Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On the true "Sense of Sin"

Becoming more mature emotionally and spiritually is a process of integration.

I'll use Freudian terms for a moment (though don't take that as an endorsement of Freudianism, it's just a convenient framework for speaking in this case)...much attention is given among "good Catholics" to the problem of over-active "ids" in the world today. People who act on primal urges without appropriate self-regulation or foresight, who are ruled by their passions, who seek instant gratification.

However, I think just as much attention should be paid to people with over-developed "superegos". The problem is somewhat addressed in the concept of having "scruples" that confessors are to watch out for. But I think there are plenty of repressed, guilty, fear-motivated Catholics who are not obsessive-compulsive in the same way that the "scrupulous" are said to be distinguished, but are simply intra-personally authoritarian ("self-control" is often their key word) and morally perfectionist in an unrealistic way.

I myself was once this way as an adolescent. So in some ways I can empathize with it more than with an over-active Id (though, it should be mentioned, such uptight attitudes are often actually a defensive mechanism against particularly strong primal urges too, or particular sensitivity to such urges). But, I grew out of it, as I'd hope anyone would. It is definitely a "lower" stage of integration.

If you're healthy, you come to realize that in order to change...you have to be flexible. This would seem obvious. And yet, so many religious orders and seminaries seem to counter-intuitively encourage rigidity at least implicitly in the means they think will encourage holiness. But rigidity is the exact opposite of what you need to change and grow! Of course rigidity isn't going to lead to change, it is going to lead to petrification and stagnation! Though trying to institutionally discipline/re-socialize others can indeed "work" in terms of "successful" behavior modification, it is usually only with extremely negative side-effects. Perhaps it comes from a "storming heaven" mentality (or perhaps just Jansenism), but in the end you learn that you certainly cannot "discipline" yourself into personal growth, spiritually or otherwise; a fire cannot get hotter on its own energy, because its heat is all its energy, it needs external fuel.

Usually, you'll just exhaust yourself trying and have a huge ironic relapse. That's not to say you can't take deliberate steps to improve your character, but they have to be steps that tend towards personal openness. That's the only way growth is going to happen, because you cannot learn without taking in new information. A "Cartesian" approach to spirituality isn't going to work, because deductive reasoning from already known facts will only take you so far; but to grow you actually need new experiential knowledge. It is an experimental science in that sense. You cannot develop your own internal resources without opening yourself to receiving things from outside, from interactions with others, from that external fuel. You need to take risks and make yourself vulnerable. Grace is absolutely external and absolutely gratuitous, and you have to open yourself to it, which is the opposite of rigidity. The tighter you try to grip virtue, the more it will slip through your fingers.

One will often hear traditional Catholics lamenting the loss of a "sense of sin" among Catholics. This is another one of those loaded phrases (like "vocation discernment") that makes me cringe, not because there can't be a proper understanding, but because usually what they mean is a sense of guilt or shame. But guilt is a self-righteous sort of emotion, for it implies a cognitive dissonance between a Perfect self-concept and the reality of ones actions ("How could I do something like that?!"). But a perfect self-concept like that is self-righteous (and delusional); "how could I do something like that?" Easy: because I'm a sinner, duh.

I found a quote on a poster today, by Dorothy L. Sayers, that I think instead sums up what I now believe is the true sense of sin: "None of us feels the true love of God till we realize how wicked we are. But you can't teach people that -- they have to learn by experience."

I think this is a beautiful quote. The "sense of sin," always must needs be actually an incredible sense of dependence on God's love and mercy, not guilt and fear. The quote is wonderful not even so much for the first sentence, though it's true, but for the second: you can't teach people that. They have to realize it for themselves. It's why I tend to look with suspicion on fire and brimstone proposals to restore a "sense of sin" to young Catholics through simply some sort of grim conditioning. The true "sense of sin" is not guilt and shame and fear...but the love of God and experience of His mercy.

Catholics who want to see sermons address Sin more...seem to often be judgmental types who want to hear hot-button sins like abortion and promiscuity condemned so that they can feel all smug and self-righteous because they aren't involved in that. Try to talk about not being charitable or humble...and they get more uncomfortable or dismiss those topics as too soft. They really just want controversy, and for some sort of "us vs them" divide to be opened up against "the sinners," or else get a certain cathartic satisfaction out of their self-righteous horror over their own sins.

