January 4, 2011

Growing in Sin

For those praying the Liturgy of the Hours in American English today, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is striking in the Office of Readings:

But we lack courage to keep a continual watch over nature, and therefore, year after year, with our thousand graces, multiplied resolutions, and fair promises, we run around in a circle of misery and imperfections. After a long time in the service of God, we come nearly to the point from whence we set out, and perhaps with even less ardor for penance and mortification than when we began our consecration to him.

Most anyone who has tried or even just desired to live a spiritual life for some years has had this experience. We struggle with the same faults and sins and sometimes don't seem to make any progress at all in virtue. We wonder, because we feel as if we have lost our former fervor and zeal, if we are actually in a worse spiritual condition than when we started. I think this experiences requires delicate reflection and discernment.

On the one hand, St. Elizabeth is quite right in saying that we fail to make progress in piety and virtue because we lack the courage to apply the required vigilance to ourselves. We fail to discipline our minds and to work ascetically with our thoughts and afflictive emotions. We simply try not to sin or we make a content-free resolution not to fall back into our bad habits and interior and exterior occasions of sin. But without having applied any ascesis to the sources of sin in our internal distraction and selfishness, we should not be surprised to find that our will is tossed this way and that, and we remain devout servants of our maladaptive behaviors. We are happy to make resolutions and plans about getting rid of the rotten fruits of our sinfulness, but we lack the courage and vigilance to go after the roots of these things in our thoughts, emotions, and assumptions.

On the other hand, we are who we are. No matter how much we grow in faith and the spiritual life, we will always be ourselves. Just as the "geographical cure" usually fails on the physical level, so on the spiritual as well. Wherever we go, and into our out of whatever states of life we travel, we will always find ourselves there. Our struggles and faults are based in our personalities and are inalienable for all but the holiest of the saints. We will always struggle with our own particular sins and faults. We may come to struggle with them on ever deeper levels, closer to the miserable heart of our own selfishness and the mystery of the wound left by original sin in each of us, but struggle we will. Nevertheless, I think there is a spiritual gift in this too. The selfishness of sin can sometimes seep into our spiritual reflection on our sinfulness. We come to give our sinfulness too much place and power in our spiritual life. If our spiritual life is only about our own holiness and desire to be a saint, personal sin can seem like a catastrophe. But the answer isn't to try harder not to sin, but to forget about ourselves altogether and to notice that God is far more compelling, interesting, and lovable than our own prayer and piety.

That is to say that the happiness of my spiritual life lies not in the knowledge of my holiness, but that God's saving purpose and loving kindness are not thwarted in the least by my sinfulness.


Anonymous said...

:) Great post, Fr. Charles. I made a whole bunch of New Year's Resolutions to sttop doing x and y, but without changing fundamentally that's not going to happen.

Thank you.

Unknown said...

Brother Charles,
You have given us much to pray and reflect on with this post. I admit that I often feel like a dog chasing her own tail- those same sins come up over and over again. The saints seem to tell us over and over that penance and mortification are key to a fruitful spiritual life.(I definitely need some improvement in those areas.)
Your last paragraph is something to praise and thank God for- He is bigger than my sinfulness.
Sorry for the long comment.
Thanks and God bless!

Tausign said...

You struck a spiritual chord here. In a recent post I remarked, "I'm not interested in a diploma in holiness, but a relationship with God, and a heartfelt desire to bring about his presence to others."

I wasn't planning on saying that but I realized that we can become very obsessed with sin and forget that what we're trying to do is make ourselves free for God's embrace and to share him with others. I think you hit the nail on the head.

Julia said...


Anonymous said...

Fr. Charles:
I had gone to Reconciliation and had been feeling somewhat disconsolate afterwards. I wished I had a spiritual director. Then as I began reading your blog for the day, I realized that your words were ministering to me as if you had heard my confession. I had that feeling, the one when you feel as if you were being exclusively cared for. I get what you said. I am farther along in understanding now. Pls. don't stop your blog.

In the spirit of Francis