Sin Is Shiny and Enticing — and Deadlier Than You Realize

“Begone, Satan! What you offer me is evil. Drink the poison yourself.” —St. Benedict Medal Inscription

“Poison” (photo: kimono / Pixabay/CC0)

One day in 1972, my brother Frank and I were at our local pharmacy in the Bronx. On the pharmacy counter was an unlabeled jar containing a silvery substance. Because it would be decades before liability became a thing — but mostly because Frank and I had been told by our mom not to touch anything — we poured some of the substance into our hands. The stuff was surprisingly heavy, and when we poked it, it split into tiny round beads. Not realizing that the substance was highly toxic mercury, we swiped a large bead of it to bring home, and to play with every chance we got. 

Frank and I enjoyed the notoriety that came of being the only kids on the block with a hazardous chemical element in their toybox. The notoriety was short-lived, however, and — to the disappointment of Frank, who’d been hoping that the strange substance would give him a superpower — neither my brother nor I experienced the effects of mercury exposure. 

The mercury-filching episode was all but forgotten until one evening many years later when, in a mood of wistful nostalgia, I decided to share some random reminiscences with my husband Mike. At the time, Mike was fully absorbed in a game of online bridge, so I wasn’t expecting my musings to generate much of a response. But it was all good. After all, Mike is a biochemist who sometimes needs to get away from science-y stuff by taking a bridge break. And I’m a garrulous Italian who will talk whether or not someone is actually listening.

So, I went ahead with my reminiscences while the absent-minded professor stared at his laptop screen.

I said, “You know Mike, back in the Bronx, I would light cherry bombs inside metal trash cans and watch the can lids blow off.”

And Mike said, “Uh-huh, that’s nice.”

And I said, “Late at night I liked to ride the subway between the train cars … barefoot … with my eyes closed.”

And Mike said, “Uh-huh, that’s nice.

And I said, “Sometimes I played with mercury.”

And Mike said, “What? Are you crazy? You could have died!”

To my husband, dodging explosive-propelled metal trash can lids was no big deal. Straddling subway cars at night during a New York City crime wave was a yawner. But, in Mike’s scientifically savvy opinion, poking at little balls of mercury was an invitation to full-blown catastrophe. 

While you and I may be fully aware that there is “No riding between subway cars” or that we ought to “Light fuse in an open area while maintaining safe distance from launch,” the knowledge of potentially deadly consequences still might not keep us from thrill-seeking on subways or blowing up stuff on city streets. 

No wonder it’s so hard for us to “avoid the near occasion of sin.” Unlike metro stations and boxes of fireworks, occasions of sin rarely carry cautionary signs or warning labels. And in the absence of flashing red lights, it’s easy to thoughtlessly indulge in the dangerous “unlabeled” gateways to sin that entice us. Blind to the hazards of prolonged exposure, we may find that — like a palmful of mercury — occasions of sin can be thoroughly toxic and much heavier than we expected them to be, weighing us down and impeding our progress in the spiritual life. 

But God is merciful, and he strews our lives with friends, family, and forces that help us to recognize the things that threaten our spiritual well-being. To that end, every one of us needs someone in his life who will exclaim “What? Are you crazy? You could have died!”