But we're all sinners. Everyone I love so dearly here on earth is a sinner. Christ died for sinners, and every friend or family member I would die for is a sinner too. We know we have faults, terrible moral faults sometimes, but our love for each other outweighs all that. Then so much more must God's. The irony about those with overdeveloped superegos, is that they are often just as quick to judge others as they are themselves. One thing I've learned as I've grown more mature is that when one truly recognizes that one is a sinner in the sense that I think Dorothy L. Sayers was talking about, one stops trying to work ones own will-power, and comes to depend utterly on God's grace. And when one is depending on God's mercy like that, one finds it harder and harder to judge others, and the whole world actually seems a much less dark and spidery place, because we're all sinners and God loves us all.

Of course, that's the Gospel message, yet so many Christians overlook it. It's not about giving up on the possibility of growth in holiness, but rather you come to understand what addicts, like alcoholics, say about surrender and realizing that you yourself are powerless. It means that you can't repress some things with just will power and denial or compartmentalization and de-personalization. Just having the "superego" repress the urges of the "id"...is just repression. Things need to be integrated. Nor does it work to just try to label things as accidental to the self, external temptations, etc. You have to accept and embrace that they are part of you and who you are, not extrinsic.

I can actually understand Martin Luther's "sin and sin boldly, but have faith more boldly still" better now, though I think he phrased it provocatively and invited misunderstanding; I think Paul said it better with simply, "where sin abounded, grace did more abound". Not that you act defeated or presumptuous or give up on "who I could be tomorrow"...but that any hope of getting there requires coming face to face with "who I am today".

To actually let the Self change and grow (and thus, in some sense, die and be reborn) requires not simply pretending like the ideal self is already there "just buried under all this other crap" that is externalized (perhaps even personified as a demon in some imaginations) with some external locus of control. Rather it involves accepting that the self itself is imperfect, embracing this even, and ironically that is when you can actually move towards perfection. Whatever the external temptations or demonic suggestions or uncontrollable circumstances that may have been the occasion for you sinning, you have to "own it" in yourself rather than trying to "fight off" those external influences.

The problem with the "self-discipline" or "doing battle with oneself" discourse is actually that it usually ends up as a weird sort of dissociative dialogue. "How could I do something like that?! Bad me!" is actually phrased as a second-person address to oneself, it grammatically takes the second-person form "How could you do something like that?! Bad you!" So there is this bizarre dissociation and disconnect between the "scolding" speaker (the internalized voice of authority) and the "scolded" subject. The "superego" is identified in that moment as the "real" self, totally blameless, which is punishing this other "bad" agent inside ones mind (the "ego") for not obeying it as master, but rather doing these things that some third competing party (ie, the "id," a demon, The World, The Flesh, etc) told it to. When really they're all the same person!!! This isn't real ownership or contrition or integration, because the voice of "conscience" that is doing the "repenting" or abnegation totally dis-identifies with the bad action and attributes it to some second-person agent and external temptation. So there is no responsibility taken, it's just exactly the same passing of blame that happened with Adam, Eve, and the snake!

The result is a cycle of guilt, repression, confession, swearing it all off, and then falling again...that I think many people get trapped in, but it only reinforces the behavior. It's the common cycle of an addict. Don't take me wrong, I'm not denigrating confession, I just understand now that it's actually more about acknowledging my sinfulness (ie, a condition of my self's very nature) instead of just my "sins" (ie, discreet actions abstractable from the self) and the need for God's mercy, and the inability to simply will-away and repress various temptations.

And the ironic thing is...as soon as you realize that, it became much easier to resist and take real value from confession, etc. It might take a crisis, a break-down, an ultimate failure of "self-control", to realize that no efforts of your own are going to work. And that's the beginning of surrender. I'd tell people now, just stop worrying about things!!! Stop angsting over things and "feeling" guilty. That's not going to do anything, not going to change you, and actually implies a lack of personal agency. Yes, you have to do better, always. But no matter how much we fail, God loves us infinitely more.

The world would be a horrible place if everyone was utterly depraved and selfish; sin is truly horrible. But, love is stronger still. The great thing about love is, even a little bit, flawed and fragmented as it may be, can cover for a multitude of faults. Families, friendships, the whole great network of personal relationships still works even though everyone involved is a sinner, even though everyone is not at the ideal 100% selflessness. The universe God has designed has a "high tolerance" in that sense. Because grace fills in the gaps.

