I finished writing a final few thoughts that had gestated during my afternoon on the hill with the hay bales and decided to take a short walk through the center. Prior to supper Friday night we were scheduled to meet for the next exercise so I took my journal and bible along.

In the course of twenty-four hours we’d come to a quiet place (Exercise 1), reflected on the beauty of creation (#2) as well as ourselves created in God’s own image (#3). But now it was time to tackle something different. We were going to take a look at sin and get a sense of the tragedy and destructiveness that it causes in our world.

I could list hundreds if not thousands of stories like the one I’m placing below, all of them due to sin.

In 2005, David Hawke, the respected human rights investigator, interviewed 40 North Korean escapees about religion in North Korea. Juche is no longer just an ideology, but a full-fledged religion that worships Kim Il Sung as god, and his son, Kim Jong Il as the son of god. Here are some of their responses about North Korea’s religion:

“Juche is the only religion North Korean people can have.”

“Religious freedom is not allowed in North Korea because it will ruin the deification of Kim Il Sung.”

“Having faith in God is an act of espionage. Only Kim Il Sung is a god in North Korea.”

“Juche itself is a religion, therefore they worry that people may forsake Juche for another religion.”

One testimony is below. Just one of many.

“While Interviewee 17 was in the North Korean Army, his unit was dispatched to widen the highway between Pyongyang and the nearby port city of Nampo. They were demolishing a vacated house in Yongkang county, Yongkang district town, when in a basement between two bricks they found a Bible and a small notebook that contained 25 names, one identified as pastor, two as chon-do-sa (assistant pastors), two as elders, and 20 other names, apparently parishioners, identified by their occupations. The soldiers turned the Bible and notebook over to the local branch of Department 15 of the Korean Workers Party (KWP), but the Party officials said it was up to the military police unit, Bowisaryungbu gigwanwon, to investigate. Tracked down at their place of work through the listing of occupation in the notebook, the 25 persons were picked up without formal arrest by the military bowibu. The interviewee was not aware of any judicial procedures for those seized. In November 1996, the 25 were brought to the road construction site. Four concentric rectangular rows of spectators were assembled to watch the execution. Interviewee 17 was in the first row. The five leaders to be executed – the pastor, two assistant pastors, and two elders – were bound hand and foot and made to lie down in front of a steamroller. This steamroller was a large construction vehicle imported from Japan with a heavy, huge, and wide steel roller mounted on the front to crush and level the roadway prior to pouring concrete. The other twenty persons were held just to the side. The condemned were accused of being Kiddokyo (Protestant Christian) spies and conspiring to engage in subversive activities. Nevertheless, they were told, “If you abandon religion and serve only Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, you will not be killed.” None of the five said a word. Some of the fellow parishioners assembled to watch the execution cried, screamed out, or fainted when the skulls made a popping sound as they were crushed beneath the steamroller.

Renounce God, serve the state, and live. These holy people refused, knowing that there was more than this world. In the name of the state tens of hundreds of millions have died. More in the 20th century than the nineteen previous centuries combined.

“Sin is one theological doctrine for which we have empirical evidence.” ~ G.K. Chesterton

Gustave Doré – The Fall of the Rebel Angels, from ‘Paradise Lost’ by John Milton. c.1868

Indeed. In his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton reminded us that when men stop believing in God, they will believe in any absurdity. The secular world insists that we are not sinners; that we are innately good and worthy individuals. History, philosophy and art remind us that this is a blind, irrational and absurd belief. Full on sin is evil. In the story of the Fall of the Angels we see this when the only “perfect” mortal sin is executed. These angels, led by Satan, deliberately sabotaged their own good. They knew God. They knew His infinite love and the joys of His creation. They knew the alternative, yet they chose it. Why?

One word: pride.

Sin is not borne out of weakness. It knows exactly what it is doing, placed there by the devil for the destruction of humanity.

Those fallen angels, Adam and Eve, and us, all had and have the free choice of the will. It’s the greatest gift gave to us and the one we abuse every single day.

So what are we to do? God has given us a choice. We are to subordinate our will to God’s will. Or we don’t. My will be done, or Thy will.

I can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth from this side of my monitor. Some of you aren’t saying anything different than I myself have mumbled or screamed a million times. Submit? My will? Pffffffffffft. I’ll do it like Frankie and Elvis, thank you very much: My Way baby!

For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows and did it my way!

Pride personified, I’d say.

If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it. ~ Genesis 4:7

I read this and a Don Henley lyric from his song New York Minute came to mind:

The wolf is always at the door.

Master our will, and subordinate it to His. So easy. So stubbornly hard.

We finished by learning about the traits of spiritual desolation, a rule of discernment employed by St. Ignatius. This time is characterized by a dullness of the soul, a disquiet, and an accumulation of temptations. One feels listless, tepid, unhappy and even disconnected from God. The answer to these times is to strive towards prayer which can help us to grow in humility. It is important that one learns to recognize these periods in our lives so that we not only avoid making a serious decision or change in a rash manner, but also so we can make changes in ourselves to get out of desolation. A proven effective manner for doing so is prayer.

(Addendum: Another proven method is through a devotion, and because of this retreat I was to discover that I had one previously unknown to me. I’ll write about that towards the end of this series.)


These are the things I was thinking about while eating my supper in silence with the others. I ate quickly and went outside to the large back patio behind the dining room. I sat on a bench facing a large glass panel that had an image of the Ascension of Jesus etched into the glass. It was facing to the west and beyond it appeared to be the makings of a beautiful sunset. I discovered that when you’ve spent a full day in quiet, prayerful isolation meditating upon God’s love and creation and all of that goodness, the introduction of sin and evil can surprisingly blindside you. I knew I needed some consolation. I’m not a naïve waif. I’m educated, well read, and painfully aware of evil in our world. It still unbalanced me though. As the sun began to set I opened my journal and wrote:

I am to be contemplating the tragedy of sin while I sit here watching a glorious sunset in southeastern South Dakota. At this moment sin seems something a million miles away, or even non-existent though of course I know better. I pray we could erase sin from the face of the earth. A dream, I suppose, but it’s a good dream. The breeze is gentle, the air is cool. The farmhands across the road to the east are hollering at their noisy herd of cattle, coaxing them into the pens for the night.

…and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God… ~ Genesis 3:8

I don’t want to hide from God due to sin. He can find me anyhow, so what’s the point of hiding? If he withholds his face and his graces, my soul is dust.

I set the pen down in time to look up and notice that the glass had now beautifully framed the sunset. I reached for my camera and was able to capture this shot.

While looking west along the horizon I noticed the hay bales where I’d spent my afternoon. The orange colors were gorgeous and I took a few photos of the bales at sunset. One of the men was standing among them. I imagined that he, like me, was soaking in the warmth of the sun as some sort of antidote to the darker subject we were working through.

Click to enlarge

After I took this photo and put away my camera as the last tip of the bright orange sun lowered below the horizon, he raised his arms and dropped to his knees in silent prayer. I decided against a photo as I thought it would somehow profane this sacred moment.

It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

A zoom on the man between the bales in photo above.


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