Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Orientations" versus Sin: Fr. Carroll and Merton Agree

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.

1 comment:

  1. Very good, sir! Solid spiritual direction, that. I think there is much profit in defining what we mean by sin: in an informal way we may speak of the event of sin, the state of sin (v. a state of grace), Original Sin and the fallen nature of the human person, and sin as wounds, bonds or lies which hurt us personally (and which are often connected with some other aspect of sin).
    Self knowledge is key in the spiritual life, and specifying what type of problem one is dealing with is very important. The event of sin and its consequences is of course important in revealing our state or condition. Then we can correct our wrong motivations. We can see our flawed relationship with God, the effects of Original Sin, and work to restore the right ordering of our desires. Sometimes the diagnosis of one's event sins and their root motivations seem beyond our control or ability to overcome. This tends to occur when we have been wounded in some way that lets a lie get below the surface and harden or scar our heart. These are often very deep and difficult to even discover, but are I think the most obvious example of the contrasting plans of God and the Accuser for the human person: God offers healing, life, and Love, while the devil wants "anxiety darkness and gloom" [on a side note, the Lord's Day prayers are very solid]. Reminds me of one of my favorite scriptures, Jn 10:10 "A thief comes to kill, steal, and destroy. I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly!"
    I think what you brought up about the roots of sin helps to get beyond what Paul calls living under the Law and living in the Spirit, "living the truth in love" (Eph). Spot on!