HE SEATED HIMSELF AND TAUGHT THEM SAYING: BLESSED ARE THE POOR IN SPIRIT.( Mt. 5: 1-3) The Sermon of the Mount is often cited for its elevated, noble vision of a saintly humanity, tested and purified by suffering. And rightly so: what appeals more movingly to our best instincts than the divine mercy and justice that find their expression in the Beatitudes? Such promises as: Blessed are the Pure in heart for they shall see God, engage what is most personal in us for a life time. These utterances of our Lord come straight from his Sacred Heart, we feel. They speak to us of the order of the world where he lives in unimaginable bliss with his Father, united in the Spirit of their love. Passages from any number of other places in the Gospels, indeed, nearly the whole of St. John's Gospel, suggest to the spirit the world of transcendent light and glory where the fullness of life is poured out in unending exchanges among those who complete and fulfill one another. Jesus in expressing his most personal thoughts and his attitudes as recorded in this Gospel leads us to desire to follow him where he has preceded us into this world that knows no shadow of alteration, no decline in its joy and completeness.
At the same time, the Gospels on occasion reveal in all its starkness the fearful mystery of evil. Above all, they give us glimpses of the depths of the frightful waste and misery of sin which is, according to revelation, the source of all evil in this world. Suffering and death without God, the darkness of the mind that accompanies ignorance of God and of His ways; the wretched isolation of those who are deprived of true love- all these consequences flow from the loss of God's favor that follows upon sin. One of the passages where the Lord suggests most vividly how totally we should shrink from sin of any kind occurs in the Gospel of Mark. The passage has the oriental flavor of so many of Jesus' utterances, characterized as they are by didactic exaggeration, intended to make his point strikingly. IF YOUR RIGHT EYE SCANDALIZES YOU, TEAR IT OUT AND THROW IT AWAY: BETTER FOR YOU THAT ONE OF YOUR MEMBERS PERISHES THAN THAT YOU BE CAST INTO HELL. (Matthew 5: 29) This is far from being a solitary reference to the fact that those who die alienated from God are eternally lost; they perish, as Jesus puts it here. Elsewhere he refers to them as being in everlasting fire and darkness. "I do not know you", the Lord will say as he told the five foolish virgins in Matthew 25: 12.
Not only conscious evil that a person perpetrates makes him unworthy of the kingdom; neglect to invest the talents received from God cannot be palliated by rationalizations that are only self-deceiving. God cannot be deceived. Such foolish and cowardly neglect suffices to lead the divine Judge to pronounce the dreaded sentence: "Throw him out into the outer darkness. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth." (Matthew 25: 30) The list of similar passages warning against sin in its various guises and forms is a long one. Obviously, our Lord sought to inculcate in his followers an awareness and a dread of sin in view of stimulating us to a firm resolve to avoid it at any cost, even that of life itself. "Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no power to do anything else; fear, rather, the one, after killing, has power to cast you into Gehenna." (Luke 12: 5)
These words and similar passages in the New Testament Epistles and the Aoocalypse are calculated to instill in all believers a strong detestation of sin, but surely the most telling deterrent to sin is the knowledge of who God is. And the most imprssive indication of the nature of sin is the price that the Son of God himself was to pay in order to undo its terrible consequences. First, there is the fact that the results of sin are such that no human person could remedy the evils that arise from it. Sin, as a turning away from God, has more than human consequences; its chief and immediate effect is separation from God. That means being cut off from the source of life, and of all that makes life worth living and gives it meaning. The other results, such as darkness of mind, hardness of heart, loss of freedom to choose the good, inability to love, and the pain of eternal frustration and loss arise from this radical separation from God's favor.
There is an intimate and dynamic bond between a sense of the horror attached to sin and sensitivity to God's holiness. The loss of a feeling of awe and profound respect for the transcendent goodness and beauty and power of God that together give rise to an appreciation of his holiness readily leads to the trivialization of sin and even to that dullness of spirit which denies the reality of sin. That modern man, formed in a largely materialistic, and increasingly technological culture, has a very much weakened sense of sin and little appreciation for the holy as such is a widely recognized fact.
Many describe this state of affairs as a liberation from the tyranny of religion or of magic. There is, in truth, an element of liberation involved in the secularizing of certain aspects of creation as science defines the laws of physics with ever-advancing precision. Greater control over nature, over the body, more recently even the capacity to modify the genetic anlage of a foetus, represent a legitimate liberation from impersonal forces. But such insights in no wise delimit the influence of a Providence that established the laws of nature at creation and preserves and directs them in keeping with God's own designs. About such Providential interventions science as such knows nothing; they are a matter of faith. This faith can become experience through contemplation of the inner structure of things and the movements of history when considered in the light of the revealed word of God. To the extent that the sciences provide insight into the structure and workings of the material universe, they contribute indirectly to our knowledge of God in his wisdom, power and love if we examine them with faith and humble desire to discern in and through them the manifestations of God's energies and something of his divine nature.
