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Spiritual Composting: A Metaphor for Reconciliation

Blog by Julie Laudick Dougherty

Autumn is a wonderful time to contemplate the beauty of composting, as the leaves are falling and we prepare to wrap up our efforts for the year and begin anew in the winter. In the natural world, composting is the process by which food scraps, yard waste, and other dead things decompose into a new material that improves soil quality and fosters plant growth. Similarly, in reconciliation, we offer up to God the things we have done and the things we have failed to do—the invasive weeds and rotting fruits of our lives— and they are transformed by grace into opportunities for spiritual growth. An exploration of the parallels between these two processes provides deeper insights into both.  

The Four Steps of Reconciliation and Composting

1.  Examination of the Conscience

This step is about gathering the materials. For composting, you might begin with an examination of the fridge, or the garden if you have one. It’s important to do this often. The longer you wait, the smellier the waste gets, and the more invasive the weeds become. You wouldn’t leave rotting fruit on the counter for weeks—why do it with sin?

2. Confession

This is the breakdown step. In composting, you know the materials are breaking down well if the pile gets hot. Similarly, you know you’re really getting at the root of a problem in confession if you’re starting to sweat. The composting process can take weeks or even months, but it happens faster the more carefully you break down the starting materials. Confessions typically only take a few minutes—but a lack of thoughtfulness often results in the need to take the same sins to confession over and over again.

3. Act of Contrition and Absolution

This is the step in which sins are absolved and the compost is free of bad odors and pathogens. The Catechism distinguishes between contrition of fear and contrition of charity. Both are good motivations for confession, but charity—or love of God and neighbor—is a higher reason to strive for holiness. Likewise, we may be motivated to compost for fear of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with food waste in landfills, or out of the desire to turn waste into something life-giving that feeds plants and people.

4. Penance

While penance is technically not required for the absolution of sins, it is beneficial for spiritual growth. The compost parallel to this step is called humification. It is an aging process that improves quality and stability of nutrients in the compost, making it an even more valuable soil amendment.

Examination of Conscience:

  • What times and places are most conducive to examination of conscience for me? How can I be more intentional about keeping these times and spaces holy?
  • How carefully am I tending the compost pile of my spiritual life? Am I seeing the same problems turn up over and over again?
  • Am I more often motivated by contrition of fear or contrition of charity?
  • How does love for God and neighbor motivate me to take better care of the earth?

5 thoughts on “Spiritual Composting: A Metaphor for Reconciliation

  1. Thank you for your insights re reconciliation and composting. It is easy to understand when presented in this way.

  2. Julie,
    What a beautiful analogy of composting to reconciliation. You have expressed a wonderful way to examine our consciences. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Loved your image of composting and the spiritual composting work needed for our inner lives. You have given me some reflective work as I move towards Thanksgiving and thanking God daily for His Mercy and Love.
    Blessings on your future reflections,
    Brigid, OP

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