What is at the Core of Original Sin?

Sometimes Original Sin gets simplified into the eating of an apple. But the core of the apple is not the “core” I speak of in the title. Actually an apple is not mentioned. It is fruit surely but what fruit we do not know. But what’s the big deal about eating an apple or piece of fruit? OK, maybe they shouldn’t have eaten it. But really, did an apple lead to all the pain and grief we experience today?

As you may have guessed, No, it was not an apple or fruit  per se that led to all this. What was the Original Sin, what did it consist of? Consider that Original Sin was actually of cluster of sins: pride, disobedience, ingratitude, lack of trust, and a complete disregard for the wisdom and love of God. I am struck by how the Catechism describes Original Sin:

Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of.  All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness. In that sin man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him. He chose himself over and against God…Seduced by the devil, he wanted to “be like God”, but “without God, before God, and not in accordance with God” (CCC #s 397-398)

Notice the cascading effect that begins with a lack of trust. How did Adam and Eve (and all of us) fail to trust God? Simply in this, God had warned them of a certain tree, the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Pure and simple he warned they stay away from it for it would bring death to their souls. Now to “know” in the Bible always means more than intellectual knowing. To ”know” in the Bible means to have deep intimate and personal experience of the the thing or person known. Hence it is clear that God did not want Adam and Eve ever to have to experience the horrible reality of evil. He sought to protect them from its devastating effects. So God’s forbidding was made in protective love. We were called simply to trust God that evil is dreadful and we shouldn’t insist on knowing  that for ourselves, just trust God.

But the Devil tempted us in this sort of way:

“You can’t trust God! He is hold something back from you. Sure he gave this nice garden and all but that is just to placate you. He knows that if you eat that fruit you will become like gods and begin to rival him. No! God is trying to keep you from your true destiny, to rule and even to tell him what to do! Do not trust Him or what he is telling you. it is only to keep you down, he isn’t really good at all. Listen to me. I promise you will not die, you will become like gods!

So there it is Adam and Eve. Who are you going to trust? God who gave you everything or the Devil who has given you nothing but promises something on the other side of the sin? Who will it be?

Sadly, you know the rest of the story. And Adam and Eve’s temptation is repeated in every sin we are tempted to commit.

 ”Come on” says the Devil, “God is trying to limit your freedom, keep you down and doesn’t want you to be happy! His demands are unreasonable, he is trying to take away your fun and fulfillment. Sin will make you happy. God’s way is restrictive. Do as you please. Don’t let anyone tell you what to do!”

And so often we buy into it. And are we happy? Maybe for a moment, but the misery of sin is too clear to be denied. The Devil is a liar. But what do we do when we sin? We trust him over God. In so doing the Catechism says we abuse our freedom. How? Because freedom for a Christian is “the capacity to obey God.” We are free when are able to carry out what God says. Now the world and the Devil say that freedom is about doing whatever you please. No, not if it is sin because sin never leads to freedom, it leads to bondage. Jesus says, “Whoever sins is a slave to sin.” (Jn 8:34)  Look at the world today and try to tell me that sin leads to freedom. Look at the addiction to drugs, alcohol, sex, anger, revenge and greed and tell me that sin leads to freedom. No, sin is never freedom, it is bondage and many get so stuck in destructive behaviors that they don’t know how to stop. The video below powerfully illustrates the horror and bondage of sin, it shows its awful reality. It is not freedom at all, it is sorrow, bondage and humiliation.

In sin, we choose ourselves over God as the text from the Catechism says. We think we will become like gods, but in reality we sink lower than the animals and do things to each other and ourselves that even animals don’t do. God wants to raise us to share in his nature to be sure but we insist that we can do it ourselves. We cannot. Look at our grandiose attempts and tell me if you think we have been successful.

The following video does a pretty good job of depicting where Satan’s promises to Adam and Eve led. Watch it if you dare and remember that the Devil is a liar. And God is still calling you!

Every Life is a Story, Only Known Fully by God – A Meditation on a Moving Video

Last Known Picture of Charles Pope Oct 2006When my father lay dying, I remember that one of the losses I began to grieve was that he was the keeper of so many family stories. He was the one who could look at an old family photograph, identify all the people, and tell you something about each one. As I saw him lying there, no longer able to talk much, I thought of all the memories stored up in his mind, all the stories, all the people he once knew and had spoken of so vividly.

And it was not just the family stories he held; he was also a great historian and a great wellspring of the classics. He had read all of the “Great Books,” all of Shakespeare, all of Sacred Scripture, and so many other worthy writings. And he had memorized many lengthy quotes from each.

