The Mystery of Sin and Forgiveness: Critical Examination

When I scoured the expansive list of topics for one that seemed the most interesting I came across, in bolded letters “Sin”. I chose that and raided the library for books on the same subject matter and came across The Mystery of Sin and Forgiveness edited by Michael J. Taylor, a large compilation book with pieces written by priests and other theologians. The book seemed simple enough, a thorough examination of sin and how to properly atone when we sin.

I chose sin as a topic for discussion and further inquiry because no one wants to think about that; sin is that dirty word that we use about others and not about ourselves. Sin is a word thrown around a lot but isn’t understood fully by most.

In a section of the book contributed by Kevin F. O’Shea, sin means “saying no to God” (90) and he goes on to say that “Sin is in the heart of man and disrupts the personal communion he must live with God in every action.” (91).This is a definition that most of us grew up with; sin was in a way a defiant act. A more theological definition comes on page 92 saying “Sin is a refusal of love in and through a detailed human action.” And that sin is a “violation of this covenant” The covenant being that which was made between God and the Israelites during the Old Testament times.

In mentioning sin we must consider that there are different types of sin, original sin and the seven deadly sins. Original sin is the sin that Adam and Eve first committed in the Garden of Eden. To us now original sin can be most aptly considered to be distant curse, placed on mankind thousands of years ago and we have no choice but to accept this reality. The best definition of original sin can be said on page 255 “They are born with original sin that is to say in a state contrary to God’s intention.” God loves us and as stated in the definition above is that “sin is a refusal of love”. I find this to be fairly accurate and that chapter to be true. Original sin has been a burden placed on us and that we have to live with. Modern philosophers have debated on whether original sin exists or if it is simply a modified mass version of determinism and indifferentism.

In the book there was also mention of determinism which states “that all of our actions, despite our illusions of freedom, are in fact dictated by the drives, urges and complexes that lie buried in the dark pit of the Unconscious of each of us.” (7) this doctrine much like predestination removes completely freewill and forces us into a “collective guilt” (7) this collective guilt is fueled by a sense of helpless due to the overbearing influence of original sin and a strong deterministic secular cultures. I have a problem with determinism, I was raised Catholic, so in being raised that way I was taught that God gives us freewill. Granted, I have no scientific proof to either effect, that life is determined or that I have choice in my life and my choices, be that to sin or not to sin. Determinism at its very worst removes personal responsibility and therefore removes the need for sin. If one has no say, then there is no sin because sin is a conscious choice to reject God’s covenant.

The book also mentions indifferentism (6) in which the attitudes towards anything is merely indifferent. The book also then says that under indifferentism “the act of sexual intercourse is indifferent as drinking a cup of coffee.” (6) .Under indifferentism it does not matter if we sin or not, we face a similar fate and either point of doing good or evil is irrelevant. The issue I have with indifferentism is that is removes love and passion from life and any other emotion that one can name. Indifferentism removes guilt from sin and from life itself and asks to have the same emotion for any event. Most would agree that the birth of a baby is considerably more significant than a cup of coffee. Indifferentism is a common way to cope with a feeling of insignificance and sadness in the world.

Sin also has varying levels of severity such as “venial” sins and “light” sins (105), these include but are not limited to little white lies and sin that only affects ourselves in a very small way. There are also “serious” and “mortal” sins (107) Mortal sins involve death most commonly. This class system is fairly typical of what most of us in the Catholic faith grew up with. The book emphasizes that each level of sin is still sin, saying that just because one is less severe does not make it acceptable though it can be agreed that murder is a more significant sin than a tiny white lie. There are ways to commonly skew the lines and rationalize those lesser sins. We brush off those occasional white lies and vow to say a few extra Hail Mary’s that night. Shrugging off the small sins is just as dangerous, such a disregard for any violation of the Covenant is precarious that can lead one on a slippery slope of rationalization and denial.

Another notion in the book that struck me was the opening line “The modern word has lost its sense of sin.” (3). I disagree with this idea completely. Especially as a modern Catholic, I feel as though we live in a world riddled with guilt and preconceived notions of sin and what sin is. We go to confession during every major liturgical season, we pray each time for the forgiveness of our sins. The secular culture is just as guilt-ridden but not in the same sense as Christians. The secular culture has some of the perspectives listed above, indifferentism and determinism. The secular culture uses those above perspectives to cope with the overbearing nature of sin without the Christian concepts of faith, grace or repentance. Without the concepts of faith and repentance one can either turn to despair or nihilism to cope with the overwhelming sense of remorse brought on by the unyielding burden of sin.

The second half of the book dealt with forgiveness. The only antidote for sin is forgiveness. In the book’s title forgiveness is under the title of mystery. I pondered on this choice in words for a while. For most, I believe that people generally do not think of much of forgiveness until they have to forgive. I believe that forgiveness is one of those words, like sin, is thrown around without much meaning. We casually toss around “I forgive you.” But we often do not understand the true meaning of forgiveness.

