Some years ago I was invited to address the Year 13 students at one of our local Catholic High Schools. The session was in preparation for the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation with the students.
During the class I asked the young people if they were sinners. Initially three or four put up their hands, but after asking again, a few more indicated that indeed they were sinners. So that I could proceed with the point more I asked the reverse question: I asked if anyone thought they were not a sinner. No hands, so I moved on with my point.
I then suggested that in thinking of ourselves as sinners, we tend to think only of the tip of the iceberg. I might name a few things I did wrong and some things I didn’t do right. I might even think of some thoughts and attitudes or fears that I know to be sinful.
But still, this is only the visible tip. Underneath, deep in my subconscious, there is a mass of sinful disorder. At my core I am often oriented away from all that is truly life-giving. I am fighting against the loving creators intention for me.
In short, we are much worse sinners that we might ever imagine.
Yes, this is bad news. But before the class could get too depressed I told them the good news. God’s forgiveness and mercy is much more abundant that we could ever need. In fact, our acknowledged (confessed) sin, becomes our capacity for the overwhelming love and mercy of God.
Immediately after the class, the teacher came up to me pretty upset. The concern was along the lines that the school was doing all it could to boost the self-esteem of these students, and the priest (me) comes in, and in a few comments trashes all the teacher’s work.
This teacher’s response reveals a serious misunderstanding of the cause of self-esteem. It also reveals a major confusion about the potentially fatal consequences of sin.
But the teacher is not alone. We so easily forget that the path to the life we seek is not found by avoiding death, pain, and the sinful reality within us, but by allowing Jesus to carry us through the cross, and beyond the tomb, to the risen life we so desperately seek.
Indeed, sin entered the world through a single action of selfish grasping at an escape from the beauty and abundance of earthly existence. Let me take a couple of paragraphs to explain.
Human self-esteem is not a human achievement. A healthy self-image is not the result of successfully ‘looking on the bright side’. Instead self esteem begins and thrives in the one who is able to honestly acknowledge their reality. This reality is often suffering, pain, anxiety, and boredom in the midst of interminable and mundane routines.
Too often advertising uses this struggling human reality as the hook to capture our desires. Of course we want to be free of the “painful” parts of this earthly existence! The world of advertising takes this healthy desire (which is actually our healthy human need for God) and seeks to convince us that their product is the solution. Now that they have our attention, they proffer potions and lotions, food, pastimes, paradise island vacations and other escapes. But when I return from one escape, when one anaesthesia wears off, then I am faced with my reality once again, so I plan another vacation or have another drink. We can all relate to this pattern.
But the honest and reflective person will have moments of alert awareness. In these grace-full moments we notice that all is not well. There must be more to life than an endless grasping at fleeting satisfactions. Now we are ready for God.
In this moment of insight, I may feel especially vulnerable and helpless. It may be as though a great light has shone on the reality of my life and I wonder if I have any purpose at all. All my successes may seem as nothing, and my sin will be magnified – as if I am defined by my rejection of the real life that God has created me for. But this is the moment when real conversion is offered. We may have an awareness that it is not possible to break from the snares of habits alone. In the end there is nowhere to turn but to Jesus.
It is helpful to remember that we are all in this boat together. We are not alone. In the family of the Church we cry out together in need of God’s forgiveness and mercy. Even the saints! A saint is not someone who does not sin. Instead a saint IS a sinner, who has the wisdom and humility to continually to acknowledge their sin before God. A saint is one who knows Jesus well enough to know that he never tires of forgiving us, and embracing us anew in love.
In fact, the most intimate way in which we can show our love for Jesus, is by repeatedly turning to him seeking his forgiveness. In doing this we are acknowledging that we accept the reality of God as loving and merciful:
“So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven because she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Luke 7:50