In What I Have Failed to Do

“…I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do…”

My gaze lowers every time the Penitential Rite begins at Mass. I wish this was a gesture of reverence. It’s actually an act of embarrassment:  Despite growing up in the Church, I don’t know the words to this prayer—this prayer that many recite every Sunday at Mass!  I’ve simply never belonged to a community that regularly recites it in the Mass, so I never learned it.  I’m an employed Catholic minister, though, and a theology student, so naturally I’m a little humbled, even embarrassed, by my lack of the fundamentals here.

One blessing of the Rite’s unfamiliarity is that I am compelled to actually pay attention to its words rather than unthinkingly delivering them like many habitual prayers at Mass. Every time I hear it I listen closely, trying to memorize it as I stare at the floor and pretend to lip synch the words (watermelon, watermelon, watermelon…). There is one early line I never miss.  I actually say the words out loud because I never forget them: “I have sinned…in what I have failed to do.”

Originally, I think I took a liking to this line because it startled me.  In a prayer of confession I expected remorse for misdeeds and wrongdoings—that’s the way we usually think and talk about sin.  Why, then, should one take responsibility and express remorse for something he/she didn’t do—for what one had failed to do?

In recent years, however, these words stick out to me because they have become a personal challenge.  When people ask me about why I am a Christian, I often talk about the radical love Jesus espoused and lived out. Yet even as I passionately attest to Christ’s inspiring life, I realize time and time again how often I fail to exemplify—or even intentionally strive for—the radical love I find in the gospel message.  This line in the Penitential Rite reminds me that I am not living out the fullness of my calling as a Christian if I am not striving for a wildly loving existence.  I fail to do this all the time.

I’ve come to think of this “failing to do” as the “good person’s sin.” We “good people” often think about all the faults we don’t possess, all the “really bad” sins we don’t commit (stealing, killing, adultery, etc.).  We can easily pat ourselves on the back on move on, contentedly, with life. The Penitential Rite startles me out of this mentality though.  It reminds me that I need mercy for all those times when I fail to love as Christ loved. Jesus asked for more than good. Jesus asked for something radical.

Jessica Coblentz graduated from Santa Clara University in 2008.  She currently resides in Seattle where she is enjoying the summer months and preparing for graduate studies at Harvard Divinity School in the fall. Follow her writing on the Web at www.jessicacoblentz.blogspot.com.

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3 thoughts on “In What I Have Failed to Do

  1. I love this, Jessica. The Confiteor is one of those really old but incredibly wonderful prayers that is rich enough for us all to get something new out of it each time we pray it. When I coordinate RCIA or Confirmation programs and need to lead a discussion about the church’s understanding of morality, I ALWAYS give the participants a copy of the Confiteor for us to pray and then delve into. I think the whole of our understanding about how we should live our lives as Christians in relation to God and humanity is wrapped up in this small but powerful prayer.

    Thanks for your reflection. Perhaps I will try to mouth “watermelon” over and over again next time my parish recites it to see if that mantra helps me get anything new out of it!

  2. This reminds me of a sermon my parish priest gave a couple years ago, about Lazarus being ignored by the rich man on whose doorstep he lay (Luke 16). The priest made a point of illuminating the fact that the rich man wasn’t denied heaven because he was so mean to Lazarus; the story says nothing about him spitting up on the man, kicking him as he passed by, belittling him, etc. Instead, he was denied heaven because he had the power to help Lazarus — and he didn’t. This fact was very sobering to me, and I do still think about it often. I agree that we often congratulate ourselves prematurely for not committing the “doing” sins, and I appreciate your reflection on this powerful prayer.

  3. I love this post for two reasons. It cuts to the core of what Christianity is all about, and it makes me feel better that I’m not the only born-and-raised Catholic who doesn’t know all the words because my home parish just didn’t do that part.

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