“Everything I have is yours.”
I believe it was the first directed retreat I made. Until then,
our eight-day yearly Jesuit retreats consisted of four or five
conferences a day, delivered by a preacher and mulled over by
Now I had a director who would assign me readings from the scripture and expect
me to report how my five hours of prayer developed as the days went on.
I had found a dissatisfying pattern to my preached retreats. Somehow, after the
third or fourth day (usually crowned by a yearly general confession), I seemed
not to know what to do. My work, I felt, was over. My life was tidied up. All
I could do was wait for the retreat to end.
Although my director for the private retreat did not like the idea of a general
confession, he eventually relented on the sixth day. My work, once more, was
done. Or so I thought.
What this guy did was give me five more meditations on sinafter the sixth
day! And what a day it was.
I remember clearly resenting the fact that I was still thinking about sin when
things should be winding down. Here I was being forced to muck around some more
in my own depravity, and I was beginning to seethe. My philosophical study of
atheists like Jean-Paul Sartre began to haunt me. I had read in his play The
Devil and the Good Lord that the existence of God degrades the existence
of humanity, and I was now suspecting that Sartre could be right.
As day turned to evening, I found myself resisting the whole notion of sin. What’s
the point of such negativity? Sin. Sin. Sin. God seems to exact from us a degrading
admission that we are dirt, junk. The more I thought about sin, the more it nauseated
me. The more I reflected on God’s mercy, the more I was turned off by it.
At this point I started to worry about my resistance. To be honest, I began to
wonder whether I really believed in God in the first place. Well, rather than
face that abyss, I concentrated on an old prayer which hitherto had always calmed
me down. “O God, you know me and you love me.” That would do the trick.
But it didn’t. I got more resentful at God. And more worried that I might not
even have faith in God.
After an hour of fret called meditation, a little variation on my prayer came
to mind. Say: “O God, you know me and you love me; and it’s not because
of anything I have ever done or accomplished.”
Now, dear reader, I do not know where that idea came from. But I hated it. Every
time I approached uttering the final clause, I gagged. “It’s not because
of anything I have ever done or accomplished. ... ” I just could not
say it. It seemed as if everything would fall apart if I did.
My efforts don’t count? Then why not have an affair, abandon my vows? Why not
kill somebody? Didn’t sacrifices count? Didn’t my hard work matter? Then why
on earth have I been trying so hard? If what I’ve done or accomplished doesn’t
earn God’s love and salvation, then why have I been trying to do the right thing?
“I’ve slaved for you. ... ”
The story of the prodigal son invaded my memory. That second son. The son who
slaved. The son who resented the father’s forgiveness for an ingrate brother
who botched everything. The son who would not join the party. The son whose father
pleaded. The son who complained.
“For years now I have slaved for you. I never disobeyed one of your orders,
yet you never gave me so much as a kid goat to celebrate with my friends. Then
when this son of yours returns after having gone through your property with loose
women, you kill the fatted calf for him.”
Somehow I knew my sin as I had never known before. Yet, oddly, I felt God’s love
with startling newness and equal intensity. “My son, you are with me always,
everything I have is yours. But we have to celebrate and rejoice. ... ”
When hearing the story of the Prodigal Son, we often think of the compassionate
father waiting at the gate or the desperate son planning his confession in advance.
But might there not be a second child in all of us? We work hard, we manicure
virtues, we collect the graces, we notch up victories. And we forget what is
already ours. The gift, the grace, the kingdom, the love not earned but lavishly
given. Before long, our labors become slavery; our accomplishments, chains.
I thought if I would ever say a prayer like, “You know me and you love me,
and it’s not because of anything I have ever done or accomplished,” I would
surely stop working.
As it turned out, the next year I worked harder than I ever had before. But that
year, it was less from fear and more from joy.
Luke reminds us that the parable of the prodigal was told to Pharisees who complained
about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners. Now, in relief, I thank God
for such a banquet.
John Kavanaugh, SJ