I’ve been told that, in business, quarterly results are key indicators of a company’s future performance and profitability. And although it may seem like the year just started, January 1st (when we celebrated the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God) was nearly three months ago! So I propose that this is an opportune moment for us to pause, and to take a quarterly account of how we are performing in our Christian lives and just how profitable it has been.
If a progress report is important for business and finance then even more so is it for our spiritual lives. You may be surprised to learn that the Church has used one for centuries; it’s called the examination of conscience. An examination of conscience is an intentional mental review of one’s thoughts and actions, acknowledging both the virtues we cultivate and the vices which hold us back. On a small scale this should be done daily; we thank God for the gifts we’ve been given and ask his forgiveness for our failures and faults. Sacred Scripture reminds us that even “the just fall seven times a day” (Proverbs 24:16). Now, there are certain occasions where we ought to examine ourselves a little deeper. Certainly we do this before making a good confession, since we are obliged (as best we can) to confess all of our mortal sins by kind and number. There are many formulas to assist us in an examination of conscience and most follow the pattern of the Ten Commandments.
As I mentioned before, two of the biggest areas considered in quarterly reports are performance and profitability. By way of metaphor we may see our performance in the context of our personal holiness or friendship with Jesus. How are we doing in regards to our friendship with the Lord? We’ve heard the term “state of grace” a thousand times; all it simply refers to is the state or condition of our friendship with God. Conversely, being in a state of mortal sin means to be separated from that friendship. The discussion of profitability needs a bit more nuance. Instead of profitability the Church uses the term merit, a word which appears in the Mass from time to time. Strictly speaking, merit is the promised reward due for the performance of some good action. Merit achieves a salvific quality when it is inspired by, accompanied by, and completed with God’s grace.
On this second point, merit, let’s be clear: God owes us nothing and we can do nothing on our own to make ourselves pleasing to him. God loves us because he is good, not because we are! How great is God! He…loves…us! So it’s humbling to consider how easily sin can rupture our relationship with God. In pouring out His perfect and faithful love God gives us the Sacrament of Baptism to erase the stain of Original Sin and to infuse the grace of his friendship into our souls. Frequent confession enlivens and strengthens that baptismal grace, that friendship, (and if one is in a condition of mortal sin, friendship is restored). This covenant of friendship (which began at our baptism) can be compared to a corporate contract, where we can merit a bonus for our successes (virtues) and a penalty for our failures (vices), “where more is given, more is expected” (Luke 12:48). Transformation in grace makes us pleasing to God and it is why Our Lord instituted the Seven Sacraments—the tangible means by which our transformation in holiness, in friendship, takes place.
The Sacraments of the Church radically change our relationship with God. Through Baptism we become beloved sons and daughters of the Father; and by all the Sacraments we remain with, are strengthened by, and grow in His friendship as we do the good and avoid mortal sin. Now here’s where things get good: when we enjoy the divine friendship we cultivate the capacity to merit an eternal reward from God; that is, by his grace and friendship, our actions participate in and move us toward true joy in this life and Heaven in the next! The love and mercy which God has and continues to give us empowers us to act meritoriously in everything we do – evils and sufferings we endure as well as both the little, hidden acts of love and those big loving moments redound into eternity! To return to our business analogy for a moment: to be spiritually profitable means to “store up treasure in heaven” (Matthew 6:20), that is, to merit eternal reward by doing good deeds in faith and out of love for the goodness God has shown us.
Since we are at the end of the first quarter I invite you to take an account of yourself. Make an examination of conscience daily and most especially participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where the Lord waits to deepen our friendship with him. If you remember, at the beginning of the year I invited everyone to take a particular saint as a special friend, to get know him or her better throughout the year. If you’ve accepted this invitation how has the friendship progressed? How is your commitment to your Lenten disciplines and penances? If you’ve grown wearisome turn to God for strength and ask for the intercession of Our Lady, your guardian angel, or your saintly friends for help. Just as there is no retirement without hard work, there is no Easter Sunday without Good Friday.
May the accounting of your performance (holiness) and profitability (merit) show that you are on a trajectory for the Father’s House. Do not be discouraged. Remember what Saint Augustine teaches us, when God crowns our merits, he crowns his own gifts. Let us continue to see, not that we are rich, but that we are poor and the beneficiaries of God’s infinite mercy and grace. Let us continue to participate in and to receive the abundant gifts that the Father desires to bestow on us, his children.
*A version of this first appeared in the parish bulletins of St Mary, St Andrew, St Theresa in Billerica, Massachusetts.