comes to us in tenderness and mercy, not in condemnation. He prefers to tend His flock with love, and therefore He never stops seeking us out when we are lost.
Next is a photo of Etty Hillesum. It can be found in Wikipedia and other sources.
The rose is a photo I took while in Oregon at the public rose garden in Portland. I chose this because Etty had a passion for flowers after her conversion experience. She would sit in her kitchen looking out the window at a flower and marvel at its exquisite beauty. She continued this practice of seeing beauty around her even while in the concentration camp. She not only learned how to hear the deeper rhythm, but she learned how to see it, too. I think we can all learn to do this if we simply allow ourselves to stop and see.
Next is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Jesus Christ Holy Forgiveness. It is important to gaze on the forgiving countenance of Jesus from time to time. In gazing upon an icon, which is a form of prayer, we can be invited into a deeper rhythm of mercy and love. This icon can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/jesus-christ-holy-forgiveness-040-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
Finally, the last photo is also one of mine. This wave was breaking off the coast of Maui, Hawaii. I chose it because God's mercy is like an ocean, according to St. Faustina, and often we need to allow the waves of His mercy to wash over us. The rhythm of the surf can be very healing; it can be inviting us into that mercy. I keep the original photo of this in a frame on my desk, not only because I love Hawaii, but because it reminds me of that rhythm. In gazing upon the photo, I can begin to hear and feel it deep within. It is the same process as gazing upon an icon, if one lets it be so.