by Father John A. Hardon, S.J.
For our present conference we shall reflect on personal sin. We might begin by observing that the adjective “personal” modifying sin is deeply meaningful because we can and do speak of different kinds of sin, and not only personal. There is, we know, what we call “original sin”. It is that state of sinfulness in which we are conceived and born, and for which we were not personally responsible. There is also what we are coming to call, “social sin”. It is the sin of society. Again the sinfulness not with which, but into which we are born. It is all that history of sin that preceded our own coming into the world, and the magnitude of sins of the people into whose society we come, and by which social sin we shall to our dying day be affected.
I think it is well worth, at least for a moment as we get into this subject, to reflect on the fact that, besides the Original Sin with which we are conceived and born, and the social sin into which we are born, there is also our own personal sins that we have ourselves added to the sins of mankind. Behind the realization of our own personal “sinfulness” is the logic of our Faith, which comes in three parts: Part one says: Man has sinned, and not just generic man, but this human being. Secondly: sinful man needed a redeemer. That means “I” need a redeemer. And thirdly, and consequently therefore, God became man to save man from his sins. In other words, we must become deeply aware of our own sins. We needed and continue needing a redeemer. Therefore, God became man to save not just humanity, but me.
The point of all of this is that we shall be only as appreciative of Christ as not just, again, a generic savior of the human race, but as my own personal savior, because I personally sinned. In order to appreciate Christ, I must first have depreciated myself. I shall be as grateful to Christ for having become man and dying on the cross as I am aware of my having sinned, and therefore I need a redeemer.
Among the many things you learn
ed after years of dealing intimately with souls, is that all of us have the strange but natural propensity to objectify things. We are all born philosophers. We tend to reduce to a philosophy what should remain a personal experience. How easy it is to talk about sin and how we naturally bristle the moment anyone, including “this one”, begins to talk about “my” sins. “A penny for your thoughts.”
Of all the sublime things that this speaker could bring to your consciousness, sin. We must then become deeply conscious, that we (and I have underlined in my notes “we”) which really means “I” have personally sinned, therefore “I” need Christ. The crucifixion was for me!
We shall take for our meditation three perspectives of our own sins: First their record and gravity. Secondly, our humiliating awareness of what we are, we who dare to sin. And thirdly, God’s greatness against whom we have sinned and therefore the just punishment we deserved. Let me change the tense — we deserve.
First Reflection – Recall the Gravity of Our Sins
First, the record and gravity. Two weeks ago I had the pleasant experience (I don’t often have it) of spending about an hour with my second grade teacher, Sister Benedictus. Honestly, she hasn’t aged. She prepared me for my First Confession and First Communion. I still remember how laboriously she spread out all the possible kinds of sins of which we may have been guilty. I thought I had the record in the class. I ended up with twenty-one. But no, some sinner, at least, boasted of having twenty-two.
Record means recall. It means bringing to memory. It is healthy at times (and this is one of those times) to recall in memory what we have done. We need it! And each spiritual life that does not build on our acknowledgement of sinfulness is a romance, to dream. We are sinners, thus (I am just suggesting) and not only now but also at other appropriate times to one viewpoint for example, recall some of the superlatives or the priorities in our past record of sins. What was the first sin you committed? If you are like me, I know mine. I don’t talk about it, but I remember it. What has been in the years since that first act of… We speak of a child reaching the age of discretion. I almost think we should say, “reaching the age of indiscretion”. Since that first indiscrete decision to sin, what sin has been the most frequent? And in case you don’t know (and you have the nerve), ask somebody with whom you lived for a number of years. They will almost surely tell you what is your dominant failing. What has been the most grievous sin we have ever committed? What sin has had the most serious consequences? What sin (and this is where the retreat is so important) is the most deep- rooted?
During the month of May I gave a thirty-day retreat. There were four meditations a day. That is a lot of meditations! I kept apologizing until I realized there was no need for apologizing for bringing sin into the picture almost to the last day. We need to know what is the most deep-rooted, sinful tendency we’ve got, and we all got one. And holiness here by the way, has nothing to do with deep-rooted sinful tendencies. Did you know that? That holy people have these deep-rooted sinful tendencies? Sure! The point is we become holy by, well, realizing what these tendencies are and struggling and conquering them. Or from another viewpoint and this is one question that we should often ask ourselves, “What has been the history of sin in my life?”
So much for record. I honestly believe that which most distinguishes one person from another is that person’s unique history of sin. You’ve got yours and I’ve got mine and here we are all sadly different.
