Sin and the Decent Chap

A lot of people are mad about the new translation of the Mass. For my part, I have always had a phobia of debates about liturgical arcana, which somehow seem to sap the vitality of my liturgical fervor as fast as you can say Summorum Pontificum, and I will not pronounce on the goodness or badness of the translation on the whole.

However, there is one change in particular that stands out, not least because it has drawn the fire of theological “liberals” to a degree second only to the much ballyhooed change from “all” to “many” in the prayers of the consecration. But while “many” is obviously a more faithful translation, it seems equally obvious to me that the theology involved is not as stark as some make it out to be: for in one sense Christ obviously came to save “all,” and in another sense, “many.” Besides, most laypeople have probably not even noticed the change.

The change I’m talking about, on the other hand, sticks out like a sore thumb, and is so packed with implications that it is bound to provoke ruminations even amongst the most un-theologically astute members of the congregation. This is the restoration of the repetition and the chest thumping in the Confiteor. Whereas the Confiteor used to read simply, “though my own fault,” it now reads, “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” And while previously the penitent admitted simply to having “sinned,” now he admits to having “greatly sinned.”

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Now, there’s absolutely no question that this is a better translation: the old was simply an arbitrary and unauthorized abridgement of the Latin. And there should also be no question about the fact that the new translation is truer to the whole spirit of Christianity, not to mention the simple and obvious fact of the matter: that we are all “grievous” sinners. But it seems that many are questioning this.

One commentator at a relatively well-known publication complained about the change, saying: “I don’t know about you, but I don’t go around sinning ‘greatly’.” And that’s pretty much the same tone taken up by other detractors: “Sure, I might not be perfect,” they say. “But on the whole I’m a decent chap. I don’t steal, I don’t murder. My sins are small, and you would understand why I did them if you’d just give me a minute to explain. Sin ‘grievously’? I think not. So what’s with the guilt trip?”

I wish I could say that this was a delusion shared only by the species of Catholic that works at places like America magazine and the National Catholic Reporter. But, unfortunately, “sin” is a word that has long been banished from the interiors of churches, leaving most of us to labor under the misapprehension that we want just a little spot cleaning and we’ll be prepped and ready to pop into heaven at a second’s notice.

The problem, of course, is that we are usually measuring ourselves against the wrong standard. Mostly we are measuring ourselves against the standard of our neighbour, which, in practice, mostly means that we are carefully analyzing and archiving our neighbour’s every fault and foible, and, with any time left, busily thinking up compelling excuses for all of our own. However, not only is any sense of superiority engendered by such a comparison almost universally wrong and based upon deceptive appearances, it is of practically no value. If the goal is for our souls become white, is there much point in saying, “Well, thank God my soul is marginally less black than that of the next fellow”? It may or may not be true that our soul is less black, but it is still black, and a long way from the white that it is supposed to be.

If we want to be white, then, we need to compare ourselves against a standard of absolute white. In the moral life, this means that we must compare ourselves to a standard of perfect love. Most of us find this an extremely disturbing thought. Deep down most of us sincerely believe that the goal of life is just to be a little better than our neighbour, and to slip into heaven on the strength of a sort of divine Bell Curve. But we aren’t called simply to be better than our neighbour, we are called to become Godlike. We are called to be perfect, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

The problem is that not only do we not take Jesus at his word when he said we should be aiming for perfection, but we don’t have any clear conception of what perfection looks like in the first place. And this is odd, because the model of perfect love is right in front of our eyes, clearly painted for us each of the four Gospels. Remember? “No greater love has any man than this, to lay down his life for his friends.” And then He – the perfectly innocent lamb – went ahead and allowed himself to be crucified for our sake.

This is what it means to be perfect: to be willing to give all for the sake of others. And this is what we are supposed to be aiming for.

When you first start thinking in these terms, it can be somewhat depressing. I remember one such depressing eureka moment in my own life, which disabused me of many misconceptions about myself. It happened while I was reading C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain. In one passage, Lewis talks about what we are talking about here: the need to restore the “sense of sin,” which he argues is a prerequisite for the Christian message of salvation to make any sense at all.

