Carelessness About Sin

This is “Saints Week” in the Church. No, the Holy Father has made no proclamation to that effect. Rather, it just so happens that October seems to have more than its fair share of wonderful feast days, and several of them occur this week. I thought they could provide the context for this week’s postings.

Today, we celebrate the feast of St. Teresa of Avila, the great Carmelite who is now recognized as a Doctor of the Church because of her profound writings on the spiritual life. She is the featured saint this month in CUF’s annual Catholic calendar. (To receive our free 2008 Catholic calendar with magnificent religious art, sign up or renew your membership this month at www.cuf.org.)

I have to admit that my knowledge of the great 16th century Carmelite mystics–Sts. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila–isn’t what it should be. Part of it is probably just historical accident: I simply read books about other saints instead. But part of it is because their spiritual writings always seemed too challenging and remote to an average lay Catholic like me. 

That’s why I think Ralph Martin’s new book The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints is pure gold. Martin takes the spiritual writings not only of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, but also of other Western Doctors like Augustine, Francis de Sales, and Bernard of Clairvaux and presents them in a freshly compelling yet totally faithful way. In this “Saints Week,” you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of this amazing book, which is available at www.emmausroad.org. CUF members receive substantial discounts on all Emmaus Road purchases.

But enough of the commercial. Let me provide an example of the sort of wisdom St. Teresa offers.

Until she was about 40, she was a “normal” religious in a community that wasn’t particularly (ahem) strict. But then she went through a profound inner conversion that led her to become one of the great religious reformers in the history of the Church.  

Looking back, she recognized several things that held her back for many years. For example, she didn’t avoid the near occasion of sin and too often relied on her own strength rather than divine assistance. Another problem area was “careless about sin,” described on pp. 20-22 of  Fulfillment:

Teresa makes a very striking statement regarding how carelessness about sin seriously blocked her progress.

“As for venial sins, I paid little attention, and that is what destroyed me.”

She points out that this was the case partly because of “liberal and permissive” advice given to her by priests.

“What was venial sin they said was no sin at all, and what was serious mortal sin they said was venial. This did me so much harm. . . . I went on in this blindness for I believe more than seventeen years until a Dominican Father, a very learned man, enlightened me about many things.”

Yet at the same time, Teresa acknowledges that she probably should have known instinctively what was really right and wrong, and that there may have been something in her that too easily accepted such advice.

There is indeed an inclination in all of us to look for advice that will follow our selfish desires.

“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4). . . .

St. Teresa emphasizes the importance of avoiding deliberate venial sin:

“It seems to me a sin is very deliberate when, for example, one says: ‘Lord, You see it, and I know You do not want it, and I understand this; but I want to follow my whim and appetite more than Your will.’ It doesn’t seem to me possible that something like this can be called little, however light the fault; but it’s serious, very serious.”

Making a decision never to freely choose to commit even a small sin is an important turning point in the spiritual journey. As Teresa points out, freely choosing to commit a “small” sin isn’t really a little thing if we are trying to live a life pleasing to God.

Today on St. Teresa’s feast, let us commit ourselves to serving the Lord in matters great and small, and through St. Teresa’s prayers and wise counsel, let us strive to avoid all sin so as to fully enjoy the freedom of the sons and daughters of God.

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