One beautiful morning a friend of mine invited me for coffee after Mass. It had been a long week, and getting caught up with a friend was a nice way to finish it. We talked about the things that we saw in our own spheres of influence that needed prayer, writing down each other’s requests as we sipped our coffees. When it was time to go, my friend offered me a ride back home. It was such a nice day, I really wanted to walk and pray along the one-mile stretch of road.
Starting out down the street, I asked the Lord to help me see what he wants me to see, that I might be a witness of His love (I’ve gotten into the practice of starting this way whenever I go out, because it’s so easy for me to get caught up in my own thoughts and miss an opportunity along the way!). As I walked, I prayed my rosary, each bead for those whose path I crossed: the service worker at the gas station; the teenage girls walking and chatting animatedly on the on the side of the road; the beggar ‘Tony’ sitting in his usual place with a cup of coffee and his portable stereo blaring; the drivers passing by in their cars…all these people accompanied me. Another block, another few beads prayed: for the travelers; for the mom with her child in tow; for the kids on their skateboards…another step, another prayer.
Approaching the next intersection, there next to the traffic light, stood two high-school aged boys. One of them called out to me from a distance, a greeting I couldn’t make out. As I came closer, his friend crossed the street, and went on his away. I silently prayed to the Lord, ‘If this is another prank, give me patience!’ (As a side note, it does happen from time to time, that kids will try to ‘ruffle my feathers’ trying some harmless prank at my expense! Alas, this too is part of wearing the habit). But as I came closer, I could see in his face that something wasn’t right. His broad forehead was furrowed; his eyes raw, as though he’d been up all night. He spoke again.
“Hi ma’am,” he said, a tentativeness in his voice, “are you a woman of God?”
“Yes I am,” I responded, “is there something I can do for you?”
Looking down at his feet, he stammered, hardly audible, “I’m not sure what you can do, but I really could use your prayers.” He went on to explain how he had gotten into a lot of trouble at school, and as a result of it, he was expelled. Naturally, his folks are angry, and they worry he won’t be able to go on to college. “I’ve ruined everything! I have no future now!” Tears escaped from the corners of his eyes.
I asked if he belonged to a particular church (Southern Baptist), but he and his family hasn’t attended for a long time. I made a silent prayer asking the Holy Spirit to give me the words this young man needed to hear. Before me stood a young man, obviously at odds with himself over the predicament he’s gotten himself into. My concern for him was, to not see him become another statistic.
In our society, we are becoming more and more out of touch with reality. Our actions tend to be more disconnected from the consequences. In video games, when we make a wrong move, we can start again; Movies and television often portray the protagonist as a bright, mischievous person, and the audience is encouraged to cheer for their bending the rules to come out ahead. In real life too, we see popular figures caught up in adultery, drugs, violence, and vandalism who appear to resume their lives of success and fame with no seeming long-term consequences for their actions. The reality is, everything we do has a consequence. Here before me, was a young man, in some ways still a boy, having to find a way through a tough lesson. I knew what I had to do.
We talked about actions and consequences. “Do you understand that what happened to you is a result of your actions?”
He looked at me as though the words stung, but after a pause, he said, “Yes, I do. I just didn’t want to admit it.”
I decided to dig in a little more, “Do you think the judgment was fair?”
After another pause, he told me that he understood that they had to punish him, but that now he didn’t know what he was going to do. We talked a bit more about his options. He will probably graduate with a GED. He’s not sure about his college prospects. He doesn’t know how to live down the disappointment he caused for his parents.
Another tough question for him; I asked him if he was sorry for what he did. I could see that he would like to take it back.
“We can’t take back what happened,” I said, “we can’t make it go away as though it never took place. But I want to tell you some good news.” He looked up from his feet. I continued, “You are a Christian, right?”
He nodded his head. Good. “Then, you believe Jesus died for your sins?”
His eyes began to well up again with fresh tears. If there were two things I felt he needed to understand before we parted ways, this was the important one – forgiveness. God loves this teenage boy, and God wants to forgive him.
