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Self-Knowledge as a Sinner
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The first step on the road to sanctity is a knowledge of Gods plan - His plan for the universe at large and His plan for me. In fact, a good descriptive definition of "vocation" is "God's plan for me".
But if that is the first and fundamental basis on which we can build the edifice of holiness, the second is the knowledge of self. Without the knowledge of God we couldn't talk about growth in holiness, since holiness is becoming like God, and we must first know who God is and what His plans are for me if I wish to aspire to become like Him. But correspondingly, there would be no realism in the pursuit of sanctity unless along with and beyond my knowing God, I also knew myself, because it is I who am to work out my salvation and sanctification.
Now this knowledge of self comprehends many things. It includes, as we have seen, the knowledge of the fact that I have a fallen human nature. It is an awareness of the fact that, living as I do by faith, I must motivate myself to do some things which I do not like and not to do certain things which I do like - not because I fully understand, but because I believe.
But there is one particular area of self knowledge that is indispensable if we are ever to grow in that sanctity to which we have been called. I must know myself as a sinner and that in two ways, So, the present conference will span both the knowledge of myself as a sinner in the light of my past sins and sinful tendencies; and the knowledge of myself in the pursuit of holiness in my moral weaknesses. These two are not the same.
First then, these past sins. It is one thing to talk about my past sins in a generic, almost abstract, admission: "Well, yes. I belong to the human race. The human race is a sinful human family; therefore, I too must have been a sinner." It is more than that. Each one of us has his or her own history of sin and it is as much a part of our personality as is the spirit with which God created us. No two of us have the same past history. It may be called part of our respective autobiographies, so that when we speak of past sins it is not just sins in general. It's my sins; God has been offended in a unique way by me.
Clearly, the masters of the spiritual life would not insist on our periodic reflection on our past sinfulness if it were merely a question of recalling what we had done. It's more than that. We are to profit spiritually from our past sins; we are all in this sense Magdalenes who, having sinned, are to be holier for having sinned. How can our past sins be a stepping stone to holiness? They become such when we practice a conscious awareness of what we have done in offending God. This awareness is not a mere passive knowledge; it is not mere data in my memory. It corresponds to the Psalmist's term, "My sins are always before me." I may know something vaguely about the fact that I have sinned. But this is different. It corresponds to the difference between knowing some past event, and now recalling it and having it before my mind.
This is one aspect of hagiography (that is, of the writings by and about the saints) that we are likely to pass over. You see that is why the Confessions of Saint Augustine have remained such a great classic of spiritual self-revelation. Augustine, and by now the thousands of lesser Augustines who have written about their past sins, did so with the deliberate intent of becoming aware of the fact that they had offended God.
But there is more to this awareness. It is not merely an active knowledge, not only the fact of recalling that I have done wrong. It is the consciousness of the state of soul that I induced because of the acts of sin I committed. This bears some explanation. When we sin we do two things. We do something wrong, and we leave a defect in the soul which did the wrong. Therefore, we are sinners twice over: (once in having committed actions that were wrong, but now are gone; end also in having as a result produced a sinful and therefore more estranged condition in my soul. Estranged from whom? From God.
Suppose a husband in a burst of temper before he leaves for work in the morning says some bitter things to his wife. At the office he comes to himself. "What a fool I was," he says. Now that husband did more than just perpetrate the wrong action in speaking bitterly to a devoted wife. He created a barrier between himself and her. When we sin it's not merely the act of wrong doing; it's also the estrangement that follows, depending of course on the gravity and the deliberateness of what I've done wrong. How this bears emphasis! Otherwise, we shall somehow get the mistaken notion that having done wrong, "All I've got to do now is to do something right. I did something bad; now I do something good. " Like what? " Like telling God that I'm sorry, making a good confession and - it's over with." Oh no! Of course, if the confession has been well made, even grave sin as far as the guilt is concerned is removed. But who says that the removal of guilt also automatically erases the estrangement that has been created between God and the soul? That's what reparation and expiation are all about.
Finally, still on this level of my past sins, I am consciously aware of them as a means of growing in holiness. This is to be a conscious awareness, which means that I cultivate the habit of a frequent mental advertence to both my sins and my sinful state. We need this in the pursuit of holiness because a large part of the trials of serving God faithfully, the difficulties and the effort that has to be expended, needs to be motivated by this fact: that I know I should do it because I am a sinner, and a thousand lives would not fully undo what I did, perhaps in a few minutes, in having offended God and then left a barrier between Him and me that He gives me the rest of my life to work at removing.
It means paying attention to the fact, and not merely periodically, as it were, having it rise from the subconscious: "Oh yes I've sinned." It's more than that. It is a deep-souled attitude of mind: "I'm a sinner! That's my name. And no matter what good things I may have done in life, and please God by now they have been many, I don't lose the realism when reciting the Hail Mary, 'Pray for us sinners'. I mean it; that's me!" So much for the knowledge of my past sins, which is not a mere statistical enumeration of what I've done wrong but an awareness of the kind of person I am: a sinner.
But I'm also to be aware of my sinful tendencies. My sinful tendencies are a compound of many elements. These are the two principal ones, identified for prayerful reflection and implementation. The sinful tendencies I have may be seen as the tendencies that I have or the urges of what they are leading me to, and in this sense they correspond to the seven capital sins. I don't have to have any spiritual diagnosis to find out what kind of sinful tendencies I have; I know that I have seven basic ones.
I've found a scheme for remembering what they are, the word PLACES +G: P for Pride, L for Lust, A for Anger, C for Covetousness, E for Envy, S for Sloth and G - you know what that stands for - Gluttony. We all have them. And any time we think we've graduated from those tendencies we're in a bad way spiritually. We are freed from these tendencies only with death. The first element, then, is "To what do they lead?" They lead to, what the Church over the centuries, has called the seven capital sins.
