“I Can’t Help Acting on My Temptations, So I’m Not to Blame”
Long before I entered the seminary, I was talking to a young woman and asked about her prayer life. She told me, “I have to overcome some of my sins before I go to God in prayer.” I told her she had it backwards. We go to God in prayer even while sinners, to seek the strength to overcome our sins.
To deny that we can overcome our temptations is to deny our freedom. But we all have a certain amount of freedom. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches,
“As long as freedom has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning. This freedom characterizes properly human acts. It is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach” (no. 1732).
In order to exercise freedom, we must make progress in “virtue, knowledge of the good, and ascesis (self-denial)” (no. 1734). Granted, our responsibility can be reduced under certain conditions: “Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” (no. 1735).
Still, “Every act directly willed is imputable to its author” (no. 1736). It seems that even if our freedom is diminished by fear, habit, and so forth, we all have some degree of freedom. And, we all have freedom to discover which acts are wrong and get the help we need to overcome them. In other words, there is just about always a way to seek the help of others: through counseling, anti-substance abuse programs, and various support groups, and above all to seek God’s grace through prayer and the sacraments. A proper approach is to “pray as if everything depends on God, and work as if everything depends on us.”
Sacred Scripture affords us hope in our struggle against sin: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). And, “I can do all things through him [Christ] who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). And, finally, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
Sometimes we must pray very hard to overcome a life of sin. Many sinners have sought the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary to cease their sins, and with great results.
The story is told of an Augustinian sister who had a regular practice of praying for those who died in her town. In the same town lived a terrible sinner named Mary, who had been expelled from the community. She lived in a cave outside the town and died seemingly in a state of sin, as an outcast, without benefit of receiving any sacraments. She was buried in a field, like an animal.
When Sister Catherine heard of Mary’s death, she assumed the poor woman was in Hell and didn’t bother to pray for her. After about four years a soul from Purgatory appeared to Catherine and lamented, “Sister Catherine, I am so unhappy. You pray for all the souls who have died, but not for me.”
“Who are you?” asked Catherine.
“I am that miserable Mary who died in my cave.”
“How can this be? Are you saved?” asked Catherine.
“Yes, I am saved,” answered Mary, “by the mercy of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
“But how?” asked Catherine.
“When I saw my death approaching, weighed down by my innumerable sins and rejected by everyone, I turned to Blessed Mary and prayed, ‘O sweet Mother, you are the hope of sinners; look at me in my final hours, totally abandoned. You are my only hope; you alone can help. I beg you have pity on me.’ The Virgin Mary obtained for me the grace of saying an act of contrition before I died. My Queen also acquired for me the grace that my pains should be more intense and thus shortened. Otherwise they would have lasted many years. Just a few Masses are required to end my stay in Purgatory. Please have them offered for me and I promise to pray for you.”
Sister Catherine arranged for those Masses to be said for her and Mary appeared to her just days later radiating a bright light and said, “Thank you sister Catherine. I am now on my way to heaven to thank God for his mercy and to pray for you.”
St. John Vianney
Another account of the Virgin Mary’s extraordinary intercession for a sinner occurred in the nineteenth century. A widow who had lost her husband to suicide went to see St. John Vianney in Ars, France. As he walked by her waiting in line to see him, he stopped and, though he had never seen her before, looked at her and told her, “He is saved! He is in Purgatory…. Between the bridge and the water he had time to make an act of contrition. Our Blessed Lady obtained that grace for him…. Though he had no religion he sometimes prayed the Marian prayers with you in May. This merited him the grace of repentance.”
Everyone mired in sin should call on Mary. She has a long list of sinners whom she has helped to receive God’s endless mercy.
The Church has a long list of those who were great and constant sinners who by God’s grace were able to reform and become holy: Bl. Bartolo Longo (Satanist priest); St. Angela Foglino (adulteress); St. Margaret of Cortona (mistress); St. Camillus (rabble rouser; see chapter XX).
God’s mercy is available to anyone who asks for it, especially through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Morrow’s Overcoming Sinful Thoughts: How to Realign Your Thinking and Defeat Harmful Ideas.
It is available as an ebook or paperback from your favorite bookstore or online through Sophia Institute Press. Also check out Fr. Morrow’s previous books, Christian Dating in a Godless World and Overcoming Sinful Anger.