When asked once about a sermon he’d just heard, the legendarily laconic Calvin Coolidge managed to summarize its theme in a single word: “Sin.” Pressed for details concerning the preacher’s views on the subject, President Coolidge added four more: “He was against it.” Where Coolidge himself stood on the matter, the record does not show. But it’s a pretty safe bet that he too was against it. Aren’t most people averse to sin? Yes, even as they perversely persist in the practice.
In the teeth of that apparent truism, however, I once knew a fellow who seemed so positively fixated on the fear of committing sin that he could hardly function. The odd thing about him was that he had just recently become a Catholic, a fact that surely ought to have relieved him of some anxiety. Instead he felt himself so trapped beneath the sudden and unforeseen avalanche of grace that he was simply too immobilized to move. Thus intimidated by the gift of an overpowering and undeserved mercy, he could not budge.
“What if I start sinning again?” he cried. I told him it would not surprise God in the least. After all, had he not made wise provision for human weakness and malice by instituting the sacrament of penance? Where the rate of recidivism, by the way, is one hundred percent. And it certainly wasn’t intended for the angels. The medicine box, we cradle Catholics would sometimes call it, where, to quote a lovely Irish poem, “Beneath the stirrup and the ground, / was mercy sought and mercy found.”
Provided, of course, one is willing to pass it on to others. And, really, there is no better way to drink the dollop of divine forgiveness than to demonstrate at least a minimal willingness to go and do likewise. In the chronicles of human corruption, we are told, everyone has got his or her own chapter. So why shouldn’t the need for forgiveness be equally universal? I rather think that was the point of the pope’s answer to the very first question put to him in that long and widely misunderstood interview that appeared in every Jesuit journal on the planet. “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” And pausing a moment to consider the question, Pope Francis replied, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
Holy halo! A sinner? The Holy Father’s a sinner? Pray, what sin could he possibly have committed? The answer of course is the same bloody sin of which we all stand convicted. Pride. Self-love. Whose aggressions stand athwart the truth of all that is real. Resulting in a self-exaltation as ridiculous as it is ruinous. “The only sin,” says Chesterton, “is to call green grass grey.” Every sin, therefore, is a lie, an affront upon being, i.e., the order of reality. Fr. Bernard Lonergan, in a pithy formulation, has called sin an exercise in “deliberate stupidity.”
And why else did Christ come if not to try and spare us such stupidity? Especially when, unchecked, it will carry us ineluctably into hell. Where the pain of loss goes on and on forever. Certainly Christ did not die for his friends. Did he in fact have any? At last count only one. And she—“our tainted nature’s solitary boast,” as the poet Wordsworth put it—was his own mother. Has anyone else ever managed to escape the wages of sin? “In Adam’s fall,” to cite that famous Puritan Primer of Colonial New England, “we sinned all.” And so we’ve all been left to languish in the same gutter. The Church, by the way, is wonderfully adamant about this, reminding us that by our myriad and repeated offenses against God, we have all conspired to crucify his Son.
In the effort, therefore, to overcome our little snits of scrupulosity, we need to be both mindful and more than a tad grateful for the fact that we are all certifiably stupid—that is, sinners—since there is no other way to qualify for the mercy and love of God. “Blessed would be the sins that left any shame in you,” declares the saintly young curate, to Mme la Comtesse—an old and obdurate woman living an outwardly pious life yet seething with inward despair on the very cusp of hell—in Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest. Thanks be to God, too, for the sudden whiplash of his words, because otherwise the thick bastion of her pride would never give way to the grace of that forgiveness he’s come to dispense. How beautifully Bernanos’s novel, one of the enduring monuments of French Catholic literature, reveals both the abyss of her need for mercy and the infinite capacity of Christ to bestow it.
In his homily of October 25, the Pope speaks of the courage we require in order to embrace “the grace of shame.” Lacking which, he tells us, the mercy of God can do us very little good. Young children, he said, especially in the confessional, have this quality of courage, of transparence before what is real. “They have that simplicity of the truth. And we always have the tendency to hide the reality of our failings. But there is something beautiful: when we confess our sins as they are in the presence of God, we always feel that grace of shame. Being ashamed in the sight of God is a grace. It is a grace. ‘I am ashamed of myself.’ We think of Peter when, after the miracle of Jesus on the lake, he says to Jesus, ‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinner.’ He is ashamed of his sins in the presence of the sanctity of Jesus.” And only on the wings of a spirit covered with such shame can he—or anyone else, for that matter—hope to rise to receive the transforming mercy of God.
How uncanny the likeness of the two popes in their shared sense of shame and sin! That despite two thousand years of history—despite all the obvious and profound differences separating these two bookends on the papal shelf—there yet remains an exquisite and profound unanimity on the matter of their equal and absolute dependence upon God. That without him, without that mercy Christ came to enflesh, they know themselves to be less than zero. In fact, it is that need for grace, that hunger and thirst for the God who alone can give it, that drives the whole engine of eros, of a longing that nothing less than God can ultimately satisfy.
“God was moved by our nothingness,” writes Luigi Giussani. “Not only that. God was moved by our betrayal, by our crude, forgetful, and treacherous poverty, by our pettiness.” What else could account for God coming among us? It was surely not our charm or good looks, much less our character, that lured him down. But that love which bade each one of us welcome precisely because we had nothing but our emptiness to offer. It is the gesture that leaves us speechless with stupefaction: that he should love us enough to want to come down and suffer and die for us.
“God troubled himself,” wrote the great Peguy in his sublime summary of all that we believe: “God sacrificed himself for me. That’s Christianity.”
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