In this passage, Lewis gently, and with all his English charm, peels back all the artifice and self-delusion by which we convince ourselves that we are “alright” and a “decent chap.” In fact, he says, if you just stopped all this futile comparing-yourself-to-your-neighbour business, and really looked inside your heart, you would realize the “real truth” about yourself: what Lewis calls, “the persistent, life-long, inner murmur of spite, jealousy, prurience, greed and self-complacence.”

That phrase stopped me dead in my tracks. It was as if Lewis was holding up a mirror to my soul, forcing me to look at that at which I did not want to look. And what I saw was that whereas I was frequently congratulating myself for whatever piddling efforts in the virtuous life I was making, these were nothing compared to the constant, largely unchecked voice inside my head that was repeating over and over and over: “me, me, me, me.” This was the base value of my moral life, and the moments of virtue and authentic love the rare exception, like the flicker of a firefly at night. Even many of my so-called “virtuous” actions – things that other people might have praised me for – were so often motivated by a desire to be noticed, and to be liked, which isn’t love at all, even if it happens to look like it to the outside observer.

What, after all, is the essence of love? If Christ is right, and the greatest love is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, then it seems that the essence of all love is this willingness to sacrifice the self for the sake of another: to put the “me” under the heel of your boot and to crush it into a pulp. Even if we aren’t actually being martyred for the sake of our friends, all love has this common factor at its root: self-sacrifice.  And if the purpose of our life is to attain to perfect love, then it isn’t good enough to be “nice” or “good” or a “decent chap.” This is pansy stuff. Perfect love means that our entire life, everything that we do, every breath we take, every thought we think, every move we make, is an act of love directed at another: whether our neighbour or God. Perfect love means to be a burning flame of love, to so completely empty ourselves of all self-seeking that the only thing that is left is love – or, in other words, God. This, in fact, is how all the famous mystics talk about the purpose of our life: to literally become a god, by emptying ourselves, and letting God (who is Love) enter in and take the place of the self: to become perfect conduits of God’s love. This is perfection.

Now stop and ask yourself, how do you measure up to this standard? If you’re like me, you don’t even register on the scale. And this is the point: compared to common standards of decency – of the “good chap” – we might be able to muster a passing grade, to convince ourselves that on the whole we’re not doing so bad (certainly we’re doing a heck of a lot better than so-and-so, who you happen to know beats his wife when he gets drunk). But compared to the perfect love which we are called to attain, we are all wretches, without exception. We are all “grievous” sinners. In this sense I think that there is something a little dangerous about those little pamphlets that you find at the back of churches that help you prepare for confession by considering each of the Ten Commandments and how you’ve broken each of them. No doubt they are useful for the man who has deserted the sacrament and is returning for a long overdue scrubbing of the conscience. But what about the regular penitent?

To me it seems that somehow the categories in these pamphlets are too neat. In the confused ebb and flow of lived life, our sins aren’t always so easily categorized, don’t always amount to a specific or pin-pointable action that violates commandment number X and that we have committed Y number of times. Sure it’s easy when it comes to some of the more serious mortal sins: it’s not hard to count number of bodies you’ve left in the wake of your murderous rampage, the number of banks you’ve robbed, the number of wives you’ve had and the number of women you’ve cheated on them with.

But what’s less easy is to meticulously categorize and number that “persistent, life-long, inner murmur of spite, jealousy, prurience, greed and self-complacence” that Lewis speaks of. This is something that, if you’re honest with yourself, you will find weaves its way in and out of your every thought and every action, continually perverting your every effort at living authentic love un-poisoned by the dross of self-serving. More often than not it reveals itself not in the thoughts we have or the things we do, but in the thoughts we don’t have, and the things we don’t do. Particularly in the fact that, despite being offered a million chances, we still haven’t begun to take God and his demands seriously, instead relegating God to the periphery of our lives, giving him a token nod from time to time, repeatedly rejecting His invitation to holiness for a fleeting and adulterous affair with his lesser creations.

It seems to me that until we come to this realization – that we are, indeed, “grievous” sinners – we cannot even begin to live the spiritual life and make progress towards holiness.  And thus I am grateful for the new Mass translation for providing the regular reminder that, indeed, I am a wretch, and in enormous need of the gratuitous mercy of God.


  • John Jalsevac

    John Jalsevac lives in Lakefield, Ontario with his wife and three children, where he brews beer, makes cheese, sings songs and writes stories in his free time, and works as the managing editor of the rest of the time.

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