Another way of looking at these tendencies is to ask from where do they come? Their source is primarily and most obviously our own fallen human nature. This corresponds to concupiscence. I don't know where the idea originated, but many people think when they hear the word "concupiscence" that it means the flesh only. There are sinful tendencies of the flesh, but they are not the only concupiscences.
There are two kinds of concupiscence, one of the flesh and another of the spirit. When we say that we have a fallen human nature, that "nature" refers not only to the body, but also to the spirit. Take a thing like pride. How do we know that the sinful tendency of pride does not belong to the body? Well, from all that we are able to gather on the basis of the Church's teaching, the angels have no bodies; nevertheless, they sinned by pride. Pride is the fundamental spiritual concupiscence. So too is envy, when we feel a willful discontent or resentment at someone else's either having what we don't have or achieving what we have not achieved. You would think as social beings we would be happy that other people have what we don't have or succeed where we haven't. But no. Instead we're sad. What an evil tendency that is! I mention these two, because in religious life I consider these two forms of concupiscence the most insidious. And the pity is they can co-exist in a person living a very regular and mortified life, and to all intents and purposes being a very good person. Pride can be deceptive; envy can be destructive.
We have sinful tendencies because we have a sinful, fallen human nature. When we were baptized we received what we call the state of justification; we were infused with divine light; we were in the state of sanctifying grace. But even high holiness does not exclude the presence of this concupiscence. It's a mystery. What we must believe is that the whole spectrum of concupiscence, these urges and drives toward things that are not good for us, is innate, inborn, built into our nature. We have these tendencies because we are human beings and the only two persons, faith tells us, whose human natures did not have these tendencies were the Son of God in human flesh and His immaculate mother. Everyone else and surely we, have them. I repeat, the state of grace or even sanctity is not incompatible with having these drives within us. In fact, it is part of our road to sanctification.
Though they are innate in all of us, they are not all present in the same degree in all people, nor in the same way. Some persons are more prone to pride; others to lust or anger; some to covetousness or envy; and still others to sloth or gluttony. It is remarkable how shrewd we can be. Suppose we are given to sloth. What hours of pious meditation and how many examinations of conscience we can make on humility; whereas what we need is to overcome sloth and not to hide it under the false mask of humility!
There are, moreover, varied combinations, some very odd combinations. Some slothful people are given to anger; some envious people are remarkably slothful. I've told so many people, "Your two problems are that you are lazy and that you envy. Now, overcome your laziness and you will not have to envy anyone. You have such wonderful gifts from God, that others will envy you:" But pride is normally connected with lust, sloth is usually joined with envy, as most envious people are lazy.
There is another source of these tendencies and that is our own personal sins that by now may have become habitual. Speaking to Religious, I am not talking about grave sins. I hope not. But we can get into habitual failings in many ways. All vices are induced by habits, acquired through repetition. How do you acquire a bad habit? Very simply. Keep doing something bad. If you do it often enough, you will acquire the habit. That's how we get habits, and they are hard to eradicate.
Consequently, If we're going to overcome these sinful tendencies, besides becoming aware of how this fallen human nature manifests itself in us, we will also need to admit that in some areas we have been sinning for years. I'm talking to people who are striving after perfection. What is perfection? A good definition is "the pursuit of sinlessness". This is so plain and so obvious I sometimes wonder why I have to talk about it. We all have sinful tendencies. We need to be humble to admit it, and wise enough to recognize which ones are the dominant ones in us.
Remember, one of the effects of my having sinned is that I induce a state within my soul, and that has five effects. I fail in charity once, twice, then hundreds of times or for all God knows, several thousand times. Quite possible. Every time I fail in charity, what do I do? I induce five effects. First, the tendency to repeat it. After having been unkind a hundred times it's almost spontaneous to be unkind, what we call second nature (a good description of a habit), the one hundred-and-first time. I don't even advert to it.
Second, to enjoy the sin. I kind of like what I'm doing. In fact, if sin were not enjoyable people would stop committing sin: Let's be honest. Maybe I enjoy my own wit, but it is at somebody else's expense. This leads to the third effect. I tend to excuse the sin: "It can't be that; here I am in a religious habit, going to the Sacraments regularly; all my friends marvel at my holiness, in fact, they ask for my prayers. How holy I must be! What I'm doing can't really be that bad!"
The fourth and fifth effects: we get accustomed to it and our consciences become dull. I've heard this so often. When I'm talking to Religious in my conversations or conferences, they tell me that one of their problems when I insist on frequent confessions is that they are hard put to find out what to confess. I hate to put it so bluntly, but I think that not a few Religious have dull consciences.
Let us ask our Savior to enlighten us, "Lord that I may see myself as a sinner". We pray in the Lord's Prayer, "Forgive us our sins" and in the Hail Mary, "Pray for us sinners", asking Our Lady to intercede for us.
One of the great Councils of the Church in the early centuries declared how helpless man is to do anything on the road to salvation and sanctification without the prior assistance of God, after the Pelagians, who rocked the Church to its foundations, claimed that we can be saved and even sanctified without grace. And Pelagius, the founder of the heretical movement, was a monk: The worst heresies in the history of the Church came from Bishops and Religious: I see much latter-day Pelagianism in the world today. That Council, in defining the necessity of grace, recalled the fact that Christ wants everyone to recite the Lord's Prayer and apply to himself the words, "Forgive us our sins". We need grace, especially to make up for our history of sin, and to help us cope with these tendencies that, as we know, unless God helps us, will lead us away from the God for whom we were made.
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