Part 4: Start with Yourself

The following is part 4 of a 14-part series to help inspire parish cenacle and study groups this coming Lent who are looking for ways to make a difference in this troubled world. We invite you to view the entire series.

In order to help make the world a better place, through Christ and with Christ, we have to start by changing ourselves.

But here a problem arises. We cannot make lasting changes for good in ourselves, any more than we can make lasting changes for good in the world! Only Jesus Christ can do that in us and for us. We have to let His merciful love flow into us and transform our hearts completely. Then we can let that love flow through us to our neighbors in need. That is why Jesus taught us that without His "life" within us, we cannot bear the fruit of works of authentic love:

Abide in me, as I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing (Jn 15:4-5).

In another place in the gospels, Jesus likens His spirit of love to living waters that He wants to pour into our hearts:

If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me, and let him who believes in Me drink. As the scripture has said, "Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water" (Jn 7:37-38).

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) expands on this in On the Song of Songs, a series of mediations he preached for his fellow Cistercian monks. He likens the spirit of Jesus Christ to waters that flow either into a canal or a reservoir:

Those who are wise will see their lives as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then pours forth the overflow without loss to itself. ... Today there are many in the Church who act like canals, the reservoirs are far too rare. So urgent is the charity of those through whom the streams of heavenly doctrine flow to us that they want to pour it forth before they have been filled. They are more ready to speak than to listen, impatient to teach what they have not yet grasped, and full of presumption to govern others while they know not how to govern themselves. ...

The reservoir resembles the fountain that runs to form a stream or spreads to form a pool only when its waters are brimming over. ... You must imitate this process. First, be filled, and then control the outpouring. The charity that is benign and prudent does not flow outward until it abounds within.

In order to let the life and love of Jesus Christ flow into our hearts and fill us to overflowing, the first thing we have to ask is why this is not happening already. Even we who are believers and churchgoers are unlikely to have lives that are full to overflowing with the Holy Spirit. What is blocking the flow? Perhaps we are like mountain streams that get cluttered with garbage from campers and tourists until the stream slows to a trickle. Our hearts need to have the blockages removed if we are to be filled to overflowing with the love of Jesus Christ and become ready and able to make a positive difference in this world.

The problem, of course, is sin, and the answer is simple enough. Saint John writes:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 Jn 1:8).

If you really want to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ, therefore, it's probably time for an "open-heart surgery" of the soul, to remove all the debris that blocks the flow of His merciful love in your life. After all, how can you be filled with the spirit of Jesus Christ if you are already too full of yourself? There is simply not enough room for His grace to flow in! But Jesus Christ died for you, gave His very life for you on the Cross so that all your sins could be forgiven and all the obstacles to the inflow of His life-giving Holy Spirit might be removed from your heart.

To let the Physician of the soul do His best work in you, however, you will need to take a big step.

Make a general confession: This means going to meet Jesus in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, only this time unburdening yourself of all the most serious sins of your entire life, as much as you can remember them, even the big sins you have already confessed. While the eternal punishment due for those sins has already been taken away by the merciful love of Jesus Christ, nevertheless, you can deepen your contrition for those sins and receive and increase of grace in your heart by repeating them in a general confession. In other words, the idea is not to "beat yourself up again" for those sins, but to see them ever more clearly in the light of the merciful and compassionate love of God.

Of course, this is major "open-heart surgery" for the soul, but don't let the daunting prospect of going through it make you hesitate. In fact, maybe we should call it a "spring cleaning of the soul." Try to remember how wonderful it feels in your home when the place is finally cleaned up the way it should be and all the garbage is finally thrown out. A general confession can lighten the heart and refresh the soul. It is the first, essential way to make room in your heart for the inflow of the merciful love of Jesus Christ. Saint Francis De Sales recommended it to all of his readers who wanted to begin a truly devout life:

A general confession summons us to know ourselves, arouses wholesome sorrow for our past life, makes us marvel at the mercy of God who has so patiently waited for us, brings peace to our hearts, calms our minds, excites us to good resolutions ... and opens our hearts to reveal ourselves with confidence in subsequent confessions (Introduction to the Devout Life, I.6).

Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska received special revelations from Jesus Himself on the spiritual healing that comes from a deep and searching confession. As recorded in her Diary, Jesus said to her:

Daughter, when you go to confession, to this fountain of My mercy, the Blood and Water which came forth from My Heart always flows down upon your soul and ennobles it. Every time you go to confession, immerse yourself entirely in My mercy, with great trust, so that I may pour the bounty of My grace upon your soul. I am only hidden by the priest, but I Myself act in your soul. Here the misery of the soul meets the God of mercy. Tell souls that from this fount of mercy souls draw graces solely with the vessel of trust. If their trust is great, there is no limit to My generosity. The torrents of grace inundate humble souls. (1602)

Given the importance of the role of the priest in this sacrament, especially his pastoral role in a general confession, you may want to carefully choose a priest who is known to you as a wise and prudent counselor or spiritual director. It also helps the priest if you make a special appointment for a general confession, since general confessions often take extra time. He might also be able to give you directions for the examination of your conscience in preparation for making your confession.

Father George Kosicki, CSB, sums up for us the marvelous effects of the experience of God's merciful love available to us in this sacrament:

As the mercy of God flows into us, it cleanses, converts us, turns us around, so that we too can become merciful ... filled with mercy ourselves, we allow that mercy to flow through us - toward God, in thanksgiving and praise, and toward our neighbor in love and works of mercy (Now Is the Time for Mercy, Marian Press, 2004).

Discussion Questions
1. What do you think Jesus means in the gospels when He says: "I am the vine, you are the branches"?
2. What does St. Bernard of Clairvaux mean by the difference between Christians who are "reservoirs" and Christians who are "canals"?
3. Have you ever made a general confession before? Were you/would you be ashamed or embarrassed to put all your serious sins into one confession?

A Prayer of King David
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to Thy steadfast love;
according to Thy abundant mercy
blot out all my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me....

Create in me a clean heart O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from Thy presence
and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.
Restore me to the joy of Thy salvation
and uphold me with a willing spirit. (Psalm 51:1-3, 10-12)

A Hymn (based on Psalm 23)
The Lord's my Shepherd, I'll not want.
He maketh me down to lie
In pastures green He leadeth me,
The quiet waters by.

My soul he doth restore again,
And me to walk doth make
Within the paths of righteousness,
E'en for his own name's sake.

Yea, though I walk in death's dark vale,
Yet will I fear none ill:
For Thou art with me, and Thy rod,
and staff me comfort still.

My table Thou hast furnished
In presence of my foes;
My head Thou dost with oil anoint,
And my cup overflows.

Goodness and mercy all my life
Shall surely follow me:
And in God's house for evermore
My dwelling place shall be.

Read Part 5: Setting Your Priorities.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. He wishes to extend special thanks to Kathleen Ervin and the Divine Mercy Eucharistic Society of Oakland, Calif., for help in producing this series. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).

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