Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Discovery of Sin

One of the most famous passages in the Bible is, of course, the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke Chapter 15. The namesake son is usually the focus of our reflections on this parable, but we can learn something as well by reflecting on the character of the eldest son. When the eldest son hears that his younger brother is returning and that their father is throwing a party for him, he becomes angry: "Behold, these many years I have been serving thee, and have never transgressed one of thy commands; and yet thou hast never given me a kid that I might make merry with my friends..." (Luke 15:29)

What is the eldest son's problem? He has a lack of gratitude. And why is he ungrateful? We are ungrateful for what we believe we deserve by right. The eldest son thinks that his years of service have given him a right to his father's generosity. His father owes it to him to throw a party for him, or at least give him the means to a throw a party for himself (it is interesting that the eldest son complains that he was not given a kid to make merry friends with his friends, not with his father). The prodigal son, at an earlier time, felt in a similar manner as evidenced by his demand that his father give him his share of the inheritance. But something changed in the prodigal while he was away and after he had run through all his money. The prodigal son discovered sin.

What was his sin? Notice that nothing in the parable says that the prodigal son was wrong that he had an inheritance coming to him. His sin was not in thinking that he had an inheritance coming, but his failure to recognize that the inheritance, as well as everything else he possessed and indeed his own life, was nothing but pure gift from his father. The only reason that his father "owed" him an inheritance is that his father freely chose to submit to such an obligation. All is gift and mercy, nothing is demand and obligation. The prodigal son, by losing everything in poverty, realizes that he really had nothing at all originally that was not pure gift. The magnificence of the gift and his unworthiness of it becomes starkly clear in the contrast with his state of poverty after he has dissipated the gift.

So sin is not really about immoral behavior, although immoral behavior is a fruit of sin (the prodigal son spends money on loose women as a result of his ungrateful demand for his inheritance.) Sin is fundamentally about a misapprehension and dislocation in our relationship with God; in other words, pride. It has been speculated that the sin of Lucifer, the greatest of angels, was that he believed his high place in the cosmic order was due to his own merits rather than the mercy of God; this sin fermented and eventually grew into rebellion and hatred of God. The eldest son has "never transgressed one of thy commands" yet he also does not appreciate the fundamental gratuity of his relationship with his father. He has yet to discover sin; he is in a state of sin but doesn't know it. And without sin, there is no mercy and forgiveness.

The eldest son is very relevant to we Catholics who have grown up since Vatican II. Similar to the eldest son, it's not the discovery of forgiveness but the discovery of sin that is usually a problem for us. We are more than happy to take the gifts God offers us in the Sacraments, as the eldest son would be more than happy to take any kid goats his father gave him with which to celebrate. But we seem to have lost the prior spiritual movement, the discovery of sin, without which the discovery of forgiveness is meaningless.

There is an easy test to determine whether we are more like the eldest son or the prodigal son. What is the ratio of our partaking in the Sacrament of Confession with our partaking in the Sacrament of the Eucharist? Do we rarely or never go to Confession but always take communion at Mass? Confession reflects the spiritual movement of the prodigal son in his discovery of sin; the Eucharist is the spiritual movement of the celebration of the father in welcoming the return of his lost son. Taking the Eucharist without Confession is akin to the eldest son demanding a party without first discovering his own sin and coming to his father in repentance.

Sin is not a matter of emotion and feeling. It is an objective state of being. We can be "doing just fine" in a state of sin or, rather, feel we are doing just fine without appreciating the deep rot within us. The pernicious lie we have come to believe is that if we feel good about ourselves, then we really are good. But all that may mean is that we have yet to discover sin.

I generally do not like to talk about myself on this blog, but I wish to relate a personal story that, I think, will illuminate the points I am making. As a young man just graduated from high school, I went away to college several hours away from home. One of the perks of living away from home was that I could give up going to Mass. The lesson I learned from growing up in the Church and twelve years of CCD was that being a Catholic was about being a nice guy. And, hey, I was a pretty nice guy, so what did I need all the religious stuff for? In Confirmation classes, we did a lot of meditation and listened to stories about drunks and criminals being converted by the Gospel. Well, meditation was boring, and I was neither a drunk nor a criminal, so it seemed to me that the Gospel was addressed to someone else. It had nothing to do with real life.

During my sophomore year, several things occurred that I now view as moments of grace. One of these happened when I was walking back to our fraternity house from campus (the house was a mile off campus), and I saw an elderly woman carrying two bags of groceries up a hill. I was walking behind the woman and I justed watched her struggle up the hill. My perspective was that of a disinterested, scientific spectator (perhaps a product of my engineering major.) I felt no pity or urgency to assist the woman. You might call this a "sin of omission." When I got back to the fraternity house, I reflected on what happened and it worried me. I didn't feel guilty for doing nothing; what worried me was my lack of guilty feeling. What sort of man feels no compassion for an old woman struggling up a hill? I had been given a brief glance at my true spiritual state of being, and it scared me. Something was dying inside me but I didn't know what or what to do about it. It was obvious to me, however, that such clarity was not permanent. I knew I would eventually get to the point where I would not recognize my state for what it was, and then I would be beyond hope. I was discovering sin, although I didn't know it by that name at the time.

My spiritual life is chiefly characterized by the discovery of sin rather than the discovery of forgiveness. Since returning to the Church sixteen years ago, I have always struggled with the Sacrament of Confession, as I suspect most Catholics my age and younger do, at least as evidenced by the sparse turnout for Confession. It is a real struggle for us to perceive our true spiritual state as sinners; like the "Five Man Electrical Band" says, "we're doing just fine." Actually, we are not doing fine, as evidenced by the divorce statistics, the lack of vocations, and the general cafeteria approach to Church teaching.

We may ask: How does the eldest son discover sin? Must he leave home and squander his inheritance like the prodigal son? Remember that sin is not so much a particular action as a general distortion of our relationship with God. Pride is the root of sin, and pride is the conviction that what we have, we have by right or deserve on our own merits. Catholic piety was once filled with small but significant reminders of our sinfulness that have since been jettisoned in the quest to get rid of "Catholic guilt." We've gotten rid of Catholic guilt, all right, and turned ourselves from the prodigal son into the eldest son in the process.

Re-incorporating these apparently minor acts of piety is a good way to rediscover sin. Bowing in front of the Altar, genuflecting in front of the Tabernacle, holding yourself and your hands in a reverent posture during Mass, not chatting before or during Mass, following the observances of fast and abstinence... all these things communicate the message to yourself that the Faith is not so much "about you" but about what God is doing for you. The most valuable thing I have done in recent years is refraining from the Eucharist when I have not gone to Confession in the prior month or I know I have committed a serious sin. This has forced me to Confession more regularly and also given me a renewed appreciation for what God is doing in the Eucharist.

One of the tragedies of contemporary Catholic life is the fear with which the Church authorities speak of sin. Priests rarely mention it in homilies and seem to be afraid of "stressing out" youth by even mentioning sin or demanding anything of them. Altar servers, when we have them, are slovenly, sloppy, often don't know what they are doing, and stroll around the sanctuary like it is their rec room. When they are bored with Mass, they chat with each other or fiddle with the crosses around their necks. Then everyone wonders why we have so few altar servers. When Mass is viewed as entertainment, as just another thing to burnish up our Almighty Ego, it isn't long before it becomes boring and is abandoned. What these youngsters are being robbed of is the opportunity to participate in something much grander and more glorious than they are, something that demands the submission of their ego and the renunciation of their pride, something that comes into being only with the discovery of sin; but their is no sin when nothing is demanded of you.

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