The Guilt of Our First Parents

To tell the story of human guilt would be to tell the story of mankind through all the ages of creation until now; but all through that history, from the very beginning until now, man’s reactions to guilt and his attempts to escape have been consistent and have followed the pattern that they follow today.

Many people do not believe the story of Adam and Eve and the first sin, but it seems to me difficult to disbelieve a story in which human beings are so true to the psychological pattern that is recognizable in every kind of person today.

The immediate instinct following their awareness of their guilt was to hide themselves from themselves, to put on fancy dress: and then, even when they had done this, they must hide from God.

They were afraid of the light of God because they were naked, because they could not help seeing themselves in that penetrating light as they really were, as they had become now; and therefore, the Presence of God, which until now was the source of their joy, was painful to them.

The curious thing is that they were not afraid of God because they had disobeyed Him but because they knew that something had gone wrong with their human nature as a result, and they could no longer endure self-knowledge in God’s presence. They tried to hide from themselves and from one another. They found the truth about themselves confusing enough in their own company; in the presence of God, they found it intolerable. Adam did not answer the voice of God calling to him in the cool of the day by saying, “I was afraid because I had disobeyed you,” but “I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Gen. 3:10).

But even so short a time ago as the dawn of that day in Eden, walking in the loveliness of the light of God, Adam and Eve had been naked, and they were not troubled by the fact: “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25).

Human nature is made in God’s image; only when it has been made, in a sense, unnatural by sin, so that concupiscence has infected it with its subtle poison, does it become that of which man is ashamed before God.

This applies to everything in human nature, not only, as countless people imagine, to sex; but undoubtedly, there was a profound psychological effect upon the natural love of man and woman too, and the emotions woven into this love became split. The order of God’s law no longer held man in the perfect balance and unity within himself that made his expression of love a simple, complete act of pure joy, controlled by his own will. Human nature was disintegrated by the first sin, and instead of being, as Satan had promised, more like God, it was less like God, for in its every expression, it had lost its wholeness. Inevitably, this expression, life-giving love—which is the most Godlike of all—was complicated most of all.

The first sin was, above all else, a fearful abuse of the gift God gave to man by which alone he was able to love: namely, free will. The result of the sin was that he was no longer able to use his will freely; he became the slave of his impulses and appetites, and the use of his will must henceforth involve a struggle with them and with himself.

Probably, like a sign of what had happened inwardly, which would take many generations for man to understand, came the first matrimonial quarrel, the first disagreement and antagonism between man and wife, who were made to be one flesh. For it is difficult to suppose that at least a little coldness did not result from Adam’s prompt shifting of responsibility onto Eve! “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat” (Gen. 3:12).

To this day, sexual love is split in its expression. It is complicated by conflicting elements of love and hate, sadism and masochism. There is a kind of schizophrenia of sex, which many people now accept as being “natural”; but, as we shall see, sex requires the unifying principle of redemption to restore it to man’s true nature and to make it once more the supreme expression of human love.

Cain followed the same pattern as Adam. Because he had murdered his brother, he could not endure to remain in the presence of God; but neither could he face the hardship of being a vagabond on the earth that would yield nothing to him nor handle the fear of being murdered in his turn by other men. The wonderful touch of mercy following his sin is nearly always ignored by those who tell Cain’s story today, and we are told he was “branded” as if it were to add to his shame by pointing him out as a murderer. In truth, God put a mark on him to protect him.

And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass that everyone that findeth me shall slay me.

And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.

And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord. (Gen. 4:13–16)

There is not only a pattern running consistently all through man’s reaction to his guilt, but there is also an equally consistent pattern in God’s reaction to it, which begins with Adam and persists all through time to this day. It is an attitude of the tenderest Fatherhood, and the first men, in spite of their guilt, still knew God well enough to know this. Note that it was not of God’s vengeance that Cain was afraid; he rather turned to Him for mercy, as if he felt confident that He would ease the punishment that he could not bear: what he really feared was what his fellow men would do to him|—|“and it shall come to pass that everyone that findeth me shall slay me”—and God at once brands Cain, not to scar him as a murderer but to set the seal of His own extraordinary protecting love on him. No one, seeing that mark, could kill Cain unless they liked to risk the vengeance of God.

Before that, a significant little detail reveals God’s tenderness to Adam and Eve. He did not leave them naked or cowering away from Him in their fancy dress of fig leaves, but He clothed them Himself: “Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21).

The story of man’s wickedness and God’s mercy goes on like this. When men had become wicked, “thinking only evil thoughts,” and the flood came, the Ark was given to Noah and his family and the animals; and when the flood subsided, God filled the sky with the lovely sign of the rainbow—who but God would give a rainbow with His forgiveness! Again and again, the Israelites, who were to give us Christ, were forgiven and given lovely tokens of forgiveness when they had sinned. Even those punishments that God’s love must give are inflicted on man by his own hand, he brings them on himself; only love and mercy come straight from God’s hand.

Death, the most terrible punishment for sin, was brought into the world by man, and the first man to die died by a man’s hand. The first death was murder.

Mercy upon mercy answers sin upon sin, and Christ is the complete mercy, which cannot be surpassed. We shall see a little further on how completely and how exactly Christ is the answer to Adam.

As to Satan, who is the ultimate cause of all guilt, and who first induced a woman to sin, God answers him with a woman: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman” (Gen. 3:15). This woman is the Mother of Christ, who already stands before God with the head of the serpent crushed under her foot.

Editor’s note: the above excerpt is taken from Guilt, a reprint of Caryll Houselander’s 1951 title, released today by Sophia Institute Press.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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Caryll Houselander (1901–1954) was an artist, mystic, poet, and the author of more than fifteen books for adults and children. She returned to the Catholic Church in 1925. She wrote for the magazine Messenger of the Sacred Heart. During World War II, doctors sent patients in mental anguish to her for counseling and therapy. She died in 1954.

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