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THE SACRAMENT OF CONFESSION
from issue no. 08 - 2008

“Let yourself be carried by the wood of His humility”


One of the meditations of the spiritual exercices preached by Don Giacomo Tantardini to the priests of the Porto–Santa Rufina diocese in November 2006


by Don Giacomo Tantardini


The Risen Jesus appears to the apostles on Lake Tiberias

The Risen Jesus appears to the apostles on Lake Tiberias

The following are just some suggestions, as an aid to living the Sacrament of Penance, the Sacrament of Confession.
Let me begin by repeating the invitation of St. Augustine to “let oneself be carried by the wood of His humility”1. We have to cross the sea of life, we must reach the Lord, who is our bliss. The only way to cross this sea is by letting oneself be carried by the wood of His humility. Letting oneself be carried by this ship which is the Cross of the Lord. The expression of St. Augustine is dear to me: “Let yourself be carried by the wood of His humility”. What is confession if not humbly agreeing to let oneself be carried by the Lord, by the wood of His humility? If not accepting humbly to confess our poor sins as Jesus wanted, as the Holy Church has established? That is why I permitted myself to give to those who wanted it the little book Who prays is saved, as an aid to confessing well as the Church suggests, indeed commands.
Let me touch on an insight, a recent discovery for me: those who confess well become holy. It was a recent insight (last year during Holy Mass on the Feast of All Saints, while reading the Gospel of the Beatitudes) and of immediate obviousness: those who confess well become holy. Those who confess well, with humility, with sincerity, with the completeness of accusation, become holy. Become holy in the good Lord’s time, but they who confess well do become holy. Those who let themselves be carried humbly by the wood of His humility, become holy. Becoming holy means that the presence of Jesus Christ becomes increasingly dear, ever closer. “Familiaritas stupenda nimis / ever more stupendous”, as the Imitation of Christ says, “His familiarity”2. As a verse of the hymn Iesu dulcis memoria says, the long medieval hymn attributed to St. Bernard. It is the verse that in the last months of his life Don Giussani repeated most frequently: “O Iesu mi dulcissime / O my Sweetest Jesus, / spes suspirantis animae, / You hope of my heart that weeps [suspiramus, as we say in the Salve Regina], / te quaerunt piae lacrimae / my pious tears seek You [tears that do not claim, that wait, that ask] / et clamor mentis intimae / and the deepest cry of the heart”. Even when, perhaps, this cry of the heart does not even rise to our lips. So, if we confess well, we become holy. That is, the presence of the Lord, His presence, His beauty (“Beloved beauty”), His sweetness becomes dearer and closer to our lives.
Let us now read the passage on Peter’s denial and the look Jesus gives Peter, according to Luke’s Gospel: “After having taken him, they led Him away and they had Him enter the high priest’s house. Peter followed at a distance. They had lit a fire in the middle of the courtyard and Peter sat down among them, and as he was sitting there by the blaze a servant-girl saw him, peered at him, and said, ‘This man was with him too.’ But he denied it. ‘Woman, I do not know him,’ he said. Shortly afterwards someone else saw him and said, ‘You are one of them too.’ But Peter replied, ‘I am not, my friend.’ About an hour later another man insisted, saying, ‘This fellow was certainly with him. Why, he is a Galilean’. Peter said, ‘My friend, I do not know what you are talking about’. At that instant, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed, and the Lord turned and looked straight at Peter, and Peter remembered the Lord’s words when he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will have disowned me three times’. And he went outside and wept bitterly” (Lk 22, 54-62).
Let me suggest three brief thoughts of Saint Ambrose. Saint Ambrose is one of the Fathers of the Church who most stresses mercy. Perhaps the phrase that concludes the Hexaemeron, the account of creation, is known to you all: “He created the heavens and I do not read that He rested, He created the earth and I do not read that He rested, He created the sun, the moon and the stars and I do not read that He rested. I read that He created man and then He rested / habens cui peccata dimitteret for finally He had one whose sins He could forgive”3. This is the rest of God. Jesus says so in the Gospel: “In the same way, I tell you, there will be more rejoicing in heaven [that is in God’s Heart] over one sinner repenting than over ninety-nine upright people who have no need of repentance” (Lk 15, 7). Ambrose adds nothing to these words of Jesus about the joy in the heart of God; it’s splendid that he simply says that God rested because finally He had one whose sins He could forgive.

