The first reflection of a series of posts on the topic of “Sin Mysticism”
It is better to be a tragic sinner than a prideful pharisee but it is much better to be a saint than a tragic sinner.
So often I have taken lightly the mistakes I have made and continue to make. I joke around about my bad habits and reassure my listeners that if and when I reach Purgatory...at least I’ll be with friends. Although comments such as these are humorous and can be said tastefully they can bear a flawed attitude toward sin. This flawed attitude is not always present but I have often found it within myself, within my own understanding of my sinfulness. There are times when rebuked and wrongfully judged by the self-righteous we think to ourselves, “well at least I’m not prideful, my sins keep me humble.” So often have I caught myself muttering this phrase during moments of bitterness. It is as if in my mind I have placed a halo above my sins, petting and doting on my weaknesses as if they were something to be proud of, something which protects me from pride. Dietrich von Hildebrand titled this flawed attempt to glorify sin, “sin mysticism.” Sin mysticism cherishes sin in the same way a child holds on tight to his favorite blanket. ““Sin mysticism” projects into sin a kind of mysterious depth, a halo of humility, as though sin itself were a protection against pharisiasm” (pg 95). This is an uncomfortable topic for those of us who would like to continue reassuring ourselves that our sins are only common mistakes which keep us clear from ever dipping our toes into the pool of pride. However, sin mysticism seems to accomplish what it swears to defend it’s sinner against. Sin mysticism convinces the sinner that they are morally superior to the self-righteous man instilling a false sense of spiritual pride. The sinner is led to the mistaken conclusion that the unjust actions of the self-righteous condone or allow for their flawed response. “...the unmerciless judgement of the self-righteous only stains the self-righteous but it does not cleanse the sinner.” (pg.95)
I have previously spoken of the “tragic sinner”, the sinner who detests their sins but tragically fails to break free of them. An example of this type of sinner would be the repentant drunkard. Hildebrand has proved that a tragic sinner can have a more sincere love of God than the self-righteous or mediocre morally correct man. In spite of this Hildebrand makes it clear that in no way is the tragic sinner to be seen as the antithesis of the self-righteous. “...it is impossible to oppose the self-righteous to the tragic sinner, it is opposing one type of sin to another sin.”(pg.96) The antithesis to the self-righteous is to be found in the humility and charity of the saint. As sinners, despite our weaknesses, heroic virtue must always be our goal. Accepting the wretchedness of sin may make us comfortable in the moment but it does not ensure the eternal happiness that virtue promises.
Consider for instance the husband who fails to love his wife in the way he promised her in their vows. For the past ten years the husband has been growing more and more distant as he obsesses over his work and achieving success in the workplace. They no longer eat meals together; he gets home too late. They no longer kiss, let alone carry on a decent conversation. The feeling of his embrace is a faint memory, a memory his wife tries to relive in her dreams. She cries herself to sleep desperately hoping that he’ll kiss her on the cheek when he gets home.
The husband comes home from a long day at work, feeling tired, feeling empty. He put in the long hours to make the extra cash, to pay the overdue bills and yet he still feels like a failure. As he prepares for bed and brushes his teeth in the bathroom he notices a family photo sitting on the marble counter. He thought it strange that the photo was in the bathroom...his wife must have put it there. Before turning towards his bed he glanced back at the photo and caught sight of something he hadn’t noticed for some time...his wife. Immediately tears rushed to his eyes and he broke down and cried.
His wife slowly drifting off to sleep prayed, “If only he’d kiss me goodnight.”
If the story ended with the husband simply accepting his failings but deciding not to strive to better himself for the sake of his wife the audience would be appalled. It is not enough to accept our sinfulness and carry on with our lives. Our sins do not make us humble, grace makes us humble. Hildebrand points out that for the sinner to be humbled and penitent depends upon their moral personality which existed before the sin. There are many sinners who become blunted due to sin and become less aware of their helplessness and sinfulness.(pg 102) Therefore sin can not be the means by which we achieve humility or a true conversion. Although, God’s grace may make a St.Paul out of a Saul of Tarsus, which may occur after sinning, it never occurs through sinning.
We must not forget the ugliness of sin but fight it till our last breath. Sins do not define us as human beings, we should not include them on a list of our personality traits. They are a condition which is swept away by God’s forgiveness, by His passion. As Josemaria Escriva rightly said, “Don't say: 'That's the way I'm made... it's my character'. It's your lack of character.”
Image 1: source
Image 2: sourceQuotes: Pages 95,96,102. Morality and Situation Ethics, Dietrich von Hildebrand (Chicago, Franciscan Herald Press, 1966)