Sancta sanctis

5 03 2021

In my Catholic brain, the sin of presumption loomed and looms ominously. This sin against the Holy Spirit is the dangerous one wherein one continues to commit sin with the intention of seeking forgiveness later. This sin was not always as tolerated as it is now, and among practicing Catholics of the modern Church, it barely exists. The indirect enabler of this sin is the Sacrament of Penance or Confession and easy (if not to say, automatic) absolution. The idea now is that one can commit any sin but if one goes to Confession, forgiveness is all but assured. To doubt this is to doubt the efficacy of the Sacraments; in Catholic theology, their working ex opere operato (by virtue of the work as worked). You don’t have to do anything but make a “good” confession to a priest (that is, not holding anything back and being accurate in your telling) and having a modicum of sorrow for your sin, as well as a “resolve” to not sin again. What the nature of the “sorrow” is, and the “resolve” for that matter, remains a disputed question. The modern “pastoral” solution, even amongst the strictest conservative, is to lean heavily toward being liberal and permissive. Otherwise, one has to exclude people somewhat interested in the Christian way of life but with little resolve to tackle their vices.

This attitude is fairly new. In the early Christian text, the Shepherd of Hermas, a Christian was only given one “repentance” after receiving baptism. One could only really mess up once after having been received into the Church: there was a sense that a vow broken over and over was no vow at all. Later, when baptism became less an initiation representing a certain level of spiritual advancement and more a social ritual, heavy canonical penances were imposed for serious sins such as usury and adultery. An adulterer would be expected to do years of canonical penance outside a church, begging people for prayers. Later, most faithful sort of automatically excommunicated themselves, effectively leading lives outside of sacramental grace because they could not live up to the moral standard of the Church. As a teenager not so long ago, I would go to Mass with other Mexican young men and a good portion of the men stood in the back and never received Holy Communion. We were, in a sense, just observers disqualified from sacramental participation due to our less-than-ideal moral lives.

The Jansenist crisis of the early modern period in France and elsewhere was partly due to a question of attrition vs. contrition in Catholic penitential practice. The rigorists of the Jansenist school and theologians influenced by them would say that the fear of punishment in Hell wasn’t enough for one’s absolution in the confessional and thus qualification to receive the Holy Sacrament of the altar. One has to be truly sorry for offending God and rejecting His loving mercy. In other words, one can ask the prospective penitent: “Are you sorry you did it, or are you sorry you were caught?” As children, for instance, we often cry and shake in fear because we get caught with our hand in the cookie jar. We tremble not because we betrayed our parents’ trust and mocked their efforts to bring us up as honest human beings, but rather because we don’t want to get spanked or put in the corner or told we can’t go to the carnival, and so on. In essence, we habitual sinners are like big toddlers holding on to our vices and upset that, one day, we will have to suffer a reaction for them.

The Catholic liberal school still thinks that this is enough. After all, God is merciful. Not everyone can be a saint, and God understands that. This sentiment took on St. Therese of Lisieux in the early 20th century as its patron saint. In her humble writings (supposedly) one could be a saint by doing small things. One’s helplessness was almost a virtue: that one could do nothing on one’s own meant that you had returned to being a child, and how could God reject a child? This is no doubt a caricature of what the 19th century nun really thought, but it fed the emerging theological liberalism in Catholic morality. God could not be that much of a monster, He is all-merciful, and He will take anyone into Heaven even against their will. Everyone has good intentions, so they are basically doing God’s will anyway, they can’t possibly really condemn themselves to Hell unless they’re Hitler or they voted for the wrong candidate or something… And at a certain point, people just stopped going to Confession altogether in any significant numbers. Sin basically doesn’t exist anymore, and even for those who are a bit more scrupulous, there is always Confession where your soul is laundered and you don’t have to worry about the state of your soul afterward, at least until you have to go to Confession again… lather, rinse, repeat.

There is a Hare Krishna version of all this. I touched on it briefly recently, but one of the Ten Offenses Against Chanting the Holy Name is: To commit sinful activities on the strength of chanting the holy name of the Lord. So in our faith, the only real activity that pleases the Supreme Lord is chanting the Mahamantra: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare. We believe that people in the current Iron Age are so degraded that they can’t really do anything else to save themselves or others around them. It’s pessimistic, but it’s simple. But even this apparently has limits, as the cited offense indicates. Just because you’re otherwise incompetent doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least try. We believe that, if you were really chanting the pure Name (suddha-nama) there wouldn’t be room in your heart and mind for any other materialistic garbage. However, slackers like me, even if we are chanting sixteen rounds of japa (The Mahamantra x 108 x 16 times on beads), we’re lucky if we’re chanting namabhasa. Our recitation is automatic, distracted, veiled still by material desires, and so on. Srila Prabhupada characterized this as akin to an elephant who washes himself clean in a river, only to throw dirt on himself again afterwards. We’re basically treading water, it’s one step forward, one and a half steps back, and so on. And that’s not even considering if we’re really just stuck chanting namaparadha: outright offensive chanting. Here is one instance where the Bible can shed light on the subject and hit the nail on the head:

Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)

I concluded recently that the reasoning behind the idea of an eternal Hell in Christianity has to do with how hard it is to truly love God. It’s good reasoning but starting from a flawed understanding of the nature of time, the body, and the soul. Catholicism and Orthodoxy both believe that, in order to enter Heaven, one must have a pure love of God. But most people obviously don’t have that, and those that do are called “saints”. In the early Church, one usually had to be martyred to be a saint: only in shedding one’s blood for Christ did one show a perfect love worthy of Heaven. Once persecution became largely a thing of the past rather than the norm, people tried to affect a “bloodless” or white martyrdom by asceticism and other spiritual exercise. These were the first monks.

