Over the last few days I attended a ‘clericus’ meeting at Graymoor which is a Franciscan monastery in Garrison, New York.  ‘Clericus’ is Latin for a meeting among the clergy of a diocese.  I was accompanied by two fellows from our parish.  Even though this kind of meeting is generally for clergy, anyone interested is certainly welcome to experience this kind of retreat.  I was given the great honor by our bishop of giving the homily for the final Eucharist.

The retreat was centered on the topic of spiritual formation of the clergy and how we, as clergy, and also as laypeople, tend to take our salvation for granted.  The bishops, priests, deacons, postulants and lay observers gathered there were all quite humbled by the two monks from our diocese who led the four sessions. There was much that I learned from them that I had no idea about . . . things that you ought to know as well about the free gift of salvation and how our own sin and guilt could in fact, jeopardize our salvation.

Last week Pope Francis relayed a story about a theft in which he confessed to have stolen a cross from the coffin of his confessor.  He told how he keeps his stolen cross in a special pocket of sewn into his cassock.  It is a constant reminder to him and to us that we are all human, including the Pope, and we are all subject to the same temptations, mainly because, though we are believers, we still live in the enemy’s camp and sin still has a hold on us.  We may be proclaimed free by the risen Christ but often times the glittering lure of the other side is much too great for us to bear . . . and we fall into sin.  But when sin becomes instilled into us without repentance and without remorse, it becomes very much a part of us . . . much like a cancerous tumor that grows within in us hoping (I suppose) to one day devour us.  For this reason we come as often as possible to mass to repent (or turn back) or literally ‘turn our back’ on our sin, which is what repentance really means . . . and receive absolution or forgiveness for our sins.  The absolution of the church, though most of us take for granted, is extremely powerful to the repentant spirit and voids where sin once was.  For this reason we consume the body and blood of Christ in the faith that through this sacrament we will be made spiritually whole again . . . able to return to the world and to survive yet another day until we fall yet again or we are finally called home.

But there is a problem sometimes that arises when the sin we hold becomes a secret worth keeping . . . one that we guard against and hold tightly onto in our hearts so that no one knows it and it is never . . . ever revealed.  These are the sins that can spiritually cripple and disable us until they are finally confessed and brought out into the light of day.  God of course knows our secret thoughts and sins; but he will only go there and help us with them when we invite him into these most despicable areas of our lives.

Such was the secret that the woman at the well had . . . for truly she was not married as she had had many other husbands.  I have often thought that perhaps while talking with Jesus, she may have been looking at him as yet another . . . otherwise she would have told him she was married in the first place.  Anyway, Jesus knows her and knows her secret and reveals it in front of her.  This of course startles the woman . . . as it would any one of us if our secret was revealed . . . and she goes and tells her friends what Jesus had done.  And because of this, many in Samaria came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah.

Many of us, like the woman at the well hold on to secrets like hers that are for us more than just embarrassing.  They may be great or they may seem minor in comparison, but they are something that we eventually need to expose and be rid of in order to be able to gain God’s forgiveness and perhaps just as importantly to gain the forgiveness of ourselves.

I myself have lived with a secret that has haunted me my entire life.  No, I didn’t murder anyone . . . but just the same I have never been able to forgive myself because I had betrayed a friend.  When I was ten, I visited my best friend Jeffrey whose father owned a dry cleaning business.   Jeff’s father would bring home rolls of coins from the store and give them to my friend for doing his chores.  One day, while he was in the bathroom, I lifted (meaning I stole) a roll of dimes from Jeff’s dresser.  Everything was good until I got home where I wondered how I could explain a new found source of cash (and a roll of dimes that we didn’t have).  So being the kind of kid I was I devised a plan where I would mail the dimes to myself with a note from a fictitious friend that he was paying me back for a school lunch from a month ago.  This would have worked of course if not for the fact that the dimes were too heavy to mail all at once . . . and the other fact that I had put my own return address on the letter.  And so much to my surprise the letter came back to our house due to insufficient postage.  But fortunately for me, it happened in the summer and it was me (rather than my mother) who met the mailman, who had a rather confused look on his face.  I was, at that point, nearly exposed in my crime, so instead decided to hide the dimes in my room and tried never to think about the incident ever again.  But it never went away.

So about twenty years ago I tried look up my friend to tell him what I had done and to repay him.  I found out that he had become an oceanographer in California and unfortunately had died during an underwater excursion; and so this incident continued to haunt me to this very day.  So . . . why am I telling you?

I am confessing this to you for the same reason the Pope confessed his crime; that is to provide it to you as an example of what we all ought to do with the burdens that we carry.  Now that you all know the truth it will be much easier for me to forgive myself and to finally forget the past.  Although God has forgiven me every time I brought this up to him prayer, the problem continued to exist for as long as I kept it a secret.  Therefore, if you carry secret around like this one, go to a trusted friend and get it off your conscience.  Confession really is good for the soul. 

But sometimes . . . just sometimes . . . we are given a burden to bear in order to keep us humble.  Paul, in his letter to the Church in Corinth describes his burden in this way  . . . Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me– to keep me from exalting myself!  Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me.  And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.…

But if you carry with you something that is profoundly disturbing I would urge you to get professional help from a believing psychologist who can help you through it or . . . at the very least find out the reason you have been carrying with you until now.  The primary duty of a priest is to make as sure as possible that his flock stays on the narrow path that leads to heaven’s gate.  It is profoundly important that everything I teach you or tell you is the truth of the gospel because anything less and it will be literally on my head . . . not yours.

In our Lenten series the Pilgrim Progress we have found just how easy it is for a Christian to fall from grace and just how much trouble it is to get back on track again.  You and I are really in this together.  If there ever comes a time when you need help in this regard I want you to know that I am available for you and will do everything I can to assist you . . . and that includes private confession and absolution if needed.

Some of us, I am sure have considered church a pleasant way to spend a Sunday morning, but the two monks who have spent their entire lives immersed in prayer, who came to teach us at the clericus, were, I would say, deadly serious in what they had to say about Jesus, the cross, salvation and damnation.  And like an old time southern preacher they laid it all out on the line for us clergy.  It was a humbling and at times terrifying experience for us who have been called to be God’s voice and person and image in the world.  But no matter the question that was raised from the bishops and priests and others that were there, the answer to every question boils down to Christ and him crucified.

John Stott described it this way . . . “The first and fundamental ground of our assurance, because it is the sole ground of our salvation, is ‘the finished work of Christ’.  Whenever our conscience accuses us, and we feel burdened with guilt, we need to look away from ourselves to Christ crucified.  Then again we will have peace.  For our acceptance with God depends not on ourselves and what we could ever do, but entirely on Christ and what he has [already] done for all [of us] on the cross.   Amen

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