Such secularization then is a position advance in humanization and as such make a contribution to our search for God. Insights of this kind increase rather than diminish our sense of God's holiness and so inculcate a stronger abhorrence of sin. Wrongly interpreted as evidence that the created world explains itself, is self-subsistent and consequently excludes the hypothesis of God, secularization results in dullness of spirit and darkness of mind relative to the divine. In the wake of such weakened, sickly state of soul the very concept of sin gradually is emptied and finally lost. This is the condition in which large numbers of our fellow men and women find themselves today, and have been living in for some time now.
More than 25 years ago one of the most eminent psychiatrists in our county, Karl Menninger, took note of this absence of a sense of sin and recognized it as a major social and psychological disorder. He commented on the fact that the word itself was rarely employed in public discourse even when the reality was too obvious to be denied by men who were at all familiar with Christian morality. He published a book that dealt with this issue under the title "Whatever Became of Sin?" (New York 1973) in which he comments as follows.
The very word "sin," which seems to have disappeared, was a proud word. It was once a strong word, an ominous and serious word. It described a central point in every civilized human being's life plan and life style. But the word went away. It has almost disappeared- the word along with the notion. Why? Doesn't anyone sin anymore? Doesn't anyone believe in sin? ( 14)
Words that replace "sin" in public discourse are, for example," shortcomings", "pride" "self- righteousness"; other terms are wrongdoing, failings, weaknesses, selfishness, egotism. But these, while qualifying all too often as forms of sin, have different significance than this radical concept of dissenting from God's will and plan. Sin, Seward Hiltner, maintains, includes such realities as rebellion, estrangement and isolation. St. Augustine had spoken of sin as "turning away from the universal whole to the individual part.....There is nothing greater than the whole. Hence when he desires something greater, he grows smaller." (De Trinitate, XII.14, cited in Menninger, op. cit.,19) Sin, then, is more than a private and personal estrangement; it is a disruption of social order, a fracturing of relationships among persons and the society they form. In a mysterious way, there is an evil at work in the world and in the human heart that divides people not only from others but within themselves. The division between good and evil is found within our soul as well as outside us in others; it assumes the form of social, economic and political structures as well as interpersonal tensions and tangles. The order of the world must be re-established and yet, since every human person lives within its sphere, it inevitably eludes the most perspicacious and persistent of reformers.
The problem is more than human. So is its solution. Fr. Richard Neuhaus has pointed out how we cannot empty sin of its seriousness without diminishing the human person. If my failures in fidelity do not amount to much, neither do my dutiful and faithful acts of love and loyalty. In short, self-respect itself is one condition for taking sin seriously. The other and chief requisite is awareness of God as our destiny. We are created for a world in which we can live out our deepest and best aspirations while contributing to the fulfillment of the others with whom we share the human condition. So long as we experience the world as a place of competition rather than of communion and collaboration, any happiness we know will inevitably be incomplete. We are made not only for God but also for all who belong to God. Yet in this world we keep on discovering that the success and advance of one means the failure and frustration of another in so many instances. These and other reflections of a similar kind convinced men like St. Augustine of the reality of an original sin. Cardinal Newman, so many centuries later, as he reviewed the condition of our race in its contemporary condition, spoke of the greatness and littleness of the human person and saw clearly that the promise living in the soul of ever person never manages to realize itself fully in life situations; on the contrary, so often betrays itself and dissolves with time and experience. He understood this condition, universal as it is in its tendency, to be a manifestation of original sin, and points up the need for a divine intervention. The very purpose of Jesus' coming into this world was redemption from sin. To lose the sense of sin is to cease to look for redemption, and that means to remain among those who are not saved. In our present-day society this is the acknowledge condition of many persons who simply lack the gift of true Christian faith. There is nothing new about this state of affairs, except perhaps the high percentage of those who call themselves Catholic but who "pick and choose" what they believe and follow in practice. Since the word "heretic" means precisely "the one who chooses" what to believe, such persons are hardly to be reckoned believers though they remain formally in the Church. What is a widespread and increasing trend today is to trivialize sin, even on the part of some of the clergy. There are various ways in which the seriousness of sin is eroded until the sense of its gravity is dulled and even all but lost altogether. One is to deny that certain kinds of actions previously deemed sinful are no longer to be considered such. Various forms of sexual acts are treated this way by a large number of Catholics. Another is to stress the mercy of God to a point where it amounts to presumption.