Such an encyclopedic mind! He was full of vivid thoughts and vivid memories. He was the keeper of our family story. And though I knew he would take it with him in his soul, I grieved that his magnificent mind was now closing to me. I regret that I did not more carefully retain all he told me over the years.

Thankfully, he wrote a family history that stays with us. All his many photos and family films, that we worked to preserve, stay with us. We, his sons, are moving much of this to the digital realm, but it took Dad’s living presence to really bring these things home.

The video below put me in this reflective mood. It depicts an old man who lies dying in a hospital bed. In various flashbacks we see his life, told almost as if from God’s perspective. We see his story, his good moments and his tragedies—and then he passes.

I remember a Bible verse my father jotted down on the frontispiece of a book he was reading at the time of his own father’s death:

But as for man, his days are like the grass, or as the flower that flourishes in the field. The wind blows, and he is gone, and his place never sees him again (Psalm 103:16).

Reading that as a young teenager, I realized for the first time that the Bible was very beautiful. And I was startled to think that the house in which I was sitting would one day “never see me again.” All the stories, all the memories would be gone with the proverbial winds.

The photo at the upper right is the last one I ever took of my father. He standing in front of our family home. I took the picture as he was leaving it for the last time. He moved into a retirement community for a brief time, but was not much longer for this world. There he is, standing in front of the place that would “never see him again.”

Yes, there is something very precious about our memories, our stories. They are meant to be shared, handed down. But there is something irreplaceable, something that dies with each person: a personal glimpse of history, a personal story, something that can never be fully shared with anyone but the Lord.

Only the Lord really knows our story, and he knows it better than we ourselves do:

O LORD, you search me and you know me.
You yourself know my resting and my rising;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You mark when I walk or lie down;
you know all my ways through and through.

Before ever a word is on my tongue,
you know it, O LORD, through and through …

For it was you who formed my inmost being,
knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I thank you who wonderfully made me;

My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being fashioned in secret
and molded in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw me yet unformed;
and all my days were recorded in your book,
before one of them came into being …

at the end I am still at your side … (Ps 139:varia)

Yes, the Lord knows. He knows all about us.

An old spiritual says, “Nobody knows the trouble I seen, nobody but Jesus.” For in the end, He is the keeper of every story: my father’s, mine, and yours. And whatever is lost in death will be restored a hundredfold, with understanding besides, in the great parousia. Not a story, not a word will be lost. We shall recover it all and tell the old, old stories once again.

Enjoy this poignant and moving video of a man’s life, told almost as if from the standpoint of God, the God who knows. Though the man seems to die alone, someone is remembering his story. Maybe it’s God who is doing the remembering.

Humility is Hard – A Meditation on Some Aspects of Humility

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Pride is our most pervasive and serious sin; humility is its antidote and the foundation of our spiritual life. And as the remedy to our most deep-seated pathology, it must be strong medicine. Humility is hard to swallow and has a lot of things it needs to work on.

Let’s consider humility under a number of headings.

I. The Foundation of Humility – Indeed, humility as a foundation is a good image, since by it we bow toward the earth or soil (humus in Latin) and abase ourselves before God. Foundations and holes in the earth go together.

By humility we understand that we are small, poor, barely more than dust and water. If God does not scoop us from the earth, we are nothing. Only by His command is the mysterious spark and organizational principle of life ignited. We are wholly dependent on God; our life is contingent. We do not explain ourselves at all. We are dependent not only on our parents (who cannot explain themselves either), we are dependent on God’s purely gratuitous act of summoning us from dust. We are given existence by Him who is existence itself.

And we are given not merely existence, but something mysterious called “life.”

Think you have life figured out? Think you can define it? Hmm … Imagine before you an acorn and a small rock of similar size. One (the acorn) has the mysterious spark of life in it; the other does not. Plant both in the earth and add water. One transforms into a mighty oak; the other remains unchanged for thousands of years. What is the difference between the acorn and the rock? “Life,” you say. Well, tell me what that is. Can you weigh it in a scale? Can you see its essence under a microscope? We see life’s effects, but we do not see it. We detect its absence, but where has it gone? What exactly departs when a human, an animal, or a plant dies?

And thus humility, like a foundation, bids us to bow low to the earth and admit that we know very little. Even the most basic thing (life) that enables everything else eludes us and taunts us by its mystery.

II. The First Humility – When it comes to humility, we distinguish a humility toward God and a humility toward others. Humility toward God is simple (and first and foremost) because our duty in that regard is clear. There is no ambiguity in comparing ourselves to Him who is perfection, glory, and purity.