As Catholics we see formal forgiveness as Penance and this quote in the best described it best “When one of the faithful confesses, he comes to the Church to win by its mediation full reconciliation with God.” (158) this is a comforting notion to Catholics. I know I go to Confession when I can and I admit to a bit of a disconnection when I do miss the occasional service.

The book also noted that “The Church mediates grace through the priest, through the power he has received from Christ, with the bishop, and in dependence with him.” (207) this of course, chimes directly in with the Catholic notion of apostolic succession which gives power to the pope directly from Christ through the apostles and through the teachings of the Church. The other section in which the Church is mentioned the novel mentions that the Church body itself does not have the power to forgive but they do through God. I find this to be accurate. The Church body by itself cannot give Penance aside from on a personal level but on a sacramental level, the priest can authenticate the Penance.

Considering the mystery of forgiveness though is odd. I thought about it for a while and did my best to understand why they would consider forgiveness to be a mystery. As a Catholic, forgiveness is synonymous with Penance, so it seemed easy. I go into the confessional, I confess and the priest says a prayer and tells me what to do for my personal Penance. The book even had an explanation that more was more in-depth than that and makes my views of confession seem rather shallow “In confession the sinner addresses himself to the Church. He confesses to the priest because he sincerely believes he encounters Christ through the Church…By his repentance he expresses his desire to take his place in the community again, to live more faithfully as a Christian, and to participate more deeply in the life and mission of the Church.” (161) the book also stated that “Confession is the frank and candid disclosure of what is most intimately our own: our aspirations, our thoughts, our secret desires, our hidden actins insofar as they fall short of the ideal before us. Confession is the ultimate in human communication and self-disclosure.” (188-89) I am sure that this is one of the most accurate assessments of Confession provided by the entire book. The book also states that Confession is an act of self-improvement and I could not agree more.

But to say it was a mystery was a bit confusing. It had always seemed so simple. But then I considered personal forgiveness. How easy would it be of me to forgive someone who caused my family or my person physical or emotional pain? Therein lays the mystery. What allows us to forgive? Some evolutions believe that human forgiveness is almost like a fluke. No other mammals seem to have a concept of forgiveness as open as humans do. Theologians believe that forgiveness is passed down through the Church and through Jesus Christ. “The divine plan can be carried out only through Christ, the head of the new humanity.” (157) The answer to the mystery lies within this quote “By his Incarnation and the mysteries of his life, the Son of God becomes Lord in the power and fullness of the Holy Spirit. The essential relation between Christ and the sacramental actions of the Church should be realized in its full import.” (159).

In closing, the book The Mystery of Sin and Forgiveness fully explained and the definition of sin and forgiveness while also providing a deeper understanding behind the Theology, psychology and sociology of sin and forgiveness from both the Catholic perspectives and the secular perspectives. After reading this novel I found a deeper perception of the topic at hand. Each part of the book I comprehended and found to be useful in coming to understand this complex topic and assisted in answering questions I did not even know I wanted to inquire further into the subject and did not want to explore further until now.


Works Cited

Taylor, Michael J. The Mystery of Sin and Forgiveness. Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 1971. Print.

The Not So Grand Return

faithless-is-he-that-says-farewell-when-the-road-darkens

I have a conflicted relationship with my Catholic upbringing that you can read more about here, here and here. I am equal parts a puzzle: proud and knowledgeable of my faith and its teachings but deeply troubled and tormented by its bigger questions and at times lax morality. We’ve talked about religion a lot, and I promise that this is all with good intention and we’ll touch on that again at the end, so stick around.

I recently found myself returning to the Church after a small break from the tradition of Sunday mass and holiday solemnity. And it’s important to remember that Sunday mass was just part of my life for a very long time, but for varying reasons. When I was little, mass was something we as a family did. My grandfather was very pious and so mass on Sunday and mass on the TV and rosaries on special occasions; but at that time I think I enjoyed mass for the donuts and nachos afterwards in the church cafeteria and less for ecumenical reasons. In addition to mass, Sunday meant eating with my family afterwards: mass also meant pie at Tippins and pancakes: all of the pancakes.

I didn’t start associating mass with my own belief until probably junior high and didn’t start enjoying mass until high school: I even briefly taught Sunday school (even though I did use the Egyptian God Cards from YuGiOh to explain the Holy Trinity). I understood the tenets of my faith and understood what it meant. It didn’t bother me that my friends made fun of me occasionally and didn’t understand my somewhat devotion ( I had accepted from an early age that being Catholic meant people assuming that mass was a weird combination of vaguely pagan imagery and the fire, misery and velvet of the Disney version of Hunchback of Notre Dame.). What did matter was AFTER all of that.

In college, the rigors of facing a side to the Catholic church that was not one I had faced before took a toll. I had immense difficulty coping with judgmental priests who still had antiquated notions of rights, piety and what it means to be a person, a woman and a Catholic. Their view of the Church brought up a part of me that I had not yet experienced with being religious: cynicism. And that cynicism had to face the inequalities of a church that fundamentally saw me as as second-class citizen and one that languished in the moral superiority of calling everyone else a sinner frustrated me. I did not return to mass again until the time came to bury my mother. I was already a young woman far from home and far from the church that I was baptized in, held most of my sacraments in and was the church of my family. My newfound cynicism made it very easy to simply forgo looking for a new spiritual home despite going to a university that had three; yes, 3, chapels on campus.


