Pride, Courage, Perception and the Value of a Good Example

All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question “If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?” You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is!

C.S. Lewis The Screwtape letters

One of the clubs that’s frequently used to discount Christianity in general & Catholicism in particular is the “hypocrisy card” the idea that the commission of and struggles with sin are proof that the entire faith is somehow false and worthy of being dismissed.

Now while a society that does not have the understanding of basic Christianity that it once did,  said society might not realize the entire basis of Christianity is the need for the redemption of sinful man.

A practicing Christian of any denomination has no excuse for ignoring that vital fact and acting accordingly.

I’ve talked about courage as being a vital ingredient to Christian virtue.  To many that statement brings to mind facing an Islamist’s sword when being ordered to convert, facing a lawsuit when refusing to sin or being willing to loudly proclaim their faith in the church in public.

However sometimes a shortage of courage doesn’t involve such dramatic things, sometimes it involves something as small as like facing your priest when you need to confess a sin that’s embarrassing.

Christians sin, sometimes on great matters, sometimes on small matters and sometimes on matters that might to others seems small but still rise to the level of mortal sin or grave sin according to doctrine.  We all know this as rote

But what happens when that person is you.  What happens furthermore when you are a person who knows doctrine, attends daily mass, recognizes a temptation,  understand that temptation is to a grave sin, then commits it anyways?  That realization is an incredible burden.

Not so much for the slings and arrows of those who don’t believe or who dislike Christianity, frankly those are badges of honor and might actually provide relief and distraction from the state of one’s soul, that requires less courage than you might think.

But try facing a priest you know when you’ve committed a sin that embarrasses you.  That’s a different story.  You know in theory the priest doesn’t judge you but you say to yourself.  What must be going through his mind?  He sees you at mass, he sees you pray the rosary, he sees you do devotions, does he think you’re a phony?

And if that’s not complicated enough consider the guidelines for receiving communion per the USCCB (emphasis mine)

As Catholics, we fully participate in the celebration of the Eucharist when we receive Holy Communion. We are encouraged to receive Communion devoutly and frequently. In order to be properly disposed to receive Communion, participants should not be conscious of grave sin and normally should have fasted for one hour. A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord without prior sacramental confession except for a grave reason where there is no opportunity for confession. In this case, the person is to be mindful of the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, including the intention of confessing as soon as possible (canon 916). A frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance is encouraged for all.

and remember “being embarrassed by your sin” does not constitute a “grave reason where there is no opportunity for confession”.

I found myself in that situation last week and found myself in a quandary.  I had been wrestling with sin and received confession but within a couple of days I was in the same boat.  Because I am familiar with the norms I couldn’t in good conscience receive communion but I still didn’t approach my priest, embarrassed not only by my sin but at how soon after confession I had fallen into it.

I found myself skipping communion one day,  then another.  I couldn’t bring myself to sit in my normal spot at Mass staying in the back.  I felt every eye was on me “Why isn’t HE going up for communion, what did he do?”  Oddly enough the temptation of the primary sin that put me in this mess was gone, it wasn’t needed, that introductory sin  had already roped me into the much more effective and deadly sin of pride which was rapidly joined to despair.  I found myself judging not the others but myself,  judging the sincerity of my own prayers condemning myself and tricking my way toward the only unforgivable sin not seeking and accepting forgiveness that was there for the asking.

It was a trap worthy of the master psychologist who set it for me:

In this state your patient will not omit, but he will increasingly dislike, his religious duties. He will think about them as little as he feels he decently can beforehand, and forget them as soon as possible when they are over. A few weeks ago you had to tempt him to unreality and inattention in his prayers: but now you will find him opening his arms to you and almost begging you to distract his purpose and benumb his heart. He will want his prayers to be unreal, for he will dread nothing so much as effective contact with the Enemy. His aim will be to let sleeping worms lie.

Then an interesting thing happened while I was at mass one morning I noted a person I had seen many times but I had never formally met.  It was a mother with young children.  I had often seen her at daily mass and admired her willingness to make mass daily with young (and sometimes difficult) children in tow.   I remembered how hard that was once a week so her ability to do it nearly daily really impressed me.  So when mass was over I introduced myself complemented her and thanked her for her example.  This  produced a welcome smile on her face as she did her best to control her rather active toddler.

At that point it hit me how small my worries were next to hers and approached the priest near the altar asking if he had time to hear my confession.  By an odd coincidence there was another woman ahead of me who was making the same request.  The priest told me that he would be happy to do so but there were two ahead of me so he suggested I wait in the back of the church till he had finished with his post mass duties and he would hear our confessions in order.

I went to a pew near the back of the church and knelt down in prayer waiting for the priest, a few minutes later started heading for the confessional in the back of the church.  I knew the woman next to me was ahead of me so I turned around to see who was first and that’s when I saw that pious young lady toddler in hand enter the confessional just behind the priest.

I laughed aloud and it was a laugh of relief  This young lady provided me with the final example I needed.  Here I was worrying about how going to confession a few days early would look and here was this woman whose piety I admired taking the sacrament with humility (it hit me that she also had skipped communion staying in the crying room but at the time I presumed it was due to the rambunctious child).  When I got into the confessional I poured out my sins, not just the base one that got the ball rolling but the pride and despair as well.

Father listened intently and gave me one other important perspective.

He talked of the great saints and how they attended confession but not just that they received the sacrament for the sake of receiving it but how they perceived their own sins and how those sins pressed upon them.  While others saw them as examples the more advanced they progressed in the faith, the better their understanding of God the more conscious they were of their own inadequacies and failures like a professional carpenter seeing a beam that’s a 1/32″ off line or a support that’s failing when  an untrained person or amateur eye might not see a thing.  To the casual observer they were the holiest of men and women, to themselves, experienced in the way of Christ & the Church they saw themselves as they were and did not hesitate to ask for the forgiveness and absolution that they needed to progress further.

It’s one thing to know something in your head, it’s another to have the understanding written on your soul.

I left that confessional in tears from the joy of absolution and with the knowledge that the relief & release I was feeling from my sins was the very same as the great saints whose path each one of us are called to follow and that young woman will likely never know how she helped me back on the path I needed to be.

Without question the Lord works in mysterious ways.