The first reading from today’s Mass is an extraordinary moral tale from the Book of Daniel. It is the story of Susanna. The full passage (which is quite lengthy) can be found here: Daniel 13:1-62. Interestingly it is missing from Protestant Bibles which use a truncated version of the Book of Daniel. As such it is a lesser known passage, even among Catholics since it is only read on a weekday Mass once a year.
It features the story of a beautiful young woman, Susanna, married to a man named Joakim. One day as she is bathing in a private garden two older men who have hidden themselves there out of lust try to seduce Susanna who rebuffs their brazen overture. They threaten to falsely accuse her of having committed adultery with a young man in garden if she does not give way to their desires. She still refuses and they follow through on their threatened lie. They further demand that she should be stoned. Things look bleak for Susanna until Daniel comes to the rescue and, through crafty interrogation, exposes their lie for what it is. The story is a small masterpiece. If you have never read it, you should. In the course of its engaging tale it gives us a kind of anatomy lesson of sin. It is good to consider the teachings here.
In a remarkable description the story describes a threefold source from which their sins spring forth. The text says: They suppressed their consciences; they would not allow their eyes to look to heaven, and did not keep in mind just judgments. (Daniel 13:9). I’d like to take a look at each of these three sources from which sin springs.
1. They suppressed their consciences– What is the conscience? The Catechism defines it thus: For Man has in his heart a law inscribed by God, This is his conscience, there he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths… (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) # 1776). So, in effect, the conscience is the voice of God within us. God has written his Law in the hearts of every human person.
Thus, in terms of basic right and wrong, we know what we are doing. There may be certain higher matters of the Law that the conscience must be taught (eg. the following of certain rituals or feasts days etc.). But in terms of fundamental moral norms, we have a basic and innate grasp of what is right and wrong. Deep down inside we know what we are doing. We see and salute virtues like bravery, self-control, and generosity. We also know that things like murder of the innocent, promiscuity, theft, destruction of reputations etc are wrong.For all the excuses we like to make, deep down inside we know what we are doing, and we know that we know. I have written substantially about conscience elsewhere (HERE).
But notice that it says that they “suppressed their consciences.” Even though we know something is wrong we often want to do it anyway. One of the first things our wily minds will do is to try and suppress our conscience. To suppress something is to put it down by force, to inhibit or to try and exclude something from awareness or consciousness.
The usual way of doing this is through rationalizations and sophistry. We invent any number of thoughts, lies and distortions to try and reassure our self that something is really OK, something that deep down inside we know isn’t OK.
We also accumulate false teachers and teachings to assist in this suppression of the truth that our conscience witnesses to. St. Paul wrote to Timothy: For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2 Tim 4:1-3).
It is quite an effort to suppress one’s own conscience and I would argue that we cannot ever do it completely. In fact the whole attempt to suppress the conscience is not only quite an effort, it is also very fragile. This helps explain the anger and hostility of many in the world toward the Church. Deep down they know we are right and often, just the slightest appeal to the conscience to awaken its voice, causes quite an eruption of fear and anger.
So here is the first stage in the anatomy of a sin: the suppression of the conscience. In order to act wickedly and not face deep psychological pain of significant guilt these men in the story first suppress their conscience in order to shut off the source of that pain. Step one is underway.
2. They would not allow their eyes to look to heaven– In order to sustain the fictions, stinking thinking, rationalizations, and sophistry that are necessary to suppress the conscience, it is necessary for one to distance himself from the very source of conscience, God himself.
One way to do this is to drift away from God though neglect of prayer, worship, study of the Word of God and association with the Church which speaks for God. Drifting away may become more severe as times goes on and the refusal to repent becomes deeper. Drifting soon becomes absence and absence often becomes outright hostility to anything religious or biblical.
Another way that some avert their eyes from heaven is to redefine God. The revealed God of Scripture is replaced by a designer God who does not care about this thing or that. “God doesn’t care if I go to church, or shack up with my girlfriend etc.” On being shown scripture quite contrary to their distorted notions of God they simply respond that Paul had hangups, or that the Bible was written in primitive times.
Culturally the refusal to look heavenward is manifest in the increasing hostility to the Catholic Christian faith. Demands growing increasingly strident that anything even remotely connected to the faith be removed from the public square. Prayer in public, nativity sets, Church Bells, any reference to Jesus or Scripture in schools, etc. It must all be removed according to the radical seculars who refuse to turn their eyes heavenward or even have anything around that reminds them to do so.
The cumulative effect is that many are no longer looking to heaven or to God. Having suppressed their conscience they now demand a Godless public square. Still others reinvent a fake God, a false kingdom, an idol. Either way, the purpose is to isolate and insulate the self from God and what he reveals.
This makes it easier to maintain the rather exhausting effort of suppressing the conscience.
So for these men in the story, step two in engaged and it further supports the suppression of conscience necessary to commit sin without the pain of guilt.
3. And did not keep in mind just judgment– Finally lets throw in a little presumption which dismisses any consequences for evil acts. This of course is one of THE sins of our current age. There are countless people, even many Catholics in the pew and clergy too who seem outright to deny that they will ever have to answer to God for what they have done. But of course this is completely contrary to Scripture that insists that we will indeed answer one day to God for what we have done.
This final stage of presumption is meant to eliminate the salutary fear that should accompany evil acts. The sinner at this stage has had some success in alleviating the psychic pain of guilt and even a lot of the fear that used to accompany sin when the voice of conscience was less layered over and muted.
But, even after suppressing the conscience and refusing heaven’s influence, still some fear remains so now an attack is made on any notion of consequences. Perhaps the sinner exaggerates the mercy and patience of God to the exclusion of God’s holiness which sin cannot endure. Perhaps he denies the reality of hell which God clearly teaches. Perhaps he denies that God exists at all and holds that there is no judgment to be faced. However he does it, he must push back the fear the punishment and/or judgment.
Here then is the anatomy of sin. Having suppressed the conscience, the voice of God to the extent possible and having removed oneself from heaven’s influence, and then denying that anything of negative consequence will come, one is freer to sin gravely. It is as though one has taken a number of stiff drinks and anesthetized himself sufficiently to proceed without pain.
But guess what, it’s still there deep down inside. The voice of conscience remains. Under all the layers of stinking thinking and attempts to insulate oneself from the true God, deep down the sinner still knows what he is doing is wrong. Even the slightest thing to prick his conscience causes increasing unease. Anger, projection, name-calling, ridiculing of anyone or anything awaken his conscience will increasing be resorted to. Sin is in full bloom now and repentance seems increasingly difficult or unlikely. Only great prayers and fasting by others for him will likely spring him loose from the deep moral sleep he is currently in. Pray for the conversion of sinners.
Well, since this post has been a little heavy it might be good to end on a lighter note: