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Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Spirituality: Rolled eyes

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the March 1, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

As a matter of chatter, the grocery clerk asked me last week what challenge I intended to give “my people” during Lent this year. When I quite spontaneously announced that I intended to focus on sin, I was met with a blank look that rivaled I know-not-what. I think it was the rolled-back eyes and sigh of despair that said it all. “Not that stuff again,” I heard her mumble. “What’s a sin, anyway?”

She tried to set me off course with the question: “Why don’t you find something positive to talk about, like love and peace?” But her ploy only glued me all the more to my subject.

“Well,” I said in a spirit of encouragement, “we’ll have 40 long days to think about it! Maybe we’ll get it right by then.”

Indeed, we do have 40 days to face the reality of sin in our lives. Of course, that is no automatic guarantee that come Easter we will be successful at freeing ourselves of its shackles. Certainly not if we approach Lent merely as a time to prove our self-discipline before God with our commonplace acts of penance like giving up candy, cigarettes, drinking and movies.

It is not easy to face the truth of sin in our lives. It is relatively easy, however, to present a catechist’s sketch of our personal participation in moral wrong-doing. It’s still popular to seek refuge behind the glib identification of sins either as big ones or little ones, mortal or venial. The more theologically astute may even note abstractly that mortal sin involves a serious act executed with full freedom and awareness. Venial sin is the mere result of subtracting any one of these three essential ingredients.

We may think that because we know this rudimentary description of sin that we have fully mastered the subject. Perhaps that is why my grocery clerk rolled her eyes. She already knew where she stood and was not willing to push the issue any further. She would rather hide behind her feigned confession of confusion than face the dissonant music.

The simple manner of packaging sin in one way or another makes one’s spiritual journey rather simple. All we have to do is avoid the big sins. Everything else can be tolerated. After all, it’s only the mortal stuff that really locks us outside the Pearly Gates. Serious sin demands attention, it seems, but not so-called lesser sin.

Perhaps we think that it just doesn’t matter that much. It certainly doesn’t keep us away from God. In fact, if we are clever enough with our thinking, we may champion that nothing really keeps us from God. After all, it’s been a long time since we have run across anyone whom God has scorched with a lightning bolt, right?

All sin is serious and must be dealt with seriously in the course of our spiritual growth — and not just during the 40 days of Lent. During his years of ministry among us Jesus constantly admonished his followers that our right relationship with God is not accomplished by the mere avoidance of big sins. The mere fact that we have not killed anyone does not make our moments of anger and resentment any more admirable in the eyes of God. Small slanderous comments are no more tolerable just because they presumably are only “little things.” Trashing reputations and subjecting our neighbors to gossip is just as spiritually deadly as killing. The academic observation that things like these may be identified as “lesser sins” does not leave us with a right relationship with God, self and neighbor.

Lent confronts us again with the shocking reality of sin in our lives. Roll our eyes all we want, we still need to deal with it. Sin knows no neat definition that allows us to posture ourselves before it in some clever dance of freedom. Sin is what it is: a willful and conscious rejection of God’s call to life and wholeness.

It may be true that we are a bit confused about what “a” sin is these days. If we have the honesty to listen to our hearts — where the Spirit whispers and convicts — we will know well the haunting reality of sin. We can weigh it all we want, trying to measure its seriousness or attempting to nuance degrees of free will and consciousness. In all its shapes and sizes, all sin is beneath our dignity as sons and daughters of God and followers of Christ.

Our confusion is not the result of God’s grace and love. If there is any confusion about the mater, it may well be born of our self-serving efforts to lessen our personal responsibility for the evil we have chosen to do.

When we lose touch with our heart and the gentle voice of God’s call to holiness and goodness, we become alienated — not confused. Alienated from God, self and neighbor. Define, measure and describe it any way we like, that alienation is the real face of sin.

(Father Savelesky is pastor of St. Patrick and St. Francis of Assisi parishes in Walla Walla. His latest book, Catholics Believe, has been released by Harcourt Religion Publishers.) (Download an order form in pdf format to print)

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