He told me how he wants to believe that God will forgive him, but protested, “how can God forgive me? I’ve done some really bad things. I can’t even look my own dad in the eye, how can I ask God to forgive me?”
I tried to explain, “God can forgive because he sees differently than we do. There’s the psalm that says ‘even before we came into being, God knew us.’ (Psalm 138) He fashioned you and me with a purpose in mind; he made us in his image; to be holy and good. When we get off track of that purpose, we know it. Things fall apart. But God doesn’t stop loving us…no, He’s waiting anxiously for you to turn to him and ask to be forgiven. He wants to help you get back on track. Do you believe this? Do you believe God loves you and is wanting to forgive you right now?”
The young man’s tears slid down his cheeks…tears of repentance and hope. “Yes, I want to believe that God will forgive me. But I don’t know how to ask him.”
With questions, I led him through an examine of conscience. “First, you need to accept the things you did wrong – the ways you’ve hurt others and hurt your relationship with God. Do you accept these wrongs?”
Pondering for a moment, he replied, “Yes.”
I continued, “Next, you need to tell God you’re sorry for what you’ve done. Are you sorry?”
“Yes,” he said again. I encouraged him to pray in his heart, to speak to God there and ask forgiveness.
After a minute or so passed by, I helped him pray a prayer of contrition:
My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart.
I know in choosing to do wrong and failing to do good,
I have sinned against you whom I should love above all things.
I firmly desire, with your help, to set things right,
to try to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.
Our Savior Jesus Christ suffered and died for us.
In His name, my God, have mercy on me.
Afterward, we prayed the Lord’s prayer together.
He seemed a bit better, but I could see there was something still nagging at him. The thoughts of what he had done kept coming back to him. He felt terrible about himself, and felt terrible about how he imagined others saw him too. In truth, I was afraid for him. Starting over is hard enough, but how do you keep guilt from coming back to destroy you?
I told him honestly how those thoughts might come back to haunt him for a long time, and they might try to drag him down. When thoughts come to tempt us, telling us, “we’re not good,” or try to keep us in the darkness of our past, do we listen to those voices and allow them to enslave us in sin? Or do we cling ever more to our need for Jesus Christ and his sacrificial love on the Cross, and choose to live even more for him? It is when we fall in a moment of weakness, we are given a new choice, that either leads us into a pattern of sin, or into a pattern of deeper trust and relationship with God. This is what defines our life, in the choices that follow our mistakes. For the Christian, that means admitting when we are wrong, and when possible, to help set things right for the people who were hurt by our actions. To apologize with sincerity and to try harder in the future to choose better.
For the Catholic, an intrinsic part of our choices includes the recognition of Jesus in the Sacraments; and in a particular in the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Holy Eucharist. These two provide food for our spiritual journey. The prayer I used with my young friend, is a traditional prayer used by many after confessing their sins to a priest in the confessional. It is also a good prayer to pray as we examine our conscience at the end of each day, as we strive to live tomorrow more as our Lord would want. And in the Holy Eucharist, we find Christ truly present, to enter into us when we receive Him through Communion at Mass. Before receiving, we hear the words, “This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.” To which, the faithful respond, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”
My young friend seemed to be taking in what I was saying, and asked where I go to Church. From our position at the top of the hill, heading down, I was able to point over in the shallow valley toward the grove of palm trees that embrace the Church. It happened to be the first Friday of the month when we met, so I told him, “The Church is open all day today and all through tonight for people to come before Jesus in the Eucharist and to pray. We believe that he is truly present in the consecrated bread offered on the altar. It would be a good new beginning for you, to go there, and tell him what is in your heart. Jesus loves you so much, and he waits for you. When you feel doubt creep in, tell Him, “Jesus, I love you. I trust in you.””
His forehead was no longer filled with lines of worry, and his gaze was steady, no signs of fear or distress like before. And then, he smiled, thanking me for the help. He turned to go, and hesitated, and turned back to me and gave me big bear hug, like one a friend gives another when they haven’t seen one another for a long, long time. It was a hug, welcoming him back to the fold.
This article is cross-posted at Patheos’ “The Habit of Witness” series.
Are You a Woman of God? via The Anchoress