As I suppose everybody does when they reflect about their life, I sometimes sit back and think about the astonishing chain of little choices that have contributed to the fact that I exist.
One evening about 30 years ago, for instance, I was stopped at a red light and the radio in the car was not quite tuned to the station. So I started fiddling with it to get a better signal. As a result, I did not see the light change, and the car behind me started honking to tell me to get it in gear. I sheepishly looked up, saw the green light, realized I was slowing everybody down, and put the car in gear. Suddenly, a car came rocketing through the intersection from my right, clipped the front of my vehicle, careened into the oncoming lane, flew over the sidewalk, burst all four of its tires as it bounced over some cement parking bumpers in a Safeway parking lot, and came to rest.
Had I not been fiddling with the radio knob and simply proceeded through the green light when it changed, my little tinfoil Volkswagen would have been T-boned by that reckless teenager (who I suspect was moving at 45-50 MPH) and I would, in all likelihood, be dead. It’s hard not to wonder about what our angels are up to after something like that.
In the same way, I owe not just my mortal life but my eternal salvation to the fact that a woman of whom the world will never hear once did a tiny act of kindness to me.
Back in my days as a college pagan hedonist, I returned to my University of Washington dorm from Thanksgiving dinner with my parents with a ruinous case of Weaponized Martian Death Stomach Flu that had no doubt been introduced by Communist agents of evil into our homemade sauerkraut. Stomach flu is horrific enough. But stomach flu with sauerkraut . . . There are no words.
I stumbled into my room and pitched forward onto my bed, there to lie motionless in a gathering pool of drool while the hours ticked by. At length, the phone rang, and it turned out to be somebody calling from Second Floor Lander Hall, the dorm building next to mine. I was a bit wary of the folks on this floor because it was The Christian Floor, full of Born Again types and Jesus Praisers, while I was, well, not one of these types.
I mumbled something about Martian flu and my fervent wish for the sweet release that only death can bring and then politely bowed out of whatever social event I was being invited to by my friend who lived on that floor. Then I hung up and lay my head back in the drool pool.
About ten minutes later, there was a knock at my door. Shirtless and with the imprint of the creases in my pillow pressed firmly into my face, I heaved my bulk to the door, only to be surprised by the presence of Sandy MacKinnon, one of the Second Floor Lander Christians and a woman I did not know from Eve, standing there with a kind smile on her face.
“I heard you were sick! I brought you this,” she said cheerily, and brandished a bottle of Pepto-Bismol that she had run out and bought for me.
I was moved by that act of kindness from a total stranger. I still am, to this very day. No, I was not converted to her faith in Christ on the spot. But it was one of the moments in which the millions of rounds of God’s mercy pierced the defensive armor, and I started to think about Christians as something besides people whose eyes were set just a little too close together. Pepto-Bismol remains for me a sacramental of the love of God.
There would be many other moments of grace that would move me toward God, as there are for all of us. But that one sticks out in my memory as a turning point that would eventually lead me to faith in Christ
That is why I say that grace is “dark matter.” That is, just as physicists tell us that most of the matter in the universe is unseen “dark matter” and not the bright shiny stuff that gets seen and noticed by telescopes, so I am convinced that the overwhelming bulk of God’s grace at work in the world is likewise unseen and unnoticed by our public organs of media. Millions and millions of little choices to cooperate with that grace happen every day, and almost all of it happens under the radar. You pray for somebody who is frightened about their job or struggling with depression, and they feel better and discover a new hope for work they hadn’t counted on. You take a kid to the movies some Saturday afternoon, and his whole life is forever changed. You loan somebody a book, and they wind up becoming a saint.
Most of the work of grace in the world seems to proceed in this way. And that seems to be because the principal way that grace seems to stick to the soul is via personal encounter, not via mere special effects. Atheists periodically issue demands that God do something big, splashy and obvious in front of a lot of eyewitnesses, and God occasionally obliges them by, say, feeding a crowd of 5,000 or causing the sun to dance in the sky before the astonished eyes of some 70,000 people (including not a few dazzled secularists who turn out to scoff). But the odd thing is that this generally doesn’t stick over the long haul. The 70,000 get old and die off, and then the spectacular miracle is immediately consigned by the determined skeptic to the realm of legend or mass hallucination by people who are eager for any lame excuse to ignore the bleedin’ obvious. It doesn’t, somehow, touch their heart. This is, no doubt, why Jesus generally refused to entertain the Pharisees with dazzling divine special effects (cf. Mt 16:1-4).
Instead, the pattern of revelation from Abraham down to the present is that, while God will occasionally perform some large-scale wonder, even these are done in order to direct our attention back to the main event: to prayer, sacrifice, the sacraments, charity, and the ordinary day-to-day life of being living sacraments and witnesses to our neighbors. In short, the grace of God is typically communicated through human beings in a human way, not through divine skywriting tricks.
So, for instance, the whole of the drama of the Exodus happens not to lead to more dramatic miracles, but in order to teach Israel the ordinary truth that they should love God and love their neighbor. Likewise, the Annunciation and the Incarnation take place, and nobody notices but Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth, and a few shepherds. When the big astral phenomenon of the Star of the Magi occurs, the only response of the powers of this world is to try to figure out a way to kill him whom the Star betokens (just as the only response of the New Atheist to some dazzling sign like that of Fatima is to try to figure out a way to ignore it with some lame naturalistic explanation). As with the Pharisees demanding signs from Jesus, the problem is not in God’s ability to establish his bona fides but with the determined sinner’s will to refuse all signs great and small. For those closed to grace, pillars of fire and parted seas ultimately have no effect. For those open to grace, it is not necessary, as a general rule, that God appear in the storm or the fire. A still, small voice will do (1 Kgs 19:11-13).
