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.
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
Anatomy Lesson One: The Cardinal or Deadly Sins lead to other sins– The story powerfully shows how lust, one of the seven cardinal, (a.k.a. capital, or deadly) sins leads to numerous other sins. This is the nature of the seven deadly sins and explains why they are often called Cardinal Sins. In Latin “cardines” means “hinge”. Hence, the seven deadly sins are like hinges on which many other sins “swing.” In this story the deadly sin of lust leads to immodest inquiry, violation of privacy, attempted seduction, unjust accusation, exploitation, lies, oppression, and even to attempted murder. King David too had given way to lust and it led to lies, and ultimately to the murder of Uriah the Hittite by David in which David involved not only himself but his generals. This is what the seven deadly sins do, they lead inexorably to other sins.
Anatomy Lesson Two: The Sequential Sources of Sin. 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.
- 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 us that something is really OK that deep down inside we know isn’t OK. We 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 and 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 quite an effort and it is 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.
- they would not allow their eyes to look to heaven– In order to sustain the fictions, stinking thinking, rationalizations, and sophistry 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. But the cumulative effect is that they are no longer looking to heaven or to God, but rather to a fake God, a false kingdom, an idol. Either way, the purpose is for the individual to isolate and insulate themselves from God and what he reveals. This makes it easier to maintain the rather exhausting effort of suppressing their conscience. So for these men step two in engaged and it further supports the suppression of conscience necessary to commit sin without the pain of guilt.
- and did not keep in mind just judgments– 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. This final stage 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 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.
Then, having suppressed the voice of God to the extent he can and having removed himself from heaven’s influence, and denied that anything of negative consequence will come, he is free to sin gravely. It is as though he 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: