I begin by publicly stating my love and appreciation for Thomas Merton and his Seven Storey Mountain. I will be picking apart things I learned through it over the next few years – maybe longer. It has also given me the impetus to learn about the “later Merton:” the Merton who was interested in inter-religious dialogue. If his Wikipedia page is true (ha!), his interest in Zen Buddhism and such was always informed by a faith in the Truth of the Catholic Church, something that annoyed other “spiritual” people. Wikipedia aside, I need to do some secondary, and primary, text searching, instead of just parroting other people’s words on Merton’s dubious “progress."
One of the things I was led to ponder through Seven Storey Mountain was my own incomplete, and sometimes erroneous, idea of sin and the spiritual life. Now, sin is a breaking of our relationship with God, so I don’t mean to discount it or make light of it: however, I think I often focus too much on the sin and not enough on the causes of my sin; I will refer to these as inclinations – or perhaps more appropriately, orientations.
Before I delve into the meaning of this, let me set the stage by recalling something Fr. Carroll says: in his simple and matter-of-fact sort of way he says that we need to clear away sin and be done with it before we can really progress in the spiritual life. When I was very young, I thought this was naivety or super-spirituality; when I was a little more mature, I thought it was more an hyperbole with purpose, meaning that when we get rid of the “big” sins, we have time to deal with the “small” sins, which are still sins; then we can be really perfect. But I think Fr. Carroll meant his words to be taken at “face value.” I now interpret his words in light of what I learned from Merton.
It’s not as if sin isn’t important or damaging – for it most definitely is – but the real roots of the problem lie in our fallen nature’s inclination toward a way of life, an orientation to things not of God. For example, in my personal life, a deep-seated desire to care for myself before anyone else – we may call this selfishness – is more at the root of my “sinfulness” that the sins that occur because of this orientation. But the irony of this is that we often cannot get at the root of these orientations while in the bondage of sin, for sin blinds us. “Ignorance is bliss;” but Christ calls us to Knowledge of Him and ourselves.
When I go to confession, I reflect on the actions and omissions that are considered sinful, and this is correct. However, what I really need to confess and change is how I orient my life, job, and relationships. Way too often I am motivated by a powerful selfishness and pride; and even if I’m not “sinning” all of the time, these tendencies keep me from the Face of God. It seems like an obvious thing to say, but I need to go below the surface of my actions and omissions and seek to know why I do or don’t do these things. If my car is leaking oil, filling it up every week will make the car run – but it won’t fix the problem. Until the leak is patched, the car will remain damaged.