Sunday, February 26, 2006

sin and reconciliation

Dante by William Blake: the burden of the proud in Purgatory.

We are preparing the child, filius imperatricis pulcherrimae Africae occidentalis, for his First Communion next May (he and his mother were both baptized last Easter -- he is ten years old). Part of this is his first Sacrament of Reconciliation which will take place, appropriately enough, next Saturday, the first weekend of lent. Preparing him forces me to think about how I relate to this sacrament, and I think I will confess myself next Saturday.

In my childhood, it was still a sacrament of guilt and darkened confessionals, sins reckoned up number by number, and a rushed series of Hail Marys as penance. My eight-year-old examination of conscience consisted of a panicked wondering about what sins I had committed. A quick survey of the Ten Commandments would give me enough ammunition to last through the frightening ordeal. Had I taken the Lord's name in vain? I must have said "God" inappropriately sometime. There's no way I could have always honored my father and mother. Bearing false witness meant lying, right? There's no way I had always told the truth. Armed with three broken commandments, I was ready to kneel down and whisper at the priest, sure that I must have sinned, though I may not have been aware of any particular occasion. I had enough material to get through the confession, mutter ten Hail Marys at breakneck speed, and get back into the sunlight and play, my soul shining with newfound cleanliness.

I think as a child I did appreciate the feeling of absolution, but I never really understood sin. The first time I went to confession as a believing adult was December 2004, and I haven't gone back since. That time I went to an understanding Jesuit and discussed all the difficulties that had arisen from my rejection of the Church as a teenager, and there really was plenty to talk about. Since then, it's been a bit more difficult. Oh, of course, there have been myriad failings on my part, but scanning the Decalogue doesn't seem to be that helpful to me. Counting individual trespasses does not aid to show me how and when I have fallen away from God -- which is, of course, what sin is about. Mortal sins--grave sins committed in the full knowledge that they are sins as a free, willful act--are actually easy to avoid committing in normal situations. Still, that is far from making us perfect and holy.

Reaching back into the tradition, I find the Seven Deadly Sins to speak to me about sin very clearly. Originally written about in a different form by the fourth-century ascetic and theologian Evagrius of Pontus, they came almost in their classic form to the West through the writings of Gregory the Great. Pride, greed, lust, sloth, wrath, gluttony, and envy: these are not individual crimes, rather they are habits of mind that cause us to think and act in ways that injure one another and take us away from God.

It is not surprising that it was first formulated by Evagrius at the dawn of Christian monasticism. Truly dedicated ascetics who mortified themselves in astounding ways on a quest for perfection are not likely to engage in egregious acts of sin, such as theft or adultery. They are more likely to fall prey to modes of thinking and feeling that are damaging in a different way: pride in their asceticism, sloth when they are tired of constantly singing psalms. The numbering up of individual acts of sin became more of a part of confession when the penitential lists of the evangelizing Irish monks were applied as a pastoral remedy to the problem of how to explain sin to an uneducated laity.

Now that we are no longer uneducated, we need more than simple lists of sin. I know that especially in the present political situation, I am not free from anger or from pride. Anger when I read the news, pride when I feel I somehow have a monopoly on the truth. Of course, sometimes we should be roused by injustice, as Christ was with the moneychangers in the temple. But when we let that anger take over, we lose sight of justice and seek vengeance or the misfortune of others. We feel free to despise. In a word, we fall into the destructive lie of sin.

The idea of the Seven Deadly Sins is useful because it identifies thought and intent, not just acts. Lust is a very good example. I think one of the greatest problems of the Church today is its focus on acts and not their meaning, especially in cases of sexuality. Sexuality becomes determined almost solely by biological imperatives (procreation) and not by intent and consequences. Thus a mistrust of homosexuality and an insistence on sexual asceticism that is difficult to achieve even by those who have sworn to celibacy, let alone by the laity (I'm thinking here about the classification of masturbation and birth control as sinful). It is true that sexuality is powerful, and one can sin by engaging in sexual activity. Sexual desire is not lust, sex is not lust. Lust is giving so into the force of sexuality that we become cruel and irresponsible--and I do believe more people give into lust than would admit it to themselves. I'm not ready to go into a full-scale critique of Paul VI's encyclical on birth control Humanae Vitae right here, but I think that a discussion of the sin of lust shows how we can avoid both an unhealthy kind of repressed fear of sexuality and a superficial and possibly dangerous concept of sexual freedom that does not take into account the power and consequences of sexuality.