If we further ask ourselves, (still on the first level of our reflection) what determines the gravity or the seriousness of what we have done wrong? We know the Church’s teaching over the centuries, still very much intact, in spite of all the learned nonsense that has been written about, well, situational ethics and fundamental option, and other big polysyllables. A sin is grave if what I do is considered grave by God. He says adultery is grave. Fornication is grave. Murder is grave. Grave matter that I am aware, sufficiently aware of what? Of the fact that God forbids this. That’s all I need to be aware of. That God considers this serious. And then thirdly, I go ahead and do it anyhow, for whatever reason. And by the way, in case, why I am sure you have heard this, but in case you may have forgotten, nobody ever sins without a good reason. Did you know that? And the smarter the people are, the better their reasons. And some write books on why they sin, although they don’t put that in the title. The human spirit could not, psychologically impossible, offend God unless it had some plausible reason, some deeply self-satisfying motive for doing what is objectively wrong. Sin is always pleasant. Sin is always sweet. Sin is always attractive. Do you know why people sin? Because they like to sin. Isn’t that simple? They love it. They enjoy it.
Consequently, when we come to examine in the light of faith what is wrong with sin and when is it grave, we have got to keep telling ourselves (because there is so much being said to the contrary nowadays), we must tell ourselves, “Sin is sin because I deliberately do something that I know God does not want me to do, but I want to.” Get it? People who sin want to sin. They love it! They like it! It is great!
One of the screeching billboards in New York advertises a play on Broadway and the two giant size words that most stand out in the ad are: fun and adultery. Sin is fun, sure. Sin is great! And by now and we would have to do it in our bicentennial year, we now have the highest judiciary in our land. You have heard haven’t you? The latest decision of the Supreme Court, forbidding parents to interfere with the abortion even of their youngest daughter. “She has a right to murder.”
So much for the record and the gravity. But keep telling yourselves, because so much of the world will not tell you this, “What is wrong with sin is that God does not want it. What is not wrong with sin is that people don’t want it, because people want sin. The libraries of all nations are by now filled with literature defending what man wants contrary to what God wants.
Second Reflection – Practice Our Humility
Our second reflection on the humiliation that we should studiously cultivate (as during a retreat), allow ourselves as having sinned. The great spiritual masters, among them Ignatius, have variously pointed out the contrast between the one who sins and the one against whom a sinner sins.
And what I will share with you in the next few minutes may not be, well, too impressive. It all depends of course, on the spirit of God within us. To deeply humiliate ourselves, who are we that we dare to stand up against the Almighty? What are we? Well, statistically, we are exactly one out of three billion people in the world. And as you clutch your briefcase close to you in the New York subways and you dodge this bulging humanity, you just don’t feel important. Or, as I went for the first time in two years to the top of the Empire State building with two sisters…. I like to say this, when we got there, the two sisters and I (they were of course in their habits, but I too was in my clerics) the guard on duty said, “The sisters come in free, but you must pay.” We were looking down on a “moving” New York, from the top of the Empire State building. Any figure will do. Insects moving indefinable objects down below.
God in His goodness, oh how good He has been, keeps humiliating us everyday, and many times a day to keep us mindful of what little beings we are. How easily we get ill. What a microscopic virus or bacteria can lay us low. Think of our needs of nature. Christ referred to them, so can we.
Our novice master very appropriately told us, “Except for all of the subtle ornamentation that man has created around his act of eating, eating is most humiliating. We put our hands or an object we hold in our hands into something which had previously had been a living animal, or a piece of vegetation. We raise it and place it into an orifice called the mouth, and we masticate. And except for that more or less thrice daily action we have in common with the animal, we would die.”
The great minds of Christianity have reflected on God’s providential wisdom in demanding that we eat like the animal. That we sleep like the animal. That we drink like the animal. That we breathe like the animal. To keep us mindful of the fact that we are dependent not only on the Almighty God; we are dependent on the beast and the grass of the field to stay alive. That is us! How God has designed to keep us humble.
Yet, and what a mysterious adversity this is, yet, this, what shall we call ourselves? So helpless, so little, so insignificant creature. You don’t explain this, you believe it. This nothing can stand up and say “no” to God. So much so that Christian philosophers in commenting on that passage in Saint John where Christ tells us, “Without me you can do nothing.” They observe exactly. That is what we can do. And not only nothing, in that we can do “nothing” but that where there is something, which God has brought into the world. You know what we can do? We can annihilate, we can destroy. And there is nothing so beautiful or so precious or so holy that willful man cannot destroy, right? Which in my estimation is the really demonic motive behind abortion. Man, when he is estranged from God, wants to destroy the most precious thing that God has made: human life. That is us!
It is not often, unfortunately, that we either, I suppose, hear this kind of homilizing or read books that talk this way. Well, we can do without homilies and books; we have a mind. To humiliate ourselves periodically, I would say daily. Not too long, so we don’t get crushed by our own capacity for destroying, but often enough just to impress ourselves, or shall I say depress ourselves, just enough to be an antidote to the venom of pride that runs in our spiritual system. How well I know, having now been struggling with my own pride for so many years, how we need, oh how we need to overcome this pride of ours by the realization of what we have done against the God who made us, because He loves us.
