At every Mass, we listen to the life-giving words of Christ. As his followers, Our Lord’s words should give meaning to our lives. The Son of God became poor in order to become one of us. And yet we are reluctant to acknowledge our poverty in order to become one with him. Our hearts are set, not always on Christ, but on the comforts of this life.
Having listened to peoples’ confessions for 25 years, it’s become clear to me that when we examine our conscience we tend not to look too much at our internal sins. Most of us concentrate almost entirely on our external ones: our words and our deeds. For some reason, most people tend to ignore their internal sins: the bad attitudes, intentions and desires. And yet these may be our worst sins, and the root cause of most of our external sins. We restrict ourselves to the little ripples and waves on the surface, and we ignore the raging current underneath that can so easily carry us away.
Let me try to illustrate this. I have a friend who has been driving for almost as long as I have – that’s 35 years. His license has never been endorsed and as far as the law is concerned his record is spotlessly clean. And since he’s never been in an accident, he enjoys a full no-claims bonus with his insurance company. He thinks he’s a good driver. His insurance company will tell you he’s a first-class driver because he’s never made a claim on his policy. In actual fact my friend is a terrible driver. It’s not that he breaks all the rules of the road or anything like that. Rather, it’s his whole attitude to driving that’s wrong. He drives as if he owns the road. I’m sure we all know someone like that.
He doesn’t have a shred of what we call ‘road courtesy’. He hardly ever yields the right of way to anyone. He is pretty inconsiderate. He’s also careless in many ways. He doesn’t always bother with signals, and at night he seldom dips his headlights – that kind of thing.
He’s also very impatient with other drivers. He loses his temper at the least thing and hurls abuse like there’s no tomorrow. He’s always in a hurry, with the result that you can never relax with him when he’s driving. He’s so wound up like a coiled spring just waiting for the release. Everyone is wrong except him. It’s like he takes on a different personality when he gets behind the wheel.
Now I could tell you alot more about my friend, and if he happens to read this on the internet later, he’ll know I’ve been talking about him, so I’ll stop here. I’m sure you will agree with me that he really isn’t a good driver. In many ways he’s a menace on the roads and it’s only good fortune that’s prevented him from having a serious accident. His guiding rule is simple: just avoid accidents. Anything else, like hurting the feelings of other road users, or annoying them or frightening them, doesn’t seem to enter into his thinking.
Now, I’ve tried to show that it is possible to avoid serious accidents and still be a bad driver. In today’s gospel, Our Lord tells us that it is entirely possible to avoid committing murder, adultery, and perjury, and yet we can sin – and sin seriously against the 5th, 6th, and 8th commandments. We can keep faithfully the letter of the law and yet fail miserably where the spirit of the law is concerned. But more than that: we could observe it externally and violate it internally.
Sin and virtue are essentially matters of the mind and the heart. Sin comes from inside us even though it may be triggered off by something outside us. And the thing is we don’t even have to go as far as the act. To seriously want it is enough. It may be even worse. It’s one thing for the body to indulge in a pleasurable but forbidden act for a moment, and an entirely different thing for the mind and heart to chew on it as well.
And this is why, when we examine our conscience at the end of each day, we need to look, not only at our words and our deeds – for what we have done and for what we have failed to do – but also at our attitudes. Do we ever review our old resentments, our jealousies, past angers, suspicions, and even hatreds? And what about our hidden intentions? We may abound in good deeds, but an unworthy intention can spoil even the best deed. We must have the courage to search our hearts, and literally lay bare our hidden motives and desires. These are often more revealing than our external acts, and they tell us much more about the kind of people we really are. Perhaps this is why we tend to neglect them when we go to Confession, because even we are too ashamed and embarrassed to look at our real selves, let alone reveal them to a priest. And yet, if we are clean inside, then these external distractions will run off us like rain off the windowpanes.
Lent is just around the corner, and it’s never too early to prepare for this period of spiritual reflection and renewal. So, let’s spend a little time over the next week or so, and make a plan of action for how we are going to use the season of Lent this year. After all, Lent is a tool to be used, it’s there for us to fine tune our interior life. We need to look inwards if we are going to make progress in holiness and goodness. We need to take a deeper look inside our mind and our heart; because our actions flow from within us like water from a hidden spring. Let’s try to make sure that the spring is clean and free from pollution.