by Vinita Hampton Wright
Step 8: We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
The first part of the Spiritual Exercises is all about sin. Various prayer practices help the person think about all kinds of sin—sin of the angels, of Adam and Eve, of the individual, and of the whole world. At one point, the person is to imagine Jesus on the cross, suffering because of all the sin in the world. The goal is for the person to begin to grasp just how extensive and damaging evil can be—and then begin to comprehend how great God’s mercy is, to forgive our sins.
Step 8 of the Twelve Steps does something similar when asking us to make a list of all the people we’ve harmed. To do that, we have to gaze across the decades—we see our whole life through the series of people we’ve hurt. As our list of names grows, we cannot escape the fact that an evil pattern has developed in us, a pattern spanning years and hurting more people than we might have thought. This list makes our shortcomings tangible; we can’t deny them anymore.
Then, when we become willing to make amends “to them all,” we have taken on a project that, in human terms, is impossible, just as making amends for a whole world of sin is impossible. Yet, we are willing to embark on this impossible mission. We know we’ll need help to do this. But by now, we understand that any true work we do spiritually is made possible by God’s mercy.
If Ignatius determined that a person did not yet believe, truly, in God’s mercy, then he would not allow that person to go to the next part of the Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius knew that such fundamental change of life could not happen without God’s help. But if a person was not yet ready and willing to trust that mercy, trying to continue the Exercises could cause damage because the person would be trying to do all the transformation on his own—and would end up exhausted and depressed.
Every one of us has experienced times when we became so aware of evil in the world that we lost hope and felt ourselves falling into despair. It’s important to face evil in the world, whether in our own heart or in the heartless systems that oppress others. But that honesty about sin and evil always needs the support of holy mercy. We were never meant to face these dangers alone.