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Sin and something better

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Fr. Peter John Cameron, OP - published on 10/22/22

The beginning of all sin is the conviction that we can’t be loved ...

More than once in my life I have wondered what I would ever do if I were without a tabernacle to kneel before when overwhelmed by the weight of my sins. In God’s loving providence, even sin plays a redemptive role in leveling us so that we finally come face to face with what really matters in life. As St. Thomas Aquinas put it, “God permits evil in order to draw forth some greater good.” 

Recall that poignant scene from Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited in which a character, living in adultery, goes through a meltdown:

The patron saint of such compunction is the tax collector in the well-known parable that he shares with the contemptuous Pharisee (Lk 18:9-14). The reality is that both men are sinners. But the tax collector embraces a healthy sense of sin, while the Pharisee wallows in delusion.

The Pharisee suffers from what spiritual masters term philautia: a constant obsession with self. Philautia is “that fondness of oneself that is the source of all evils” (J-C. Nault). The 12th-century Catholic commentator Ibn al-Salibi underscores the scandal of the Pharisee “comparing himself with the great examples of righteousness like Moses and the Prophets.” Perhaps the most shocking—and really, sociopathic—thing about the Pharisee is that, right before his eyes, a profoundly moving demonstration of remorse is taking place … but all he sees is a sinner to be condemned. 

We know that we are not beyond such malice. Yet, so often the sinfulness we commit—in the form of selfishness, of envy, of self-reliance—is the outcome of weakness. The beginning of all sin is the conviction that we can’t be loved, and this goes right to the roots of our very being, spawning an insufferable emptiness. “Every sin is an attempt to fly from our emptiness” (Simone Weil). So we go places—even in our mind—where we don’t belong. “Sin is following a stranger” (S. Alberto). 

But thankfully, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke reminds us, “It’s here in all the pieces of my shame/that now I find myself again.” God wants us to unite ourselves to him precisely in the knowledge of how lost and wretched we are without him. “The surest sign of our advancement is the conviction of our wretchedness” (J-P. de Caussade). 

For the more God lets us see the truth of what we are left to ourselves, the more he gives us the grace to cling to him. Coming to him when overwhelmed by our shame and guilt glorifies God like nothing else because then we depend totally on him. The reason why God does not prevent our sin is because he delights in the confidence we show when, appalled by our own misery, we dare to trust in him. The tax collector’s prayer, prayed at a distance from the congregation worshiping together in the Temple at the daily atonement service, means to plea, “Let the sacrifice taking place right now be for me. Let the sacrifice be effective enough so that God will want to have mercy even on me!”

The Gospel says that the tax collector “beat his breast” as he prayed—a gesture that appears only one other time in the Gospels: in Luke 23:48 when, after the crucifixion, “all the multitudes returned home beating their breasts.” Let’s be part of that multitude every time we make our way to the atonement sacrifice of the Mass, cherishing the words of Servant of God Elizabeth Leseur (+1914): “Every soul that rises above itself raises up the world.”

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