Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
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
Sin ... A what?
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the March 18, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)
While sorting through boxes of junk in my garage recently I ran across a book which was popular in my seminary days: Whatever Became of Sin? Far more reflective and insightful books have been written on this subject since that time, but the title of this particular volume continues to echo its challenge into our own times. Might we not scratch our pastoral heads and wonder if people (ourselves included) really have forgotten the reality of sin? Merely count the diminishing number of heads of the repentant who avail themselves of Saturday afternoon confession times or participate in the parish communal penance services which many parishes will provide in these remaining days before the Easter Feast.
The evidence is apparent: in the minds and hearts of many individuals, sin has disappeared. Its many varieties have been emptied from these mental shelves at which we shopped in the examination of our consciences. It used to be so easy to find sin. It came in two distinct kinds of packages: mortal and venial. The ingredients were essentially the same; they just differed in quantity: lesser or more serious matter; free will and knowledge. Trying to identify sin was largely a matter of observation, trying to spot some deed or omission that religious formation readily had identified for us as sin. Sin was never generic; it was always neatly labelled – times and circumstances, down to minute details.
And if we didn’t know if X or Y was a sin, all we had to do was ask. The answer was usually at the ready from the wisdom of the experts.
Some might argue that modern theological reflection has done away with sin. “Nothing is black and white anymore,” the argument might go. “What once was a sin, isn’t now. ‘They’ have taken sin out of our lives and reduced it to bad potty-training.’”
Likewise, the insights and lessons of psychology and the other human sciences have enlightened us immensely about the complexities of moral learning and formation. And, yes, they have shown us how intimately our value-laden decisions are influenced by our culture, surroundings – even the expectations of our peers.
Ironically, this collective effort to understand human decision-making actually has made sin more human. Now, mind you, sin is not at all human; if anything, it’s sub-human. Yet, psychology and sociology have taught us that sin is not what it first might comfortably appear to be. Sin is not merely some thing we do or commit. It is above all else an embrace of a distorted relationship. It is a seeking of life where there is no life. It is the pursuit of a lie, a deception. It is chosen alienation. It is falling short of the graciousness of God’s love. Name a single “sin” from yesteryear which does not manifest aspects of every one of these descriptions.
When the book title pleads, “Whatever became of sin?” we might think that sin has disappeared from the consciousness of the contemporary believer. Sin has not disappeared; it stands naked in the truth of its emptiness. The neatly packaged “sins” of yesteryear were easily shuffled in and out of our consciences –sometimes with the automation of an assembly line. When their actual existence as sins is questioned by psychology or sociology, they appear to disappear. After all, which sin is not nuanced or responsibility by our parenting, etc.? It appears that sin is merely relative to our surroundings and circumstances.
This sense of sin has indeed disappeared. It cannot be found, or brought back to life, regardless the effort to redefine the types and packages it might come in. Sin slips into deceitful crooks and crannies of justification when it is sought as a depersonalized thing in itself. Sin hasn’t disappeared. It’s just that perhaps we were looking for it in the wrong place. Sin can be found – and all too much of it – once we start looking to God and what our relationship with such a Lover should be. In the light of that amazing grace, sin will make itself known. The imperfections in our selves and in our relationships will become manifest in the light of God’s goodness.
It is interesting to note that people began asking where sin went at the same time when some were proclaiming boldly that God was dead. Their proclamation oddly pointed us in the direction of where true awareness of sin is to be found. The more we are alive in God and pursue a sincere relationship with the Lord, we need not worry about surfacing and labelling sins in our lives. For anyone who pursues the path of holiness, there is plenty of real sin and chosen alienation to battle. The question is not, “Whatever became of sin?” The better question may be, “Where are the sinners hiding?” – hiding from our God and the truth about our relationship.
(Father Savelesky is the diocese's Director of Deacon Formation and pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane.)
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