Several years ago, after the pope had been heckled during his visit in Holland, a Belgian newspaper ran an editorial that commented as follows: The difference between the Dutch and the Belgians can be seen in their separate reactions to the pope. In Holland, people don’t keep the commandments, but they still want to be saints, so they demand that the commandments be changed. In Belgium, we don’t keep the commandments, either, but we know we aren’t saints and so we admit it and ask for redemption. Perhaps there is bias in that comment as it relates to the differences between the Dutch and the Flemish, but it is insightful in another way.
Our culture struggles with honesty, with admitting weakness. Much within us and around us invites us to rationalize, to make excuses, to demand that standards be changed or re-integrated because we cannot live up to them. Less and less, even in prayer and confession, do we find searing honesty and contrition. This proclivity to rationalize and not admit weakness and sin is, singularly, the most deadly temptation facing each of us. Failure to admit weaknesses and acknowledge our sin as sin is infinitely more damaging than weakness and sin themselves. Failure in self-honesty is the start of the sin against the Holy Spirit, the only sin that can never be forgiven. We are familiar with Christ’s warning that there exists a sin, a certain blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which can never be forgiven. What is this sin?
Simply put, it is the sin of lying to oneself until one becomes so warped that one believes one’s own lie. Falsehood becomes truth. The reason this sin cannot be forgiven is not that God does not want to forgive it, but rather that the person no longer sees the need for forgiveness. Living in darkness is seen as living in light; sin is seen as grace; perversion as virtue. The person living in this state feels a certain disdain for what is genuinely virtuous, innocent and happy. S/he would not accept forgiveness were it offered. This sin begins always with rationalization, with the failure to admit to sin. And much within our world and ourselves feeds this temptation to rationalize, to take ourselves off the hook, to make ourselves look good by denying our weakness and sin.
We see this everywhere, in our tendency to avoid confession of all kinds, in our inability to take personal responsibility for our own unhappiness, and in our tendency to not admit our moral misery. We see it, too, in our inability to be searingly contrite in confession – whether in a church or elsewhere. More and more, our confessions are more protests against moral authority and rationalizations than they are honest admissions of simply being human and sinning. More common than genuine contrition is anger towards moral authority, especially towards the church. In my opinion, this does not augur well. The heart of anger, as someone once wisely stated, is a rebellion against what it means to be human.
Too rare, today, is the confession of the publican: “I’m a sinner! I’m a mess! I am morally inept, unable to live what I believe. I do dumb things because I am weak. There’s no excuse. And, God, I’m miserable, be merciful!” More common is the tendency to blame the church, its moral authorities, or our past religious training for the fact that we suffer from guilt and un-freedoms which leave us less than happy.
Ruth Burrows, in her “Guidelines for Mystical Prayer,” states: “I am shocked to see how little contrition, searing contrition, features in our living and dying.
“Only a saint can afford to die the death of a saint. The rest of us need to go out as sinners in our own eyes and in the eyes of our entourage, and our peace must come from trust in God’s goodness, not the complacent but unexpressed assumption that we lived for God.” (Page 69)
She goes on to tell the stories of two nuns with whom she lived. The first was a sister who was not faithful to her life of prayer. She lived in mediocrity for most of her life. However, she admitted it. She never played games, pretending she was anything other than what she was – mediocre. As she grew older, she made more of an effort at fidelity, but habits die hard and she died before she fully succeeded. But she died a happy death, a sinner asking God to forgive her a life of human weakness. The second sister also lived a life of mediocrity and infidelity in charity and prayer. Unlike the first sister, however, she never admitted this. To herself and to others, she postured saintliness. The result was a sad lie; harmful, most of all, to herself.
Only a saint can afford to live and die that role. The rest of us must live and die in searing contrition, sinners asking God and others to forgive us a life of weakness. In such honesty lies redemption. In anything less honest lie seeds, which, if allowed to grow, lead one to begin to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.