The smallness of God’s grace is mirrored, of course, in the smallness by which evil enters the world. This is an insight so potent that not just Jewish and Christian cultures have enshrined it in their Scriptures, but the great pagan cultures of antiquity enshrined it in their myths as well.
In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.
That is the (typically forgotten) point in Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman’s frequently mocked remark that
the Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.
Blessed Cardinal Newman’s point is that, by any reasonable reading of the Tradition, the fascinating thing about the portrayal of the fall of man in Scripture is that it turns on precisely what we would call a venial sin today. Adam and Eve are not, after all, Bonnie and Clyde or Adolf and Eva. They do not launch off on a career of rape and pillage and murder. All that happens is this: A young girl snitches an apple and gives it to her husband, who took a bite, too. We’re talking hand-in-the-cookie-jar stuff here. That’s it. That’s all. If “Concerned Parent” wrote the Catholic Advice Column and wrung her hands that her son Adam reached over the fence and nabbed an apple from the neighbor’s tree on his way to school, and she was concerned that he is on his way to Hell, we’d all nod when the columnist told her to get a grip. And yet from precisely this tiny sin spring all the evils in the world and the whole tragedy of our fallen race.
This is why Augustine, to the great consternation of our moralistic therapeutic deistic mindset, spends so very much time focusing on the similar and seemingly trivial incident of his theft of a few pears when he was a teenager. Most moderns reading the story get the definite sensation that Augustine needs to cut down on the caffeine and want to shout at him that boys will be boys. Yet Augustine does not feel this way — because he takes Genesis’ tale of forbidden fruit seriously. For what Augustine is interested in is the same thing that interests the author of Genesis 1-3, St. Paul, and Cardinal Newman: that people seldom enter onto the path of mortal sin by some dramatic act. Instead, for the vast majority of us, mortal sin requires the gateway drug of venial sin to help smooth the path (in Augustine’s case, nicking a few pears). And so, as Uncle Screwtape points out:
The Christians describe the Enemy as one “without whom Nothing is strong.” And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.
You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.
The smallness of venial sin leaves us, of course, in a tricky place. On the one hand, scrupulosity is a serious spiritual illness and can cripple people, especially those prone to various forms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. On the other hand, simply ignoring venial sin (as our culture encourages us to do, lest we commit the cardinal sin of endangering our all-important sense of self-esteem) won’t do any more than ignoring a young cancer.
Indeed, the greatest of us can, precisely by the most trivial-seeming act, do tremendous spiritual damage at times, just as Sandy’s seemingly trivial act of kindness had such enormous impact for good on my life. That is the lesson shown us in what J. R. R. Tolkien regarded as the most tragic scene in The Lord of the Rings, when Gollum nearly repents — and is damned forever by a cross word from Sam:
And so Gollum found them hours later, when he returned, crawling and creeping down the path of gloom ahead. Sam sat propped against the stone, his head dropping sideways and his breathing heavy. In his lap lay Frodo’s head, drowned deep in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam’s brown hands, and the other lay softly upon his master’s breast. Peace was in both their faces.
Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee –but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.
But at that touch Frodo stirred and cried out softly in his sleep, and immediately Sam was wide awake. The first thing he saw was Gollum — “pawing at master,” as he thought.
“Hey you!” he said roughly. “What are you up to?”
“Nothing, nothing,” said Gollum softly. “Nice Master!”
“I daresay,” said Sam. “But where have you been to — sneaking off and sneaking back, you old villain?”
Gollum withdrew himself, and a green glint flickered under his heavy lids. Almost spider-like he looked now, crouched back on his bent limbs, with his protruding eyes. The fleeting moment had passed, beyond recall.
In this utterly trivial sin, as trivial as nibbling an apple, Tolkien shows us the noblest character in his entire novel as the very key to the damnation of his most tragic character. To be sure, Gollum is ultimately the author of his own loss — as are we, should we (God forbid) make the awful choice to destroy the life of grace in the soul. But just as grace involves us in the life of the Body of Christ, so our small acts of sin can lead on to devastating consequences if we do but one thing — refuse to repent them.
So how do we avoid the twin pitfalls of scrupulosity and laxity? This is where the great gift of spiritual direction and the Sacrament of Reconciliation is so vital. We tend to lie to ourselves, either by exaggerating or minimizing our sins. A confessor and spiritual guide give us the invaluable help of another pair of eyes and ears to tell us when we are feeding ourselves a line of bull or making too much of minor thing. Generally speaking, the Church’s distinction between mortal and venial sin is a very useful guideline on where to concentrate our fire. As a wise confessor once told me, “When an elephant walks in the room, you know it.” But in addition, the Church’s teaching that venial sin is, you know, sin and not something else is also invaluable, because it brings us back to the fact that the key to dealing with venial sin is not to say, “It’s just a venial sin, so it’s okay,” but rather, “It’s just a venial sin, so make the small effort to repent it with a quick prayer lest it metastasize into something worse.”
Of such small choices will this Lent — and our lives — mostly consist.