St. Ignatius' Autobiography, Part 7: The Power of the Past, The Power of Penance
The thoughts of the past were soon forgotten in the presence of these holy desires, which were confirmed by the following vision. One night, as he lay awake, he saw clearly the likeness of our Lady with the holy Child Jesus, at the sight of which he received most abundant consolation for a considerable interval of time. He felt so great a disgust with his past life, especially with its offenses of the flesh, that he thought all such images which had formerly occupied his mind were wiped out. And from that hour until August of 1553, when this is being written, he never again consented to the least suggestion of the flesh. This effect would seem to indicate that the vision was from God, although he never ventured to affirm it positively, or claim it was anything more than he said it was. But his brother and other members of the family easily recognized the change that had taken place in the interior of his soul from what they saw in his outward manner.
The focus of the first week of The Spiritual Exercises is very much on one’s past, concerned as it is with one’s own sinfulness. This opportunity to dwell on one’s past experience and make an examination of one’s past sins is one of the great graces of The Spiritual Exercises. It’s not something that in the ordinary course of our lives that we find ourselves doing very often. It’s a downer. And, besides, we want to live in the present, and pretend that our past life, the ways in which we were hurt, and the way in which we hurt others, has no effect on who we are today. The first week of The Exercises helps us to see the lie in such thinking.
As Jesuit novices, we do the complete thirty-day silent version of The Spiritual Exercises. During that time I realized a couple of things about my past:
· That, like it or not, my past experiences, especially the way that others had hurt me in my lifetime, did have an impact on my self-concept and my relationships with others. I was always on guard against the possibility that someone might hurt me again. And, that the only way to be free of this was to recognize that it did have an effect on me.
· That I had hurt others by my own sins against them. I had been able to think myself a “nice guy” because it was only on rare occasion that I deliberately did something to hurt someone else. But what became clear to me were the many ways that I’d hurt others by failing to act, not because I was ignorant, but merely to avoid an unpleasant or painful situation.
Once one realizes such things, one is forced to see one’s life in a whole new way. I soon became aware, for example, that because of the way I had been treated in the past, that I would presume, upon meeting someone, that they weren’t really interested in knowing me. After all, you can’t be hurt if you presume the slight from the very start. Simply being aware of this fact, however, didn’t make the feeling go away. I prayed to be relieved of it, but as time passed and it didn’t, I resigned myself to the fact that it would always be there, and I’d just have to live with it. Then, remarkably, one day I realized it was gone, not by any effort on my part. Unlike Ignatius, it wasn’t immediate, or accompanied by a vision, one day I just noticed it was gone. God had done what I couldn't.
There are still many other ways the past affects my present, but being aware of this makes overcoming it easier, and it also makes it easier to ask God's forgiveness for the wrongs I have done.