Humility toward others, though, has ambiguities that can only be resolved by reference to God. For not everything in another person is superior to us; not everything in others is perfect truth or purity.

But indeed, our first humility is toward God. And by it we recognize that we are nothing without Him. But even more, no good work of ours, not even the slightest salutary act, can happen without the grace of God. This is the first humility.

III. The Finding of Humility – Humility also recognizes that neither do we have meaning, direction or purpose apart from God. And thus we must look to the Book of Creation and the Book of Scripture, the Word of God, to discover and obey the truth and meaning given by God in what is created and what is revealed.

Atheists and materialists boldly assert that nothing has meaning, purpose, direction, or sense. They hold that everything that has happened is by chance, a random, meaningless crashing together of atoms (wherever they came from). But even atheists cannot seem to accept or live by their radical theory. Only one of them, Nietzsche, was ever “brave” enough to really live in a meaningless world. And he died insane.

But for us who would seek for humility, we must sit before what God has created and what God has revealed in Scripture, humbly observing, learning, and obeying what God teaches us there. We do not simply project meaning; we must humbly seek it, find it, and obey the truth and meaning of things.

IV. The Frank Truth of Humility – Humility also admits the frank and obvious truth that we are sinners. We have base, selfish, and narrow hearts that are strangely attracted by what we know is harmful and resistant to what we know is good. Our wills are inconsistent, vacillating, whimsical, and yet at the same time stubborn. We tend to maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. Our darkened minds seem almost to prefer foolish and dubious explanations to what is clear, common sense, and obviously true. We almost seem to want others to lie to us. We love to rationalize and daydream. Knowing a little we think we know it all. Frankly, we are a mess. We are only saved with difficulty and because God is powerful, patient, and abundant in grace and mercy.

V. The Fellowship of Humility – St. Thomas Aquinas says quite poetically, “Wherefore, every man, in respect to what is his own, should subject himself to every neighbor in respect to what the neighbor has of God’s” (Summa Theologica IIa IIae 161, a 3). For indeed, our neighbor has many things from God that are to be respected. They have things which we share, but also many things that we do not have at all. I do not have all the gifts; you do not have all the gifts; but together we have all the gifts. But we have them all only by mutual respect and humble submission. And thus our humility toward others is really humility toward God, who wills that others should be part of His governance of us, and of our completion.

But note, too, a careful distinction that flows from what St. Thomas teaches in regard to humility toward others. It is not to be reduced to mere human respect or flattery, or rooted in worldly and servile fear. True humility has us abase ourselves before others based on what is of God in them. The humble person does not abase himself before others for what is wicked in them. Indeed, many holy and humble people have had to rebuke the wicked and suffer because of it.

Consider our Lord, who found it necessary to rebuke the leaders of His day. Consider John the Baptist, who rebuked Herod; or the Apostles, who refused the command to speak Jesus’ name no longer. These were humble men, but they also knew that the first humility belongs to God, and that no humility toward human beings can ever eclipse or overrule the humility due to God.

Therefore the modern notion of “Who am I to judge?” is not proper humility. Rather, it is rooted more in a kind of sloth (cloaked in the self-congratulatory language of tolerance) that avoids humbly seeking truth and being conformed to it. The truly humble person is open to correcting others and to being corrected, because humility always regards the truth.

VI. The Focus of Humility – And that lead us finally to a kind of focal statement about humility: “Humility is reverence for the truth about ourselves.” Indeed, the focus of humility is always the truth.

And what is the truth? You are gifted, but incomplete.

Humility doesn’t say, “Aw shucks, I’m nothing.” That is not true. You are God’s creation and are imbued with gifts. But note this: they are gifts. You did not acquire them on your own. God gave them to you. And most often, He gave them to you through others who raised you, taught you, and helped you to attain the skills and discover the gifts that were within you. So you do have gifts. But they are gifts. Scripture says, What have you that you have not received? And if you have received, why do you glory as though you had not received? (1 Cor 4:7)

But though you are gifted, you do not have all the gifts. And this is the other truth of humility: that God and others must augment your many deficiencies. For whatever your gifts, and however numerous they are, you do not have all the gifts or even most of them. That is only possible in relationship with God and His people.

Ok, admit it, true humility is tough. And if you don’t think so, then try the test below from St. Anselm, who lists seven degrees of humility. How far along are you?

Here are St. Anselm’s degrees of humility (as quoted in the Summa Theologica IIa IIae q. 161a. 6):

1. to acknowledge oneself contemptible,

2. to grieve on account of it,

3. to confess it,

4. to convince others to believe this,

5. to bear patiently that this be said of us,

6. to suffer oneself to be treated with contempt, and

7. to love being thus treated

In this video do you think that Lancelot might be struggling just a bit with pride?

