Shock and Awe

Very few serial murderers or suicide bombers are devoted to frequent confession. Confession, to be sure, is not the stuff of shock and awe. Indeed, most priests will tell you that hearing confessions is hard work. It requires attentiveness as well as patience, for there seems to be a limit on the number of ways the Ten Commandments can be broken. Thoughtful penitents may find themselves frustrated because of an inability to break a predominant fault. But in the holy struggle against venial sin, they are really avoiding a far more serious pattern of mortal sin. This is one of the lessons that can be drawn from this week’s Gospel.

Christ tells us, “The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones.” The encounter with Christ in a devotional confession keeps us honest about ourselves and realistic. (A devotional confession is for the purpose of obtaining the sacramental graces to overcome patterns of venial sin, not strictly required because of mortal sin.) We are all capable of great sin. Avoiding the “big” sins begins with repenting of the “little” sins.

Vice never travels alone. In the Old Testament, King David’s sloth led to lust and adultery with Bathsheba. His adultery and his fear of being exposed eventually led to his murder of Bathsheba’s lawful husband, an innocent man. Eventually the prophet Nathan brought him to conversion with his famous, “Thou art the man!” indictment. Adopt a sense for the absurd for a moment and pretend there were Catholic priests hearing confessions in the Old Testament. Suppose King David confessed his sloth in lingering about the home front when he should have been accompanying his soldiers in battle. In his struggle, with the help of the sacrament of penance, the demon of his sloth may not have led him to meet the demons of lust, adultery and murder.

In the Gospels, even the hand-picked Twelve Apostles struggled with vices. James and John struggled with vainglory as they manipulated to be seated next to the Lord in His kingdom. Peter struggled with a chronic failure of nerve. Judas was a thief. Suppose Judas had approached Christ for help in overcoming his propensity for sticky fingers. And suppose Christ, the Good Confessor, had instructed him to make restitution as a condition for forgiveness. Perhaps with his sins “nipped in the bud,” Judas would not have shocked the world with his infamous betrayal.

During a recent television interview, a famous pop singer explained why she left the Catholic Church after years of Catholic training. She said at age 15 she concluded that it was too fantastic to believe that an impure sexual fantasy is a mortal sin. (Of course, impure fantasies begin with relatively venial immodest thoughts.) After leaving the Church her public life of debauchery, personal perversity and serial divorce became the fodder of the tabloids. She is said to have had several abortions along the way. It is all too easy to demonstrate, “the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones.”

We are rightly shocked and awed by the horrors and depths of human suffering. But the sufferings of Christ on the cross teach us that one who suffers does not sin in the suffering, nor endanger his immortal soul. To this point, John Henry Newman is provocative. His words contrasting the horror of suffering to the gravity of sin ought to lead us to frequent devotional confession:

“The Catholic Church holds it is better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremist agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.”

The most extreme human suffering does not have eternal consequences. The moral actions of man do. Even an unrepented venial sin is shocking and awful in its effects.

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