Monday, April 19, 2010

For Practical Advice Like This from Benedict Baur

Webster was kind enough earlier this year to send me a gem of a book about developing one's interior spiritual life. This is one of those books, like St. Teresa of Avila's The Interior Castle, that is so deep, so lovely and so helpful that one certainly cannot read it in one sitting, or even a chapter at a time. In fact, I have been reading it sentence by sentence, pausing to take notes and meditate on how the book's message speaks to my own circuitous pilgrim path.

The title of this book, "Frequent Confession"  by the late German abbot Benedict Baur  O.S.B.,  was about as appealing to me as would be a book titled "Monthly Weigh-ins" that focuses on improving one's physical health. That is because Baur's book, first published in 1922, is not so much about encouraging Catholics to make frequent use of the Sacrament of Penance, which it does, but rather about cultivating an understanding of one's exterior and interior faults daily so as to grow spiritually. Thus, frequent confession becomes a kind of weigh-in for our souls.

Thanks to poor faith formation as a child and my own spiritual immaturity, my understanding of the Sacrament of Penance has been shallow. I knew one is supposed to go to Confession at least once a year and always after one has committed a mortal sin, including deliberately missing Sunday Mass. So my habit has been to go at least once a year, and when I am aware of a mortal sin. Then before I head into the confessional I will do a quick examination of conscience, which helps me to confess a few venial sins for good measure. Until I started reading Baur's book, sadly enough, I never connected my earnest freelance efforts to grow as a Christian throughout the year with this sacrament. This book is a useful guide.

Baur, for example, recommends that we examine our conscience every evening. He suggests we take a look at our "thought, feelings, words and deeds." This is not an obsessive-compulsive exercise in scrupulosity; rather, Baur says: "When this examination of conscience is made regularly it is not very difficult; a person knows his customary failings,  and so he discovers without much trouble whatever faults he has committed during the day." It's pretty humbling.

Another point Baur makes early on in the book is that we can confess sins more than once. I never had considered this;  I had felt an overwhelming sense of relief that some of the more embarrassing sins of my youth had been confessed and that was that. Baur is helping me to see the links in my journey, the way my path sometimes winds back upon itself.  In other words, perhaps as a youth I had the tendency to sin in a certain way. While I have confessed those particular sins, and no longer sin in that way, the underlying character fault that caused those sins has remained and perhaps found expression in different ways of sinning.

Baur follows this insight with a discussion of exterior and interior faults. Exterior faults are those "by which those around us are annoyed or irritated." I am finding those are easy to tackle, or at least to identify. For example, I have a tendency to gossip. When I fall into that bad habit or feel as if I am about to, it is relatively easy to realize and then I quite literally hold my tongue.

What is much more difficult to face and diminish are my interior faults: "our own faults of character, the weak points in our makeup." These are the brutes I'm now confronting. It's painful and cathartic and perhaps the subject of another post at another time. I am so grateful to have this monk, Benedict Baur, as my companion through rough terrain.

For now, dear readers, I'd like to ask you: what role does confession play in the cultivation of your own interior life?