But this isn’t about my issues with the Church: we’ve discussed that. This is the story of the return.

As mentioned before, due to a series of events, I found myself returning to mass. A dear friend of mine is in the process of converting so it felt almost hypocritical to be his spiritual docent through this process and myself having not been to mass in well…longer than a Southern lady would care to admit. The first time I went, I felt nearly overwhelmed. I was emotional and I couldn’t figure out if it was the famous power of Catholic guilt or if I just had particularly bad allergies that day. The church I found here in my new home has been particularly welcoming. They encourage parishioners to greet each other before mass. The priest takes out extra time to shake hands with his flock (though this did remind me again of the very Druid-like nature of Catholic priests). I felt mostly fine but there was one gesture that sent me over the top. A Eucharistic minister greeting me took firm hold of my hand was I walked by and said very simply, in a moment that if this was an anime would feature doves and bright rays of heavenly light:

Welcome, sister. We’re happy to have you.

Sister.


I’m an only child and while I’ve heard this term used over and over again in the remnants of vague casual racism and used in reading The Bible before but to be called “sister” was for me in this moment immensely powerful. The reason, I came to find, that I had struggled with mass was because I was far away from my family. Mass was always something we did together from the times spent with my grandfather to burying those we lost. Mass was always something to be shared with others: either with my family or friends. The words to prayers that flowed out of my like water from years of muscle memory were not echoed for once by my aunts, grandma, grandpa or mother: it was just my voice and my voice alone. The songs I sang in harmony because I came from a family that sang were only in harmony to the church’s choir.  So to go to mass alone, even as a young woman, was more than strange and painfully isolating for a good Southern Catholic girl like me. In being called sister, I was part of something greater. I was part of a family. I was a part of this family.

Now, this post won’t go into faith or anything: I do still somewhat struggle with the grander ideas of what it means to be Catholic. And those concerns you may have: let’s address those because I’m sure I can hear those close to me asking:

Oh well, now she’s all religious. Does that mean she’ll change?

To which I have this to say: no, of course not. Don’t be silly. I’m not going to stop being me; if you’ve read my other post on religion, you’ll know this about me and faith: my faith is a part of me but is not me. Being Catholic never to me meant that I have to give up cake, anime, cosplay and science. Being a Catholic doesn’t mean I’ll stop going to conventions, stop reading or stop loving Tarantino movies. It also doesn’t mean that my social and political views will change. It just means that I happen to go to mass and if any of you are aware of my love of brunch and sleeping in, mass is an option: not a mandate. 

Thank you all for reading; this is my last post of 2016! Coming up next is my Year in Review (which I don’t normally count as a usual post). This year has been interesting and there’s plenty more to come in 2017! I hope to see you all and to welcome many more new faces there.

Yours Truly, 

Amanda

 

Meditations from the San Antonio Missions

With the recent news about Islam and terror attacks there has been a lot of negative sentiment surrounding the actions of extremists that are in no way a representation of their faith as a whole. People say the Quran teaches violence and terror. That it teaches misogyny and death. These things are just not true.

Recently I took a trip to the missions here in San Antonio and I had to face something that is uncomfortable for many Catholics. Our history of violence, terror and misogyny. The Missions were witness to the mistreatment of native inhabitants, the systematic removal of indigenous practice and people. They witnessed terror and horror all in the name of a loving and accepting God.

As I sat in the church of Mission San Jose all I could think about were how many people sat here against their will. How many were ripped from their families and friends? How many were beaten, tortured and mistreated in the name of God?

It was really incredibly jarring and most don’t think of it when we go to Mass.

My friend and I toured the missions and while we were at Mission San Jose we met an incredibly kind Franciscan monk selling fused glass. He was kind and bubbly, he offered blessings with his dip into capitalism as he sold the crosses and fixtures he made himself with his own blessed hands. He commented on how nice it was that he got to continue to lead mass in this historic church just like the first monks that arrived here in this state and colonized this place in the name of St. Anthony.

But his order, the church’s will, his ancestors and brothers in the same cloth…they’re all a part of the same mixed legacy of misinformation and cultural destruction. At the time, I could barely comment. It was my friend, who was a historian and was visiting these historic structures with me, that reminded me that this excessive guilt is its own form of toxic thinking. It’s infantilization and it was removing the agency of those who did willingly convert. There are also several concessions the Catholic Church has made in blending the practices and traditions of many other peoples and belief systems. Many of our most treasured rituals are pagan or as assimilated from other cultures like Our Lady of Guadalupe or Dia de los Muertos. Many of our most beloved Catholic rituals stem from pagan practice.

 I’ll never forget sitting in that church. Feeling conflicted. Feeling awestruck. Feeling so close and yet so far from my Catholic heritage. I’ll certainly visit the missions again. They’re down the street. And if you’re ever in San Antonio or just haven’t been in a while, there’s no time like the present to check out the missions. They’re a vital part in our state’s history and our nation’s history.