The passage I now read is taken from the commentary of St. Ambrose on Luke’s Gospel: “Bonae lacrimae quae lavant culpam. / How good [dear to the heart] are the tears that wash away sins. / Denique quos Iesus respicit plorant. / So those whom Jesus gazes at, start to cry [when Jesus looks at a poor sinner, he starts to cry]. Peter denied a first time and did not cry because the Lord did not look at him. Peter denied a second time and did not cry because the Lord had still not looked at him. Peter denied the third time: / respexit Iesus et ille amarissime flevit / Jesus looked at him and he wept bitterly”4. Tears do not come from sin. “Everyone who commits sin is a slave” (Jn 8, 34). Sin leads us to vice, not to tears. “If the Son sets you free you will indeed be free” (Jn 8, 36). When Jesus looks, one weeps. And one weeps in memory of Him. “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter, and Peter remembered” (Lk 22, 61). One weeps not out of humiliation, one weeps because one is loved. One weeps out of gratitude, because we are looked at so. Because, poor sinners, we are loved so. “Respice, Domine Jesu, / Look at us, Lord Jesus, / ut sciamus nostrum deflere peccatum. / So that we learn to weep for our sins. / Unde etiam lapsus sanctorum utilis. / Hence even the sin of the holy is useful. I was in no way harmed that Peter betrayed Him, I am benefited by the fact that [Jesus] forgave him”5.

A second passage. Ambrose is commenting on a psalm, and speaks of Peter: “Quem Dominus respicit salvat. / Whom the Lord looks at, He saves. Thus, in the Passion of the Lord, when Peter betrayed / [and here Ambrose says something that seems splendid] sermone, non mente / [when Peter betrayed] in word, but not in his heart…”6. So Saint Ambrose distinguishes the sins of weakness from the project of sin. The sins of weakness may also be mortal sins, that is not what Ambrose challenges. Our sins of weakness may be mortal sins, if the three conditions for an act to be a mortal sin are there. But the sin of weakness is different from the intention of sin. The sin of weakness is different from having the design of sin. Ambrose has for Peter a look of tenderness, as for a child who has stumbled. Peter has denied, but with his lips (sermone) not with his heart (non mente). He adds a wonderful remark: “(the words of Peter that deny Him are more full of faith than the doctrine of many [the words of Peter, who betrays Him out of fear, do not destroy an attachment to the Lord, an attachment more faithful than the speeches of many]) / respexit eum Christus / Christ looked at him / et Petrus flevit; /and Peter wept; and so [with his tears] washed away his mistake. / Ita quem visus est voce denegare / So he who in his words seemed to others [perhaps even to John when he heard Peter say what he said] to deny the Lord, / lacrimis fatebatur / testifies to Him in tears”7. With tears Peter testified to the Lord. Let me add something. There is a sign that distinguishes the fragility of sin from the design of sin, and it is avoiding future occasions of sin. We shall say so in the Act of Contrition when we confess. The sign that sin is not our intention, is the desire to flee the future occasions of sin. Because sin is committed in the heart. Sin occurs when one adheres in the heart to a wicked desire. It is in the heart that sin is committed. The act, any sinful act, is a consequence of the heart adhering to a wicked wish; of the heart yielding to a wicked wish, rather than kneeling to ask. Even kneeling, even this physical act of going down on one’s knees, how precious it is to the Lord! Going down on one’s knees and asking. And the grace of the plea certain, when the Lord grants it, the certainty of the plea that asks without doubting is infallible. Jesus says so (cf. Mk 11, 23-25). The beloved apostle writes it: “No one who remains in Him sins” (1 Jn 3, 6). When one remains in the Lord one does not sin. When the Lord grants it to remain in Him, the prayer is infallible. Avoiding future occasions of sin is the sign that ours are poor sins of weakness, but not the project of our lives. They are not a wicked design.
The Risen Jesus appears to the apostles on the mountain in Galilee