People still love each other even though they're sinners, though it is more perfect when they are less so. But it is only that initial imperfect love, and that experience of God's mercy, rather than guilt or fear or some internalized authoritarian voice, which should lead us to strive to become more perfect, more on fire with love, with Charity, and with the other virtues (which in themselves serve only to make us better conduits of love). A tiny redeeming scrap of moral fiber or selflessness or nobility can be worth more than all the sin of a lifetime. That's why deathbed confessions or eleventh-hour self-sacrifices ("It is a far, far better thing that I do.
.."
), if not merely viewed as a legalistic technicality, are still valid and good and why we find such stories so inspiring. So much more then, however, should we desire to experience not just a tiny scrap of that, but to be filled up our whole lives!

So, don't be so hard on yourselves! It seems a lot of people think of God as some angry old man in the sky who knows when you've been naughty and when you've been nice and will give you coal for Christmas if you're on the wrong list. The unconditional love that parents display for even terrible children...should be a reminder for us of the prodigal son story and a demonstration of the unimaginable love and mercy of God for His children. I realize how my own parents love me unconditionally and easily forgave things that I felt dreadfully guilty about as a child, and so I have to believe God's love is not petty either.

9 comments:

Mark of the Vineyard said...

If you've read Thérèse's autobiography I'm sure you'll agree with me that one gets that same healthy sense about sin indirectly. There's a part where she refers to her own failings and sins in a seemingly nonchalant way. To paraphrase, it is was something like "I fall and fall again, but I don't get too stressed about it because Christ knows I'm his little princess and I can do nothing but fall without His help".

In a way, I think the whole guilt thing is natural part of the process. It' a beginner's way of understanding, somewhat analogous to how with you children you can't reason the same way with an adult. It believe it is a necessary part of growth, but which one must grow past.
And like you said, it can only be experienced. I remember when having to go to confession was more a question of "how could I have done this or that thing", when the pangs of conscience were more about having failed at keeping a certain set of rules or a certain kind of moral conduct; slowly though it became more a realization of not loving enough.

A Sinner said...

I'd like to find the exact quote from St. Thérèse because sometimes one gets the opposite picture of her from popular caricatures (ie, as being 100% "superego" AND actually living up to it), and I'd like to be able to refute that.

As for guilt being a "beginner's stage" I suppose that's true. Certainly I feel like it was an experience I had to have if only to learn to get past it. At the same time, it's no good if the prevailing attitudes in the Church leave people stuck there forever or, worse, romanticize that "Catholic guilt" dynamic.

jacobus said...

What we need is not a "sense of sin" but a sense of Holiness.

A Sinner said...

Exactly, Jacobus!

Jonathan said...

I agree with your premise, the problem is actually getting the word out there that Catholics indeed do sin, gasp*. We Catholics have a hard time confessing to one another our faults for fear of the "scandal" it would bring to others of our sin. It is easier to say "Oh I don't want to hear that. Go and confess that to a Priest." than it is to edify one another via mutual confession. Typically these things do occur (which is good0, but namely they are in closed environments ie. AA, Courage, etc.(ie preaching to the choir). We however forget that at The Final Judgement ALL of OUR sins will be made manifest before ALL mankind. This is quite a unsettling thought for many (myself included). I have often heard Trads bad mouth Christian groups that "testify". True, some people indeed use it as a platform to center all attention on themselves, but there is an admirable trait about it (dodges glares*). I mean if a Catholic who attends Liturgy/Mass feels so compelled by a hint of grace and valor to confess before the entire congregation, who am I to judge them (St.Mary Magdalene anyone ?). They are way more courageous than myself to be able to bring themselves to do something like that (if only we all had the courage to do something like that). So what if we have to spend a few more minutes in Church, we can at least be witness and testify to GOD's grace in seeking out a sinner (Compare that with the image of GOD seeking out Adam and Eve in The Garden of Eden.). Perhaps their courage will act as a catalyst for those of us who are still afraid to approach GOD. I do believe there is a precedent in The Church for public Confession, though it has been abandoned, but still it can be a beautiful thing.

