By Victor Lee Austin
“The first thing to get straight is whether you believe there is such a thing as sin.”
It was my initial meeting for spiritual direction with the late J. Robert Wright, professor at the General Theological Seminary; it was a couple of years after seminary. He seemed willing to proceed regardless of my take on the subject. He noted widespread views in our church. There are many who don’t believe that sin names anything. They believe there is misunderstanding and ignorance, of course, but once you subtract the effects of upbringing, genetic constitution, misfortune, malformed social structures, and so forth, there is no personal action left over for us to call “sin.”
A classical mind could reflect that such was also Socrates’s view. If people were educated to see the good, they would want it and act to promote it. Sin is a failure of education. No one with clear sight desires something that’s bad. Aristotle was on a similar track when he began his ethics with the observation that all of us, when we act, are seeking something we reckon to be good. Every action aims at a good.
Although Father Wright framed the question with his customary irony that gestured toward the confusions of liberal Episcopalians, it was in fact a serious question. And so it remains.
Over the years I came to make less of sin in my prayers. I had the view, common to students shaped by the liturgical renewal, that our tradition had over-emphasized sin. I skipped the confession at the beginning of Morning Prayer, for instance: since 1979 it has been optional, and I was sensitized to see it as an interference. Better to begin straight off with “O Lord, open thou our lips.” Every day, the first thing is to ask God to open our lips so that we may praise him. How messy, it seemed to me, and how confused, to start instead with confession and only afterward ask God to open my lips.
The prayers of confession are optional in our principal liturgies: Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, even on occasion the Eucharist. Indeed to have all those prayers of confession does lengthen those services, and by sheer frequent repetition the temptation is to move over them quickly without self-reflection. If there was once a worry that Communion would start to seem trite if it were received, as is now common, weekly, surely there could be a similar worry about trivializing confession by frequently saying those prayers.
What I have come to see is that just as the worry over frequent Communion was misplaced (and the concerns of trivialization can be guarded against), so with the worry over frequent confession of sin.
The change crystalized while I was walking the Camino earlier this year. In long solo stretches, accompanied only by my thoughts and the Lord, the question Father Wright posed three decades in the past leapt into my present.
I grasp and have tried to teach the theological lodestones on this matter. Evil is a sort of hole in reality; it’s not a substance in itself. But there are evil choices, actions that aim for a lesser good at the expense of a higher good. To steal from my neighbor is to desire something good from my neighbor (in that sense it aims at a certain good), but it is evil or a sin because it is a failure to love my neighbor more than I love my neighbor’s goods.
You cannot explain the failure that is sin. This is a literal truth. The thief could say that he desired something his neighbor had, but why did he love that thing more than he loved his neighbor? There is no accounting for that failure. Socrates was right to say that to act to achieve something bad does not make sense. He was wrong, however, to think that such actions occur only in ignorance.
All this was mere background, however, and not the present reality of the Camino. As I tried to say old memorized prayers, or almost-memorized prayers, as I was walking, I discovered to my surprise depths in the old prayers of confession of sin.
“Amighty and most merciful Father,” begins the confession in Morning and Evening Prayer (Rite One). God is both all-powerful and overflowing with mercy, which is good news; moreover, he is related to us in a familial way. Thus the prayer establishes a safe space to be honest with ourselves.
What follows is not a definition of sin but rather a layering of images:
“We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.”
“We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.”
“We have offended against thy holy laws.”
“We left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”
Four layerings are here, beginning with the straying sheep who are errant, not following God’s ways. On the Camino, a Spanish-predominant context, one is aware that the word for “way” is camino. I’m walking the Camino, and I’m saying I have erred and strayed from God’s caminos. The camino of my life has not been God’s camino.
Then it moves to the interior: our hearts are not right; they have “devices and desires” that are our own, and not God’s.
Then an objective move: there are laws, holy laws, God’s own laws, and we have offended against them.
At last comes a focus on our own actions, that they are not what we ought to have done, and our inactions, that they are precisely what we should have done.
All together, these four layers provide a cartography of sin. Sin looks like errant walking. It has the interiority of a conniving and evil-desiring heart. It is the breaking of real spiritual laws. And it culminates in the personal anguish of impotence, the inability to carry out the good we want to do, and the accomplishment of evil things that we do not, really, want to do.
This, frankly, is brilliant. Sin neither starts nor ends with law-breaking. It starts with an almost innocent wandering off, and it ends with the dissolution of personality. The end of sin, we could say, is impotence. Its true end is self-destruction, not as God’s laying a punishment upon us but rather as the inner meaning of all we have done. A simple and perhaps even cute lost sheep turns into an ugly, self-obliterated human.
The older version of this prayer concluded this cartography of sin with the wrap-up line: “And there is no health in us.” One could say: this is not literally true. As long as we are able to confess our sins, we still have some measure of health. If our bodies had no health at all, they would be dead. Similarly, if the moral truth of our being were that we had no health, we would be spiritually dead.
But the inevitable direction that sin imposes upon us is in fact toward the complete loss of health. We have boarded the train whose destination is annihilation. It is good to see where we are going, and often, in the crisis of anguish, it is not hard to see.
Hence we beseech divine intervention. We need mercy. Only an intervention by an all-powerful being will be able to help. And we have the hope that that being will tie us to himself personally.
The prayer that follows confession (in Rite One) has a pedagogically significant structure. Let me write it as any of us might say it on our own: “The Almighty and merciful Lord grant us absolution and remission of all our sins, true repentance, amendment of life, and the grace and consolation of his Holy Spirit.” Notice the order. The first item is God’s taking away our sins. The second item is his giving us true repentance. God’s forgiving us is the necessary antecedent of our having true repentance, and indeed, to repent of our sins is God’s work in us also. The third item is amendment of life: that too is something God must work in us, and we don’t — can’t — change our lives prior to his forgiveness. Every step of the way is God’s, not ours. Even the final item, which looks forward to our living in the future, underscores God’s initiative. It is God’s Holy Spirit, alive in us, who consoles us that we can go on living, and might even now live well, by the power of his grace in us.
Yes, Father Wright, I believe that sin is a reality in my life. With increasing and daily fervency, I pray a confession. And along this camino of life I sometimes pause thankfully for the ever-amazing, thoughtful depths in our prayer book tradition.