But what of “normal” Christians? They might have led a largely virtuous life, but if they didn’t quite achieve pure love of God, or were bogged down with the stains of sin on their soul (the technical term in Catholic theology is: “temporal punishment due to sin,”), these imperfect souls had to go to a place of purification after death. This is the origin of purgatory in Catholicism (in Orthodoxy, it is much more ambiguous). There, one could be purified in order to enter the Kingdom of God at the end of the world or earlier. This still doesn’t assume that most “good Catholics” go there: most of the Fathers of the Church, and many modern saints, believed that the vast majority of Christian believers went to Hell for all eternity in spite of their observant lives, not to speak of outright heathens and sinners.

In that context, an idea of only having attrition for one’s sins to be saved (being sorry you got caught) makes a lot of sense. People are stupid, they’re lazy, and they’re stuck in their ways. Only the faintest sign of repentance is needed to get virtually all souls past the finish line, at least into purgatory. Even eighty years seems like a blink of an eye to get yourself right with God. For most people, it’s not enough to develop perfect love of God, so one can either: 1. Assume the vast majority of people are damned (the traditional option), 2. Assume that many / most squeak by and enter some sort of purgation in the afterlife (the modern conservative option), or 3. Assume God just saves everyone anyway without any effort whatsoever (that we can see, anyway) because He’s nice (the liberal option / de facto official opinion). In a way, Martin Luther won. Even the most traditional Catholic may have recourse to confession over and over again as needed in life, falling and getting up as many times as needed, his salvation virtually assured. Simul iustus et peccator. Pecca fortiter.

The Hare Krishna position is trickier and more complicated. The World Religion 101 talking point is that all Dharmic religions have the goal of liberating people from the cycle of birth and death (samsara). But this liberation (moksha) is difficult. Most die and are reborn millions of times without any hope of escaping. For us, only Krishna (Mukunda) can free one from the cycle of birth and death, but even on this level, there are numerous booby traps, dead ends, fake solutions, and illusions. These might get you to a better position, but they won’t get you out. One could even end up the creator of their own universe (Brahma) but no closer to making it back into the spiritual world, where one obtains / acquires again one’s permanent spiritual body. Only surrender to the spiritual master, the representative of Krishna Himself, can bring one out of samsara. But the ironic twist here is that, once one has truly surrendered, liberation isn’t desired at all at that point. Once one obtains pure love of God (prayojana), one becomes truly selfless and only wants to serve the spiritual master. It doesn’t even matter anymore if one is born and dies over and over again, as long as one is under the shelter of the spiritual master (guru).

In both paths, you must have a perfect love to enter into the Kingdom of God. Both seem simple and straightforward, but they’re not easy. The modern temptation is to cut yourself some slack, trusting in the “goodness of God”. Sure, in the end, you have to do this or you’ll go mad. However, a little fear and trembling are also appropriate, more so in this rather problematic age. Recall how St. Silouan the Athonite used to say to himself: “All others will be saved, only I will be damned.” Hellfire and brimstone are for my contemplation, so that I can clear all of this muck and grime out of my heart. I made the mistake previously on this site of justifying lukewarmness in religious practice. Here I am trying to make amends. Maybe I’ve discarded the God of wrath and punishment, but I still think that to achieve love of God is really, really hard. God will give us what we want, and if we want temporary and illusory things, if we want to try to satisfy ourselves with things that will only make us suffer in the long run, that’s what God is going to give us. We all need to do better. Holy things for the holy.



2 responses

22 03 2021

I’m scared.

10 03 2021

Well, the idea of relative helplessness and picking oneself up after every fall without losing heart goes back farther than St. Thérèse–you see that kind of thing in Lorenzo Scupoli (The Spiritual Warfare) and in the writings of St. Frances de Sales.

I think you always have a dialectic between the aspirations of a religion and actual observed human behavior. Buddhism, for example, begins with the notion that only a monk can attain nirvana (even nuns have to be reborn as monks eventually, since originally only men can be enlightened). Laity just support the monks and hope to be reborn as monks someday. Even most monks don’t make it in the current lifetime. Later, as Mahayana develops, the idea that laity can practice and even become enlightened becomes established. Eventually you get to Pure Land Buddhism in which the Buddha Amitabha (Amida) has, per his primal vow, constructed the Western Pure Land, Sukhavati and ensured, by his power, that if anyone, even the worst sinner, calls on him in faith by reciting his mantra (Namo Amida Bustu, “Homage to Amitabha Buddha”) even once in his life, he will be reborn in the Pure Land, from which final liberation is inevitable. As with Gaudiya Vaishavism, the reason given is that in the current degenerate age, the rigor and austerity of the first generation of Buddhists is no longer possible, so Amitabha has taken care of that for us.

Louis de Montfort and Alphonsus Liguori come very close to this in some of their writings. Without ever quite saying it too bluntly, they more or less say that however bad you are, if you sincerely petition Mary, she’ll save you from damnation without sweating the details.

I think these are striking parallels in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Catholicism: You have a theoretically extremely strict and ascetic faith combined with a realization that most of the faithful are unable of getting even particularly close to the ideal (or even the hypothetical minimum). This results in theological jimmying so that your average Joe has something for him, too. I guess whether one sees that as very merciful and humane (as I tend to) or as copping out by weaker generations is a matter of taste and personal perspective.

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