Archbishop Anthony Bloom gave one of the best retreats I ever attended. He began by telling the story of a retired headmistress who offered her services to him as his chauffeur. As they were returning home one Monday afternoon she stopped the car in London to pick up her new glasses from the opticians and proceeded to try them out for the remainder of the journey. It was less than a mile, but it turned out to be the most terrifying journey either of them had ever made; her driving was simply atrocious. She got out of the car shaking all over, opened her handbag, took out her driving licence and ceremoniously ripped it into little pieces. “I’ll never drive again”. she said. “Why ever not?” asked the Archbishop.
“Because,” she replied “There’s just so much traffic on the roads!”
He suggested that we should begin the retreat by praying for better sight ourselves, that is, better spiritual sight to see the moral morass that’s within us all if we only knew it. “Lord that we may see”. Yes that’s the prayer we need to make. Nevertheless, he warned us – if we really mean it – then it’s a prayer that will always be answered, though he couldn’t guarantee we’d like what we see.
Now the more clearly we are able to see what separates us from God then the sooner we will come to know our need of the help and strength that only he can give us.
The most accurate translation of the first Beatitude, to be found in the New English version of the Bible, is not, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, but rather “Blessed are they who know their need of God”. This is always God’s first gift to those who seriously want to deepen their spiritual lives. It’s the gift that makes them aware of their complete dependence on the God who is utterly beyond the reach of the arrogant and the proud.
In the only retreat that I can remember from my school days, given by the well-known Jesuit Fr Bernard Basset, he said that if your friends won’t tell you your faults, pay an enemy to do it for you!
A central scriptural theme that runs through the old and new testament is, in the words of St Paul, that ‘God’s power finds full scope in weakness’. So if a person is totally oblivious of their weakness, they won’t turn to the only One who can help them. That’s why I finally learnt to thank God for my weakness, for my dyslexia that nobody understood when I was at school. Without it I’d never have turned to God in the first place and never sought out someone to teach me how to pray. But later I came to realize that I had far worse weaknesses than dyslexia, but even these, no matter how serious they were, could help me turn back to the only One who could help me.
A famous Dominican preacher used to like shocking his congregation into listening to him by shouting at the top of his voice, “Your sins will save you.” However, he then went on to explain that St John insisted that we are actually calling God a liar if we say we are not sinners. That’s what we are, that’s where we begin and that’s where we stay, unless we learn like the Saints, to turn our greatest weaknesses into our greatest strengths. The secret that leads to sanctity begins with that moment of truth when we begin to realize what sinners we are and to experience the need to turn to the only one who can make us into the Christ-like people we want to become.
It was Father Basset who first taught me how I should examine my conscience properly when I went to him for confession at the school retreat. I was in the full flush of my first fervour when I knelt before him to admit, as humbly as I could, that I couldn’t exactly remember committing any sins since my last confession, but I nevertheless sought his blessing and spiritual advice. After a long pause he finally said. “Well, for your penance say three Hail Marys in honour of your Immaculate Conception!”
Although he employed humour and irony to awaken me to my self-righteousness and pride, he did it in such a kindly way that I began to practise a daily examination of conscience that I have always tried to maintain with varying success throughout the rest of my life.