Dear Donagh, Thanks for your website. I'm a regular visitor. I'd like to ask you something. As I get older I find myself thinking more and more about my sinful life. I never killed anyone of course but I wasn’t exactly what you'd call a very good Christian. I dwell on it a lot. I think a lot too about all the evil in the world today…. Could you say something about this? Mary M.
Dear Mary, Thanks for your letter, and I hope you don’t mind that I omitted the detail and the many illustrations you gave.
I think it's normal enough to look back, and since no one in this world has a spotless record, of course we see our sins. Our sins, like shadows, are more visible in the afternoon of our life. But we have to be careful how we focus on them: if we focus only on them they can bring down a gloom on the heart. When we think of our sins without also thinking of Christ, the picture is all darkness. We are all too prone to wallowing in guilt instead of bringing it to Christ. This wallowing is just another way of being attached to sin. St Augustine said that if you put your sins under your feet they will lift you up to God. The Pharisees were attempting to be perfect (and because that is impossible they were attempting to seem perfect), but Jesus was severely critical of them, while he befriended sinners in a way that was remarkable in his time. "As he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples" (Matthew 9:10). Those people, outcasts of society, knew and admitted that they were sinners, and they were therefore open-hearted, unlike the others. They came to Jesus, while the others remained at a distance, criticising.
Sometimes it's not easy to identify our sin in a practical way. There is just a vague feeling of being unworthy; it is like an unlocated pain; it is something more general than anything I could include in a list of sins. Such a feeling, left to work in us, saps our taste for God, it robs us of the energy we have for goodness. We should bring this too immediately to Christ. St Peter had to learn this, just like everyone else. His first impulse was the wrong one: "Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man" (Luke 5:8). But the Lord did not; he came, he said, not to call the virtuous, but sinners (Matthew 9:13). Read the story of the Prodigal Son: he is every one of us, including Peter. Our Father sees us when we are a long way off, "he is moved with pity, runs towards us, clasps us in his arms and kisses us tenderly, saying, 'This son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found'" (Luke, chapter 15).
There is another useless sort of wallowing. It is when I become pessimistic about the evils of the world: war, violence in our cities, addiction, the emptiness of popular culture…. These are terrible evils, and in your letter you detailed many of them at length - as well as all the problems in the Church. But an abstract and hopeless preoccupation with them doesn’t do any good at all. If I am not actually doing something about them I am only spreading discouragement and bringing no light. It is like talking always pessimistically about the weather. Our faith is not sociology, nor journalism, nor even theology. It is faith, a word that means belief, confidence, trust. It is a positive and strong attitude that makes us want to move into action, not into discouragement. Our faith was known as "the Way" before it was known as "Christianity" (Acts 9:2). The way to follow the Way is to put a practical foot on a real path: help a neighbour, smile at a young person, do whatever lies within your capacity. This is harder than just thinking about failure. But in a true sense it is also easier.
God bless, Mary.