Third Reflection – Our Offense Against the Divine Majesty
But there is still one more level of reflection, and that is reflecting on the one against whom we have sinned. Before we get closer into a spiritual analysis of what the Divine Majesty is against whom we have offended, we might ask ourselves for a few minutes on what we mean when we say as we do, that we offend God.
Again there is a lot of learned and destructive folly being written and spoken on this subject. How can anyone offend God? Can anyone hurt God? Well, clearly when we speak of offending God (which God Himself tells us) that when we sin we offend Him. Clearly, we cannot mean that we hurt God as we say “hurt” a human being when we offend a man or woman. When we offend a person and that person is conscious of having been offended, he is as we say (and correctly) hurt. But God cannot thus be hurt. We cannot offend God by making Him literally unhappy.
This bears some reflection because as we know, there are so many passages both in the Old and the New Testament too, about God’s being offended; in the parable, for example, of the Prodigal Son, seems to say that God is hurt. Well no, He is offended indeed, but not hurt as though somehow we deprive God of that which He had before or do not give Him what He needs. God does not need us! Any God, who needs His creatures, frankly, is no God.
So what do we mean? We mean when we offend God that we do something which is displeasing to God. In other words, God wants us to do His will, but He does not need our service as though without our serving Him, He would not be as happy as God should be. And this God who wants us to please Him has identified the laws that He made with His will. So that when we break those laws we, in effect, if it were possible, depending on the gravity of what we do, we would, and this is the literal truth, we would put God out of our lives. That is why by the way, God became man and allowed Himself to be killed because that is what all sin would do if it could. Am I clear?
God as God cannot die. To show us what sin really means; it is an attempt, folly indeed, madness indeed, but an attempt nevertheless on the life of God. The sinner in effect says, “I know what God wants, but I don’t want it. So as far as I am concerned God might just as well not exist.” The sinner chooses a creature in place of God. And God identifies Himself with that choice, and says, “The sinner has chosen a creature instead of me. This displeases me. This I hate.” God hates sin, but there is no question of God being hurt or pained.
When we then speak of offending against the Divine Majesty, and we want to impress ourselves with what we have done over the years, we should not only reflect as we have briefly done on our own “littleness” to humiliate ourselves, but also on God’s greatness so that we should indeed appreciate the seriousness of what we have done. This God against whom we have offended is all perfect, all holy, all wise. The significance of reflecting on the greatness of God’s majesty against Whom we have sinned, is that we recognize from our own by now years of human experience that, other things being equal, the dignity against the one whom we do something wrong is the main single factor in the seriousness of what we do wrong. Thus a person who is, by human standards, not so important, and up against that kind of a person would not be considered even in civil law as significant. If we further add the deeply human relationship we have with other persons. Have you ever had an occasion to slight someone in some minor matter, perhaps thoughtlessly, in a moment of selfishness, someone to whom you owe a great deal? Remember how sensitive you were to what you had done, and how cheap you felt? So much so, that the deepest ingratitude is measured by the goodness of the person against whom the ingratitude had been perpetrated. Makes sense doesn’t it?
Ask our Lord to help you realize (and it takes a lot of grace to realize it) that the God against whom we have offended is great not only in His majesty, but has been great in His incredible goodness to me! And that it is this good God against whom I have dared to sin. Meaning therefore, that my sin has been ingratitude of the worst possible kind because no one under God has done more for me. And if we sinners so spontaneously ask for pardon or apology or tell people I am sorry if, for example, how often this happens except a lot of people just don’t do that. They step all over you. I’m back in the New York subway again.
We apologize even for our thoughtlessness. To impress ourselves with what we have done against God who has done so much for us. But, we still have one more aspect to bring out from this third of our reflections. In as much as the God against Whom we have sinned is the God of infinite majesty and the One Who towards us has been so infinitely gracious and good even as in human society a person offended naturally and spontaneously reacts. And the more deeply we have been offended against, the more deeply we feel, and the more spontaneously arises in us that passion of anger. Now God has no passions, but God, as the scriptures tell us, is just; and therefore, even as we spontaneously, depending on how sensitive we are, apologize for what we have done wrong and just as we spontaneously are angered when someone wrongs us. So expiating our sins is just another way of describing apologizing to God. And becoming angry when we are offended is just another way of describing the justice of God. God has so many reasons to be angry with us.
In closing this important meditation, let us ask our Lord for two graces: one on the level of apology and the other on the level of anger. That He might teach us how deeply we have sinned and therefore, how much we need to expiate. And secondly, to make us realize something of the righteous justice of God against us sinners and to beg Him to stay His hand, and to spare us. And to mean it when we say it. All I can tell you is, I mean it when I say it.
Lord no matter what pain or suffering I experience in life, I had it coming to me. I deserved it. And Lord help me to accept Your hand when it lays heavy on me, because though I may feel the weight, it is the hand of God’s mercy helping me to expiate my sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica. Used with permission.