BY DAVID TORKANGTON EVERY YEAR AT school was an "annus horribilis" for me, because I didn't exactly excel in the academic field. I was too busy trying to excel on the playing field.
If every year was an "annus horribilis" then there were three particular days that were "dies horribiles", days which I dreaded more than any others. These were the days when my school report arrived.
Fortunately my father usually missed the morning post, so I had the whole day to think out ways and means of avoiding him the following evening.
If I couldn't go out I'd try hiding upstairs where he couldn't find me. But one way or the other the time would inevitably come when I'd hear his voice resounding up the stairs: "David, where are you? Where are you?"
It reminded me of the voice of God Calling out to Adam who had fled like me because he was ashamed of what he had done, or in my case what I hadn't done.
I know I should have had the courage to face up to my failures, and to my father too, as soon as possible, but I never did.
Unfortunately I got into the bad habit of running away from my failures. That's why my weekly confession became a fortnightly confession, and then monthly, and then it took me all the courage I could muster to make it at "Easter or thereabouts".
All this was in the early 50s when boys like me were so innocent that they didn't really think of their parents or teachers, let alone their priests, as sinners. I remember being shocked when I heard
that every priest had to go to confession. Then I read St John's fatuous letter in which he said that we are all sinners, and if we say we are not then we are deceiving ourselves and calling God a liar. It was quite an eye-opener for me.
I was in the sixth form before I found out that the saints were sinners too, at least that's how they started out, and some of them were ten times the sinner I'd been, which I found hard to believe until a retreat master gave us a few examples that started me thinking.
I thought about it so much that I put a question in the box provided for question time at the end of the retreat. The retreat was given by Fr Bassett SJ and it was one of the best retreats I've ever attended. He said only Mary was immaculately conceived and that meant the rest of us weren't.
We were all born sinners and born into a sinful world. The difference between the saints and us isn't that they didn't sin and we do, the difference is that they had the humility to accept their sinfulness and their sins whenever they con-unitted them.
They didn't run away and hide with shame as we do. They had the courage to admit what they had done immediately, and sought the forgiveness from the One they had offended.
He gave St Peter as an example.
The moment St Peter betrayed Jesus, he was sorry and sought forgiveness without delay.
He gave many more examples from the lives of St Peter and other saints to show that the real difference between them and us was not sin, but the speed with which they faced up to the sins they had committed and the forgiveness that they needed with the minimum of delay.
I was relieved that I wasn't the only one to run away from my shame and put off the forgiveness that I needed: even the saints did it.
But they finally became what God wants us to become by the ever increasing speed with which they turned back to Him after they had fallen.
Fr Bassett's talk on the presence of God was a great help, because it made me realise that God knows exactly what we've done, and pursues us until we admit it as He had done to Adam in the garden.
God is always there, searching us out, and He's always saying, "Where are you?", not because He doesn't know where we are, hut because we don't know where we are, nor where we're going
when sin and shame make us run from
the only One who can heal us.
The first measure of genuine progress in the spiritual life is not the absence of sin, but the time it takes from the sin we inevitably fall into, to the time when we have the humility to ask for the forgiveness we need, and Grace to begin again.
I'm still trying to shorten that time, so that when my final report is read out from the rooftops at least it will say, "he tried!" even if it goes on to say, "he could have tried harder!"