I agree with Jacobus' point, but would like to add that I believe we need a HEALTHY sense of holiness (which is ultimately what you wrote in your blog entry). But it does make me wonder are the more rosey and dour depictions of The Lives of The Saints partially to blame ? I'm not saying that they do not aid in edifying the believer, but rather when taken to either extreme to justify either trend can they hurt a person more than they help them. Basically what I'm saying is if The Lives of The Saints were presented in a balanced manner (balance people balance), perhaps healthier spiritual lives would develop amongst The Faithful (even the term The Faithful used improperly can add to the us vs. them) Perhaps a more precise term such as, All those marked with The Sign of Christ as a result of their Baptism (or All those who partake/participate of/in The Mystical Body of Christ as a result of Christ's death and resurrection, through The Mystery of Baptism) could come to be used. I like the latter better, but I don't see it coming into popular usage, sigh*. Anyway it further impresses to all baptized, sinner and non-sinner alike that Christ is for all and not just the "blameless".

A Sinner said...

I agree that this is in large part a failure of "popular" piety and spiritual advice, Jonathan.

If you start getting into deep mystical theology...you start seeing insights like this.

But the common everyday advice Catholics are going to get in the confessional, or from spiritual directors, or from each other, or from little pamphlets and slogans, or from sermons...is of the "Catholic guilt" type. Of the "spiritual warfare" type, even though I think if you try to "fight yourself"...you just end up rolling around on the floor like a madman...

Portrayals of the Saints that make them very much into idealized "superego" surrogates...as if their holiness consisted in the absolute dominance of the internalized voice of morality over their behavior...instead of integration of morality INTO the ego...is a picture that has traumatized many Catholics, I think (just look at James Joyce: http://www.online-literature.com/james_joyce/portrait_artist_young_man/3/)

It actually paints the Saint in the worst kind of light, for anyone whose own will dominated so perfectly...would be absolutely alienated from grace, regardless of if what their domination succeeded at was in following all the rules ("the letter killeth..."). Because part of the Christian experience is being laid low, being shown how weak we are, how we cannot will ourselves to holiness.

Catholics are told that "theoretically" of course, but for most that is merely an abstract theological factoid that they pay lip service to ("Oh, anything I accomplish is only by God's grace"), but is not practically internalized in their spiritual life.

And you can't really teach it. I knew it "theoretically" for a long time before I finally realized, through experience, what it really meant. And at that moment "grace" stops being this sort of abstract mathematical scholastic construct, a vague theoretical agency of God that we tag onto our own actions, and becomes a real concrete experienced event of God's action IN our lives.

You can't teach people that. But, at the same time, I dont think we are doing all we can to foment or foster or encourage the sorts of attitudes and experiences that will lead to that realization. In fact, I think there are many dynamics in the "popular wisdom" about sin and grace...that downright mitigate against the possibility of such an experience for many people.

Mark of the Vineyard said...

@Sinner: How do you even "foster" attitudes and experiences that lead to that kind of realization? My understanding of it came after many, MANY succesive beatings of my head against the wall. It wasn't something that I thought out; it was simply something that came after much stumbling over the same stones, with some insights from spiritual writers. As I've come to understand it, it is a work-in-progress.

As to Thérèse's quote, I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to recommend you read her autobiography. I don't recall if it is a specific phrase or the sense that you get from the text. I read it about 2 months ago, and while it is an extremely rich book, I have no desire to tread through that saccharine saturated narrative so soon. I am not aware of her popular caricature. I stumbled upon her quite haphazardly and she afterwards started to grow on me. But rest assured, she is not the "I am in control" type. She took pains to state that she was always slipping up, even in the little things (falling asleep during rosary or prayer, for example).

A Sinner said...

Indeed, you may not be able to foster it in a positive sense. But, negatively, you can at least create an atmosphere that doesn't totally stifle and oppose the realization (as I fear we do currently). I mean, some trads and neocons would probably say everything I was saying amounts to heresy and pro-sin advocacy. That's not the kind of atmosphere conducive to people making that realization.

Michael L said...

See, this would be helpful if I knew about your blog much earlier than now. However, like yourself, I had to learn the hard way.

The best part about learning the hard way, though, is that you are mentally attuned to all of the cultural "triggers" which could set off a destructive, depressive "guilt-cycle" and know how to ignore them or quickly convert them into subversive suffering (i.e. that love of the Cross) that keep your mind pure and only then truly able to help the people around you.

Thank you, Sinner, for all of the sinners which you have helped around the world.