Whereas all your decrees are true
when you deal with me as my faults deserve,
and those of my fathers,
since we have neither kept your commandments
nor walked in truth before you;
so now, do with me as you will . . .
Today’s reading from Tobit invites us to reflect on, and, perhaps more importantly, to experience fully our failings and sinfulness and their impact on others and our world. I think this aspect of the life of the spirit seems to us in our age a bit outdated if not altogether anachronistic. Recognizing our own sinfulness is not a common practice for many of us.
Many years ago, one of my literature teachers would preface each writing assignment with the instruction to “Sin boldly.” Now the directive in this case was clearly to dare to be wrong in the service of offering a unique and creative argument, rather than merely repeating the traditional and banal truisms regarding a given text. Occasionally I would succeed in following this instruction, but, much more often than not, I experienced a stronger pull to stick with the tried and true, to “check out” my own thought with the “canon” of respected critics to make sure that I was “on the right track.”
In the scriptures, especially in the gospels, and in the writing of the spiritual masters, we see that it is those who have sinned greatly who come to know and experience most fully the love of God for them. Yet, we often fail to make this connection in our own regard. One of the effects of bourgeois culture (and so bourgeois religion) is that the power of its conventions tends over time to diminish our boldness, and so both our uniqueness and our felt sense of repentance. In large part we come to lose awareness of and contact with our own potential both for good (what at one time might have been called “heroic virtue”) and for sin.
While at the level of our daily consciousness we may lose this self-presence and self awareness, there is, at the same time deep within us, a level of spiritual consciousness that does experience and suffer our distance from God and our spiritual core. Thus, on the one hand we cannot identify with the words of Tobit and the feelings of the Publican that reflect their experience of sin and failure. On the other hand, there gnaws deep within us a “sense” that we are not all of what we are called to be, and that, at some level or other, we are violating our deepest call.
We live in a culture in which there is an epidemic of depression and anxiety disorders. Our attempt to bolster egos at the functional level often seems only to deepen the narcissism and exacerbate the anxiety. Is it possible, that we can only know how profoundly we are loved in the experience of experiencing and suffering our own refusal of that love? Is it spiritually and psychologically necessary to know both the propensity and actuality of our sinfulness if we are to experience the mercy and unconditional love of God for us, as we really and uniquely are? It well may be that we can never truly experience or know our own value until we can face and acknowledge our failure to live out that value.
Adrian van Kaam would always say that at root every human problem is a spiritual problem. Perhaps as we read the lamentations of Tobit and Sarah today, we can invite ourselves to a deeper self awareness. Their experience is, in truth, not at all unknown to us. To face, in the light of a forgiving and loving God, our own sinfulness is to open our hearts to the experience of an infinite love and mercy that does not depend on our goodness or success, and it is that love that constitutes our true worth.
Moreover, if you feel slothful, oppressed, sad in nature, without any savor, desire, or attraction for spiritual things; if you feel poor, miserable, abandoned, and deprived of all God’s consolation; and if everything seems unpleasant and you have no taste or desire for any exercises, whether exterior or interior, but feel so heavy that you could sink through the ground, then do not become anxious, but place yourself in the hands of God and desire that his glory and his will be fulfilled. This dark, oppressive cloud will soon pass over and the bright light of the sun, our Lord Jesus Christ, will shine upon you with more grace and consolation than you ever felt before. This is something which will come to you through your self-renunciation and humble abandonment in all your suffering and heavy oppression. God’s grace will fill and enlighten all your inmost being, and you will then feel that God loves you and that you are pleasing to God. Your heart and senses will become filled with joy and your entire nature will be awakened with divine consolation and a sense of well-being experienced in both body and soul, while all the blood in your veins will grow warm and flow through all your members. Your heart will open wide to receive new gifts from God with deep desire for newness of life, and your desires will mount up to God like a fiery flame of devotion in thanksgiving and praise. Your mind will meanwhile descend in a sense of unworthiness and of humble self-disdain, and your reason will reveal to you your sins, your shortcomings, and your many failings. At this you will feel displeasure and sorrow and will reflect on the fact that you are unworthy of all consolation and honor from God but that he has bestowed these on you out of his everlasting faithfulness and the free and generous goodness and mercy which he has toward you. Such reflection will stir your desires to even more ardent thanksgiving and praise.
Jan van Ruusbroec, A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, I, G