It is in the nature of sin to make life complicated; to put an obstacle between oneself and God. And if gentle reader can excuse me for repeating what he has already read, in manuals of Christian guidance – ancient, mediaeval, and modern – there is a problem with that. It is the primary problem of unfaith or disbelief.
For a moment, I propose to leave God out of this. Instead to consider only, as it were, secondary effects. Or if you will, what follows from leaving God out, of one’s personal relationships, including that key personal relationship: with oneself.
In both my experience and observation of others, I have noticed this. When an obstacle is created between oneself and God, an obstacle is also necessarily created within oneself. And until that is removed – or shifted, adjusted, or otherwise dealt with – one remains divided against oneself.
One embarks on a double life. And this can prove quite inconvenient to someone with only one soul.
Those who have canoed (a common enough experience up here in the North) will be acquainted with the problem of trying to go both ways around a boulder, while riding rapids. I tried it once with a friend. It wasn’t exactly what we intended.
I could blame the upper Petawawa River; it’s worth a try.
Smith (for that was his name) and I walked the length of the rapids we were proposing to ride through, towards the end of a long day, and the excitement we proposed to ourselves was out of laziness. Neither of us was in a mood to portage canoe and contents another mile or two, through thick forest along a disused trail.
We surveyed that section of the river. Much of it was perfectly straightforward. Thanks to the spring run-off, there were only a couple of places that would require smart work with the paddles, and these seemed clear enough. We had only to get our story straight: what was the plan when we reached each of those obstacles.
The reader unfamiliar with canoeing should be apprised that two men in a canoe are, in a sense, one person; my allegory is more apt than he might think. On any ship however small or large, whether the crew be one or one hundred, captaincy is required, as captaincy of the soul.
“So there we were,” as they say in old sailor stories: riding towards the biggest of the boulders, standing out of the river like a downsized Gibraltar Rock, so obvious it had been perfectly anticipated. Riding in the front as the less experienced oarsman, my job was simply to hear and to obey when my captain called.
The Petawawa River
It was noisy in the rush of the water. My own attention was too fixed on its flow. I’m not sure why what I heard was the exact opposite of what Smith said, but there you have it. We began to go both ways around the rock.
The consequence was soon enough realized. We were only briefly broadside against unforgiving stone. The canoe was made of fiberglass, and for a few seconds it was possible to tilt its light frame to avoid being swamped.
Then the loud prang, the very audible crack of doom, as the canoe did what fiberglass does under heavy stresses. It disintegrated, and together with our baggage (all carefully wrapped and water-proofed and therefore floating nicely), we went by our various routes, like a little flotilla, farther down the stream.
It was a memorable day. And, given our distance from human habitation, and the loss of our maps, it promised to be the first of several.
Frankly, I look back on that adventure flinching, for it was all my fault, but also with the boyish joy of it. My companion of the paddle was the forgiving sort, and though he owned it, “Hey, it was just a canoe.”
Cold, wet, tired, hungry: this can be a physical or a spiritual condition. It is the normal consequence of mortal sin. The authorities, at least those of the Church, recommend Confession and Absolution. I compare them to the radar station we unexpectedly found, after only a few miles of dead reckoning through the bush: warmth, coffee, and in due course, a truck ride all the way to Pembroke.
There are no sins without consequences, according to the same authorities, but also according to human observation, if it is sufficiently acute. My surprise, as I grow older, is to discover how many of these consequences are realized, or begin to be realized, within earthly life. But the punishment is not always discerned, any more than the sin was, in too many cases.
Getting caught and formally punished for transgression is the best of these consequences. According to Socrates, it is good news, and a person should be thankful to receive punishment. (See Plato’s Gorgias.) It was a position that amazed his younger Athenian contemporaries, and probably amazes all the more today: this proposition that follows from the knowledge that it is better to suffer than to do wrong.
Reading that in youth, I was deeply impressed, the more as Socrates answered Polus, who was trying to refute the proposition by the leverage of a cleverly plausible distinction between the shameful and the wrong. For I was already aware of the difference between feeling public humiliation, and feeling genuine remorse. The former is only an aid to the latter, and it seemed to me that Socrates sailed right through.
Lately, I keep returning to that dialogue, and its mysterious power; how well it anticipates the Christian moral revolution that was on its way. Too, how subtly it evoked the “double life” that follows, from doing wrong yet trying to avoid shame. And more and more, I grow glad of the rock that breaks us when we try to go both ways around it.