by Teresa McCaffery
I've been struggling with Ignatius' first week exercises, especially the one where he tells us to apply the memory, understanding and will to the 'third sin, namely, that of one who went to hell because of one mortal sin…and countless others who have been lost for fewer sins than I have committed'. Now this seemed to me to be arbitrary and unfair, until I did something very stupid standing on a chair and wound up in a heap on the floor.
Initial assessment was sore head, sore chest, sore wrist and an urgent desire to lie down for a bit. The head just grew a couple of bumps which led to spectacular bruising, but the wrist was so sore that I took it to the hospital, where the penetrating gaze of the X-ray machine revealed a fracture, which was duly set and put in plaster. The chest gave trouble too but I was told that there was no point in doing X-rays because there was no treatment for broken ribs. I walked home reflecting on the way the ribs are lined up in parallel rows with strong muscular connections along their whole length. So the unbroken ribs either side would splint the broken one between and help it to heal up straight.
So that's OK, but what if? What if the injuries had been worse? Supposing I could not afford to stop working, or pay for treatment? What if there was no hospital, or X-Ray facility? My accident certainly was not fatal; I can expect to be back to normal in a month or two. But under other conditions it could have been, or at least left me with permanent disability.
How often have I done something that was morally ill advised? How often have wise and sensible people around me supported my lapses with discipline until I got my principles in back line? How important is it to be able to tell someone, priest or not, that you have done something you are not proud of and find out how to do penance for the healing of your soul? There are reasons why I have not, so far, wound up in hell; but equally there are reasons why others go from bad to worse. In this Year of Mercy should I be asking myself how I can provide better soul care for people who have nowhere to turn for help when they have done wrong?
Editor: Reading Teresa's piece, I was reminded of the thoughts of Kahlil Gibran 'On Crime and Punishment', from his best-known work, 'The Prophet':
“Oftentimes have I heard you speak of one who commits a wrong as though he were not one of you, but a stranger unto you and an intruder upon your world.
But I say that even as the holy and the righteous cannot rise beyond the highest which is in each one of you,
So the wicked and the weak cannot fall lower than the lowest which is in you also. And as a single leaf turns not yellow but with the silent knowledge of the whole tree,
So the wrong-doer cannot do wrong without the hidden will of you all.
Like a procession you walk together towards your god-self.
You are the way and the wayfarers.
And when one of you falls down he falls for those behind him, a caution against the stumbling stone.
Ay, and he falls for those ahead of him, who though faster and surer of foot, yet removed not the stumbling stone.”