The Risen Jesus appears to the apostles on the mountain in Galilee

I quote a third passage again from Saint Ambrose, taken from the Commentary on Psalm 1188 at the verse: “‘Adiutor et susceptor meus es tu, et in verbum tuum spero’ / ‘You are my help and my support and I hope in Your word’”. In this passage of St. Ambrose’s are gathered all the things we have been saying over these days. “Adiutor per legem, / You are help through the law [the Ten Commandments], / susceptor per Evangelium / You are support [You take me in Your arms] through grace”9. This is the summary of the Christian moral path. With the law You help us. The law makes known the commandments of God. The law aims simply to tell us and let us know clearly what we must do and what we must avoid. And the law is not put into practice when theological discourse is set upon it. The law is put into practice in virtue of another reality distinct from the law that is grace. It is wonderful reading the breviary for the feast of Our Lady of the Nativity, where Saint Andrew of Crete, bishop, says that, as the human nature and the divine nature of the Incarnate Word are separate and not mixed, so also the law and grace are two distinct realities, not mixed. Each reality retains its characteristics10. It is the character of the law to clearly indicate the way, the character of grace is to take into the arms and carry and so make walk on the path. “Adiutor per legem, susceptor per gratiam. Quos lege adiuvit, in carne suscepit / Those whom He helped with the law [indicating the path] He has borne in His flesh / quia scriptum est: / for it was written: / ‘Hic peccata nostra portat’ / ‘He bears on Himself our sins’ / et ideo in verbum eius spero. / So I hope in His word. / Pulchre autem ait: / It is splendid that the psalm says: / ‘In verbum tuum speravi’ / ‘I hoped in Your word’, / hoc est: Non in prophetas speravi, / that is: I have not hoped in the prophets [prophecy is good but I have not hoped in the prophets], / non in legem, / I have not hoped in the law [the law of God is good but I have not hoped in the law], / sed in verbum tuum speravi / but I have hoped in Your word / hoc est in adventum tuum ... / that is that You come...”11: this is the finest thing! I have hoped in Your word that is that You come. That is, in Your coming to me. If we look at a child, a child does not hope abstractly in its mother. The child hopes that its mother stay close. That its mother come close to it, “... ut venias / ... that You come / et suscipias peccatores, / and take up sinners in Your arms, / delicta condones, / forgive our sins, / ovem lassam tuis in cruce humeris bonus pastor inponas / like a good shepherd set this worn-out sheep on Your shoulders, that is on Your Cross”12. How beautiful it is, “In verbum tuum speravi / I have hoped in Your word / hoc est in adventum tuum, / that is in Your coming, / ut venias / that You come close / et suscipias / and You take in Your arms” the lost sheep that I am. Ambrose concludes: “If one hopes in Jesus Christ, he must avoid the company of the wicked”13. A small crucial suggestion: if one hopes in Him, one avoids future occasions of sin (cf. 1 Jn 3, 3).

I conclude with two prayers from the Ambrosian liturgy. Two prayers of St. Ambrose’s. First prayer, from the hymn At cockcrow, Aeterne rerum conditor which was recited in the old Ambrosian liturgy every day at Matins. Along with the Vespers hymn Deus creator omnium, I think the Aeterne rerum conditor anthem is the most beautiful poetry in early Christian literature: “Iesu, labantes respice / O Jesus, look at us who fall [the lapsi were those who had betrayed the faith during the persecutions] / et nos videndo corrige; / and watching lift us up [corrige means cum-regere, raise]; / si respicis labes cadunt / if you look at us our sins fade / fletuque culpa solvitur / and in tears the guilt is dissolved”.
Second prayer, a small prayer, the prayer of the Good Thief. As he was to be for Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus, so for Saint Ambrose the Good Thief was one of his favorite saints. The Easter hymn, Hic est dies verus Dei, by Saint Ambrose, is all about the Good Thief. In today’s breviary liturgy, St. Cyril of Jerusalem uses the same expression that Saint Ambrose uses in this hymn: the Lord grants salvation “with the faith of an instant”14. The prayer says: “manum tuam porrige lapsis / stretch out Your hand to us who are fallen, / qui latroni confitenti Paradisi ianuas aperuisti / You who opened the gates of Paradise to the thief who acknowledged You”15. How beautiful is that latroni confitenti! That criminal did nothing. He only acknowledged Him. He only acknowledged. Confessio. And asked. Supplex confessio: “Jesus, remember me when You are in Your Kingdom”. Only that “Jesus”, that: “Remember me”. Only the suppliant acknowledgement. And Jesus said: “Today you shall be with me in Paradise” (cf. Lk 23, 39-43). Today, in this instant. As in the Sacrament of Confession: “I absolve you”. So, in this faith of an instant, so the salvation of Jesus Christ is communicated also to us.


Notes
1 Augustine, In Evangelium Ioannis II, 4.
2 De imitatione Christi II, 1, 1.
3 Ambrose, Hexaemeron VI, 10, 76.
4 Ambrose, Expositio in Lucam X, 89.
5 Ibid.
6 Ambrose, Enarrationes in Psalmos 45, 15.
7 Ibid.
8 Ambrose, Enarrationes in Psalmos 118, XV, 23-24.
9 Ambrose, Enarrationes in Psalmos 118, XV, 23.
10 Cf. Liturgy of the Hours, Sept. 8, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Office of lessons, second lesson, from the Discoures by St Andrew of Crete, bishop.
11 Ambrose, Enarrationes in Psalmos 118, XV, 23-24.
12 Ambrose, Enarrationes in Psalmos 118, XV, 24.
13 Ibid.
14 Cf. Liturgy of the Hours, Wednesday of XXXI week of Ordinary Time, Office of lessons, the second lesson, from the Catechesis of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, bishop.
15 Antico Breviario Ambrosiano, Feria III, Hebdo. IV, in Quadragesima ad Matutinum.


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