Of course, there are people out there who have committed murder, theft, or adultery and need to confess those individual sins. They truly and deservedly feel a sense of guilt and the sacrament can be a great comfort to them. For most of us, it's a way for us to recognize those parts of us that are going towards God and those parts of us that are going away from God. It makes me happy to see that the Church that is preparing filius imperatricis pulcherrimae Africae occidentalis is a different one that prepared me. I'm sure it depends on where you are and what the priests are like. Please, find a priest who you trust and who knows it's your confession and your conscience. That makes for a good and meaningful Sacrament of Reconciliation, as well as true understanding of what sin is.


lullaby said...

"it was still a sacrament of guilt and darkened confessionals, sins reckoned up number by number, and a rushed series of Hail Marys as penance"
This is my recollection as well. I even remember struggling to come up with items to confess, and maybe fudging sins "for good measure." I think I was frightened of not remembering -- of coming off as irreverant.

"they are habits of mind..." an appropriate (enjoyable even) description.

The idea of "pride in asceticism" fascinates me -- of eminence within religion and superiority of knowledge. Pride is everywhere, and is oh-so-tricky a concept. I know sheepish people whose fear of being prideful prevents them from speaking neccessary truths -- or from being "roused by injustice." Thanks for the post Liam.

Andrew Schamess said...

What an interesting discussion of the relevance of sin in the modern world. Your writing always reminds me how much commonality there is between Christianity and Judaism, not just in the roots of the two traditions, but in our contemporary thinking.

I had the same experience on the Jewish Day of Repentance (Yom Kippur) as a kid and young adult. The seriousness and sanctity of the day - the long fast, the hours and hours of prayer - the sounding of the Ram's horn - seemed to require far more serious sins than I was aware of having committed. And, righteous child that I was, I had trouble coming to grips with the notion that I had really, actually, done anything for which I needed to atone.

Recently, a post on Radical Torah got me thinking about the ancient abandoned ritual of sin offerings in the form of animal sacrifice. These were to be made not after deliberate misconduct, but after illness or other forms of involuntary impurity. One must purify - constantly, in fact - to come into the presence of God.

We're asked to conceive of an entity so holy - so pure and without flaw - that layer after layer of ritual cleansing is necessary to be in its presence.

For me, this speaks to our own narrowness as human beings. We aim the gift of our perception at our bodily sensations, our needs and desires, our worries and frustrations - rarely, unless compelled by ritual, trying to realize the Almighty, or even the created world.

You put it so well in talking about the need to overcome the distractions of pride and sloth in the quest for perfection.

Liam said...

Primo -- Thanks for the comment. Interesting what you said about pride -- of course, the idea of the seven deadly sins is psychologically complex, and we must be careful about so avoiding one sin we fall into another. Thus the monk who becomes too self-satisfied about how he avoids gluttony, lust, and avarice is guilty of pride. Perhaps the sheepish person who avoids right action out of fear of pride is falling into the sin of sloth?

Andrew -- Thanks for your kind words. My roommate from my freshman year at college (oh so long ago) was Jewish, and when we compared our Catholic and Jewish experiences when growing up, we decided that the common denominator was guilt. Of course, guilt in that sense is what you and I were speaking against. It's more an idea of imperfection -- or impurity, as you put it, and it's part of our natural human condition. We should not hate ourselves for it, but we should recognize it and be thankful for the opportunity to attone for it (go closer to perfection) and to be forgiven. That's why, I think, Yom Kippur and Lent (and their equivalents in other traditions) are so powerful. I don't think the secular world allows that necessary opportunity. That's why I love Lent.

Speaking of self-denial, I must get back to grading midterms. Thanks again for your comments, guys. Always good to have you stop by the blog.