An article by an Episcopalian treats of this form of insidious emptying of the sense of sin in the current issue of Touchstone. It is entitled A Kindly Heresy (November/December 1999, 18). The author met an old friend, a kind Episcopalian priest, some twenty years ago, to who m he announced he was not accepting the revised Book of Common Prayer, but continuing with the traditional version. "You don't really believe that the burden of your sins is intolerable?" He replied " Yes, I do." He goes on to point out that the traditional text contains a number of passages that insist on the fallen state of humanity and our need for redemption, whereas the 1976 version speaks of "wrong choices" that might prevent our fulfillment and weaken community. The subsequent developments in his church, such as ordination of women to Anglican orders, lead the author to comment that his friend is an oath-breaker, having promised at his ordination to maintain and defend "the doctrine, discipline, and worship of his Church, not as he would make them, but as they had been received from Christ and the undivided Church." He finds it his duty to point out that such a person "is also a killer of souls, having taught hundreds of people that the burden of their sins is tolerable, and that niceness and politeness are means of self-salvation.... The tragedy is that the "nice" people believe themselves to be compassionate and kind, especially when they are chiding those who want to fight battles and name names... What they don't see is that these feelings are not enough. Only submission to God is enough..."
Any number of issues are raised by these observations. The two most important, as I see it, are the nature of God and the qualities of true charity. The sense of sin is a function of our concept of God. If we conceive of God as the all-holy One, the God who vindicates his honor by insisting on repentance and obedience to the point of implementing his plan of salvation by the painful death of his beloved Son, we cannot but have a horror of sin and consider it the very worst thing that can befall anyone. All the saints understood this. Péguy was moved by the story of Saint Louis of France who, when asked once whether he would commit a mortal sin to avoid getting leprosy, replied that mortal sin was far worse than leprosy and he would far rather contract this disease than be so unfortunate as to commit a single sin.
At times of heavy temptation it is easy to rationalize away the demands of conscience; the more clever a person the greater the facility in dismissing prohibitions. Reason is a feeble support when passion, whether fear or desire, waxes strong. The sense of God's holiness and his intrinsic rights over our whole being remain even when the feeling for his love and protection are temporarily in abeyance. Knowing God as the transcendent Creator of all, with such interest in us as requires us to act worthily so as to deserve his approbation is at such times the strongest support of our weakness. Those who truly know God found even the smallest sin, even when not fully deliberate, to be an intolerable burden and hastened regularly to seek his pardon by confession and penance. To those who have but a feeble sense of God's holy grandeur such sensitivity appears exaggerated; in fact, on the contrary, it is a response to God's personal greatness and goodness.
The other issue raised in this connection is the true nature of charity. This is a vast question. Saint Bernard, Saint Aelred and Blessed William of St. Thierry, the three best known Cistercian authors, wrote books on the subject. Here I limit myself to the observation that our Lord revealed himself and his Father not only as love but as the truth. The two cannot be in intrinsic conflict though it is not rare that we perceive them as in tension. Indeed, at times we understand rightly, that it is an obligation of charity to withhold certain truths from another because that person is unable to respond appropriately to their requirements.
On other occasions, however, charity demands of us that we convey truths to our neighbor, our brother, or our friend in all frankness; not to do so is to fail in love; at times, it can even be a betrayal of duty or of friendship. In fact, one of the most important obligations of charity, and of friendship in particular, is that of correcting one who is erring for whatever reason. Such admonition is often the truest indication of true charity. It is also one of the most exacting of arts to admonish and correct in a manner that is effective. Everyone has the duty to work at mastering this art so as to be faithful to the requirements of charity at times of testing and stress. Parents, teachers, religious superiors, member of the same community- all of us have at times this obligation of admonishing and correcting others.
The obligations arising from such relations provide us with many occasions for growth in charity and purity of heart. They can represent moments of crisis that determine our own inner development as well as our relationship with another. Jesus taught that failure of love requires not only to avoid acts contrary to God's law but that we employ the talents we receive in the service of God and neighbor. One of the major services we can perform for others and for our own self is that of recognizing sin for what it is, avoiding it at all costs and doing what we can to correct others when they fall into it or are in danger of doing so. Such concern is a practical way of expressing our gratitude to our Lord for what he has done for us in the mysteries that we commemorate in the course of this week. Jesus died to deliver us from sin, and he rose to bestow on us the new life that is a sharing in the holiness of God the Father. May we always be faithful to him by living now lives of holiness and of grateful charity.Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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