Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Lord: Chapter 21, “Forgiveness of Sins”

My dear old friend,*

When I hear criticism of traditional Christianity—especially Catholicism, and I hear a lot of such criticism around Boston where so many in our generation were born Catholic but have fallen away from the Church—the thing I hear most often is, “Christianity is all about sin! Sin, sin, sin! When I was a kid, the priest told me that if I did something wrong, I’d go to hell. How negative can you get?!”

Sin as a concept is old-fashioned and out of date. Acknowledging that sin might actually exist as a fact seems worse: it’s twisted.

We’ve bought into scientific models of behavior—everything is genetic these days—and we treat most misbehavior as disease. But this is such a superficial way of looking at it. The closer we look at the idea of sin, the deeper into our own hearts we have to go, beyond physical illness to something at the core of our being.

Ach, but we rebel at this! The idea of sin points at our own hearts. The idea of sin says there might be something rotten in our hearts, something that, if there were a God, that God would judge unfavorably. And if we buy this idea of sin, then we begin to crave forgiveness—and immediately our thoughts rebel at such a notion. We are too independent-minded nowadays, too proud of our science and humanism to think that we might need forgiveness. Like so much in the Christian message, this is simply too much to swallow.

But then. When we refuse to take the idea of sin seriously, what does that do to Jesus, who came to forgive sin? “I have not come to call the just,” Jesus said, “but sinners.” The whole idea of sin and our modern response to the idea reduces Jesus from the Redeemer who forgives to the miracle worker who heals, the intercessor who makes things better, the teacher who teaches us to be nice. 

In this chapter, Guardini looks at a single episode from Mark 2, that of the paralytic dropped down through the roof on a pallet so he could be close to Jesus. When Jesus tells the man his sins are forgiven, the Pharisees object: only God can forgive! Jesus asks them, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Thy sins are forgiven thee,’ or to say, ‘Arise, and take up thy pallet, and walk?’”

Guardini exposes this as a kind of trick question. We think, well, of course, it’s easier to say “I forgive you” than to make a paralytic walk! And when the man does walk, Jesus appears to have done the harder thing. But has he?

The incident suggests how, from God’s point of view which is Jesus’s too, sickness and sin are intertwined. In fact, I think it would be still more accurate to say that sickness is rooted in sin. And the root of sin is man’s rejection of God, which began with the first man, the original sin.

There is a lot of meditative meat in this chapter that I am still chewing over, and I am afraid that I have drastically oversimplified Guardini’s message, which often goes over my head.

But this I know: When I was in school, I was mystified by my Catholic friends going to confession. Perhaps confession still mystifies you, as a Protestant. Since I converted to the Catholic Church four years ago, I have gone regularly to confession, and I have almost invariably left the confessional—or what is now often called the Reconciliation Room—with a feeling of nothing less than deep relief.

Confession has not cured me of any diseases, but it seems to heal some fundamental uneasiness in me. It may be impossible to look deeply enough into one’s own heart to see what mysterious alchemy goes on there. But circumstantial evidence—my own in confession—suggests that sin is a greater problem than we usually give it credit for, and that the Church, in the sacrament of reconciliation, offers a greater therapy, to use a modern word, than just about anything else on offer.

God bless you, my friend,

This series of posts continues here with chapter 22.

* This post continues a series of open letters to a friend of mine from boarding school. Each post reflects on a chapter in Romano Guardini’s book The Lord. The series of posts begins here with the Author’s Preface.

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