On the forest floor, half covered in withered leaves, lay the naked body of a child, a young girl. Her short dark hair reached just to her shoulders; her face was obscured with leaves. In her childish breast there was a small, curiously shaped triangular wound, livid against the white, translucent skin. It was a deep, almost bloodless wound—the kind that bleeds on the inside. Olav Audunsson stood looking down at her in grief and heartbreak and horror. There was about her something familiar, though he could swear he had never seen her before. And the wound in her breast had been made by his own dagger.
He awoke from his dream greatly troubled. The vision seemed to accuse him of the murder of a child, yet never had he knowingly done violence against such a one. Men he had killed in battle, or for vengeance, but never had he harmed woman or child!
Olav Audunsson, the protagonist of Sigrid Undset’s novel The Master of Hestviken, a four volume saga of sin and redemption set in medieval Norway, was a fine-seeming man, hard and resolute in pursuing his affairs, but gentle also, and honorable. He was considered almost a saint by some folk for his fair dealing, his even temper, his infinite patience with his ailing wife, and his regular attendance at Mass and Communion. But in his heart Olav knew there was a sin he had never confessed. It was long, long ago that he had done it, Olav told himself; revealing it and doing the public penance required would cause shame and sorrow to people he loved, whereas keeping it concealed could surely do no real harm. Surely God would not hold this sin against him for so many years.
Yet as he lay awake, troubled by the dream, it came into Olav’s mind that the murdered child was his own soul. He saw it as a girl, because the soul is customarily referred to in the feminine; a child because he had killed it without allowing it to reach its maturity. Olav’s sin, an offense against God, was also an act of violence against his own soul, against his very nature as a human being and as a child of God. It had eaten away his integrity, forcing him to live his life according to a lie, and it had robbed him of joy.
The First Communion Catechism tells us what mortal sin is: it is an offense against Almighty God that kills the life of grace in the soul. Very often we consider sin (if we consider sin at all; many people don’t if they can help it) only in its character as an offense against God, which is deserving of punishment and perhaps even hell-fire. Certainly it is that, but perhaps we give this aspect of sin more attention than it deserves. After all, we might leave the defense of His honor to God; He is the Creator and the Ruler of the universe from eternity to eternity, and it is not likely that the puny rebellion of a tiny creature, who draws breath only at His pleasure, will be allowed to impugn His goodness and His justice. The other aspect of sin is that it destroys the human soul. It attacks man at the very core of his being, and eats it away like a kind of rot.
Man’s rebellion against God by sin is like an adolescent’s rebellion against his parents by turning to drink or drugs. Certainly it is an offense to the parents, but it is the destruction of their child, his enslavement to a substance, his refusal of the joy and freedom that only come with responsibility, that causes them their great grief. And they only grieve because they love him; their grief and pain might almost be said to be the measure of their love. Surely it is obvious that in his desire to assert his freedom and to “show them,” such a person destroys himself, and harms his parents insofar as he harms himself, the object of their love.
Likewise, in asserting his freedom to do whatever he likes to his body and soul, man destroys himself, even as he expresses his rebellion against God. Being free to sin is like being free to enslave oneself: anyone who does so renders himself unfree. He strikes a blow at his own dignity and worth as a human being—at the very basis of freedom.
“You can’t blame me for hating my mother-in-law—if you knew what she’s done to my family….” “How could anybody condemn us for expressing the fullness of our love for each other, just because we haven’t had a little ceremony and exchanged rings?” “The Joneses are simply unbearable—if we do talk about them behind their backs, it’s all true, anyway!” “It doesn’t hurt anybody if I look at pornography.” Excuses for sin are always some kind of rationale to explain why the sinner ought not to be punished. The focus is still on the character of sin as an offense, even as the offense is “justified” and the defendant pleads to get off scot-free. But God is not really “hurt” by sin; He is almighty, supremely happy, perfect, and unchanging. No, the grief of Jesus Christ during the Agony in the Garden was in seeing how man, whom He loves so much, insists on enslaving himself, maiming himself, murdering his own soul in a frenzy of insane self-hatred (for that is what it is, even if man does not realize it), in spite of God’s always-available mercy, and His never-ending love.
The truth is that sin is its own punishment. Every sin is a refusal to love, a refusal to fulfill one’s being—for each individual human being has been created out of nothing simply and solely to love and be loved. In committing a deliberate sin, no matter whether it is as “small” as gossiping about the Joneses, or as serious as committing fornication, the sinner damages his own soul. He becomes meaner, less capable of love or nobility or largeness of spirit; his focus diminishes more and more tightly to his own small affairs. This is true no matter what the “justification” for the sin—indeed the “justification” adds to the wound of sin the poison of falsehood, setting up an infection and causing a serious illness of the soul.
In The Diary of a Country Priest, Georges Bernanos expresses this theme in the encounter between the young Curé and the Countess at the nearby chateau. The Countess has been grieving the death of her young son for eleven years. Beneath a gentle, pious exterior she is seething with hatred for God, who allowed her son to die, for her husband, who is carrying on an affair with the governess, and for her daughter, who has always idolized her father and been indifferent to her mother. She would like to be reunited with her child—but not in heaven, since God is there. If only there were some universe without God, where she might go with her son, turning her back on all of them! When the priest begins to speak, she flies into a cold rage at the very idea that he might suggest she could go to hell and be separated from her son in death as she has been life.
“Hell is not to love anymore, madame,” says the priest quietly. “Not to love anymore!… Truly, if one of us, if a living man, the vilest, the most contemptible of the living, were cast into those burning depths, I should still be ready to share his suffering…. To share his suffering! The sorrow, the unutterable loss of those charred stones which once were men, is that they have nothing more to be shared.” The Countess’ sin of hatred and despair makes her incapable even of truly loving her son. It is not possible, the priest tells her, to cling to love of her child when her heart is eaten up with hatred. It is self-deception to think that we can retain anything of goodness or love without God: “As long as we remain in this life we can still deceive ourselves, think that we love by our own will, that we love independently of God. But we’re like madmen stretching our hands to clasp the moon reflected in water.”
The lie that most people in the modern world accept is “Love me, love what I do; love me, love my sin.” Over and over again one hears the protest against anyone who dares to speak out against sin: “How hateful! How bigoted! How can you say you are a Catholic when you condemn people for—” Well, for fill-in-the-blank: revenging myself on that person who injured me, living a homosexual lifestyle, living together outside of marriage…. The world is incapable of understanding the saying “love the sinner, hate the sin” because it does not see (and does not wish to see) the real harm that sin does to souls. Just as the more a mother loves her child the more she will hate the addiction that is destroying him, so the more one truly loves the sinner the more one necessarily hates the sin. Indeed, the more truly one loves oneself, the more clearly one sees and hates one’s own sins.
The post-modern pagans and the liberals are so fond of reminding us that Christians are, on their own admission, called to love, and they are right. God is love. There is no love without God, and the heart that rejects God will find itself ultimately incapable of love—incapable of loving others, incapable of loving itself: a charred stone, with nothing left to share. True love is not permissive; does not enable or excuse vice; does not pretend.
Jesus Christ died on the cross in agony out of love for sinners because love is “stern as death … relentless as the netherworld … its flames are a blazing fire”—as we are told in the Song of Songs.
Editor’s note: The painting above is a detail from “The Return of the Prodigal Son” completed by Rembrandt in 1669.