Fix Me, Jesus; Fix Me – Three Reasons Why Even Our Spiritual Life Needs Fixing

When I was a good bit younger, in college actually, I had to take a few economics and marketing courses. At that time I thought to myself, “God has a bad marketing department,” since things like Scripture and prayer were often so difficult to understand and do. God seemed to insist that we pray, but everyone I ever asked admitted that prayer was difficult. And while many had reasons they offered as to why prayer was difficult, I still wondered why, if God could just zap prayer and make it delightful, He didn’t just do so. “Yes,” I thought, “God has a bad marketing plan!”

But of course God isn’t selling products; He’s raising children. He’s healing hearts, and heart surgery involves pain and often lengthy procedures. Many purifications, mortifications, and changes are going to be necessary if we want to attain holiness and Heaven.

Let’s look at three reasons our soul needs purification. Note that purifications of the soul are akin to, but distinct from, the mortifications necessary for our body and the passions related to it (e.g., gluttony, lust, and greed). For our soul, too, can be weighed down with excesses and defects.

Drawing from the spiritual masters and St. Thomas Aquinas, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange details three reasons that our soul needs purification, especially as we begin to make progress. They are spiritual pride, spiritual gluttony, and spiritual sloth. Each of these brings conditions and temptations to a soul that is beginning to make some progress in prayer and fervency. The very gifts of progress and fervency are also possible dangers to the ongoing growth that is needed. Thus God purifies us in diverse manners in order to avoid having these traps capture us entirely.

Let’s look at each in turn. The text is my own, but the insights and inspiration are found in Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange’s Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol two, pp. 44ff, Tan Publications.

I. Spiritual pride – This comes when a person, having made some progress and experienced consolations as well as the deeper prayer of a proficient, begins to consider himself a spiritual master. He or she may also start to judge others severely who seem to have made less progress.

Those afflicted with spiritual pride often “shop around” for a spiritual director, looking for one who affirms rather than challenges their insights. Further, they tend to minimize the true reality of their sins out of a desire to appear more perfected than they really are.

Soon enough we have a Pharisee of sorts, who regards himself too favorably and others too poorly. There is also the problem of hypocrisy, since spiritual pride would have one play the role of a spiritual master and proficient, when one really is not.

God, therefore, must often humble the soul who has begun to make progress. In a certain sense He slows the growth, lest the greatest enemy, pride, claim all the growth.

II. Spiritual sensuality – This is a kind of spiritual gluttony, which consists in being immoderately attached to spiritual consolations. God does sometimes grant these to the soul, but the danger is that the consolations come to be sought for their own sake. One starts to love the consolations of God more than the God of all consolations. Growth in the love of God for His own sake is too easily lost or becomes confused and entangled. Or even worse, it becomes contingent upon consolations, visions, and the like.

Hence God must often withhold these for the sake of the soul, which must learn the discipline of prayer, with or without consolations, and to love God for His own sake. Uncorrected, spiritual gluttony can lead to spiritual sloth, which we consider next.

III. Spiritual sloth – This emerges when spiritual gluttony or other expectations of prayer are not met. There sets up a kind of impatience or even disgust for prayer and the narrow way of the spiritual life. Flowing from this is discouragement, a sluggishness that cancels zeal, and the dissipation of prayer and other spiritual practices. One allows endless distractions, makes excuses, shortens prayer and other spiritual exercises, or does them in a perfunctory manner.

Here, too, God must seek to purify the soul of attachment to consolations, lest such sloth lead to a complete disgust and a refusal to walk the narrow way of the spiritual life. Perhaps this sort of purification will take place through secondary causes, wherein the Lord acts though a spiritual director to insist on prayer, no matter how difficult. Perhaps, too, certain seasons such as Lent and Advent, or other “ember days” and the like will be used by God to bring greater zeal to the soul weighed down with spiritual sloth.

Clearly, God must correct this spiritual sloth and help us to accept God and prayer on His terms, not ours. The insistence on delight and consolations on our own terms is a great enemy to the docility and humility necessary for true growth.

Yes, there are many purifications necessary for us, whether we like to admit it or not. We might like to think that our spiritual life would itself be free from excesses or defects or at least would be a sign of great progress. But often even the most beautiful prayer experiences and spiritual stages are replete with the need for purification and further growth. Perhaps this is what Isaiah meant when he wrote,

In our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?  We have all become like one who is unclean, and even our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment (Is 64:5-6).

This song says, “Fix me, Jesus; Fix me.”