Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Living in sin, with sin, by sin, for sin, every hour, every day, year in, and year out...Always the same, like an idiot child carefully nursed, guarded from the world. ‘Poor Julia,’ they say, ‘she can’t go out. She’s got to take care of her little sin. A pity it ever lived. (Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, Book II, Chapter 3)
I was recently asked by a secular publication about my thoughts on Pope Francis extending the faculty to absolve the sin of abortion indefinitely to all priests (who have the faculties to hear confessions). What struck me as I read his Apostolic Letter from the end of the Year of Mercy was how the women he presented from Scripture were all living sinful lives, but also how Christ extended mercy to all of these women. The women caught in adultery has always been a penetrating example for me of his great mercy and my inability to judge others, for how can I claim to be without sin and cast the first stone? Yet, he who is without sin will not cast one at the sorrowful women.
I am reminded of a sin in my life that took years for me to be able to overcome. From my first awareness of it as a sin, to my first time confessing and receiving absolution of this sin, I saw how it sullied my soul. For years and years of my youth this sin plagued me: the temptation to it, the acceptance of the temptation, the brief relief from temptation, and finally the guilt that followed. I confessed it again and again and received absolution again and again. There were times that I was free from the struggle, but then again the temptation would rear its ugly head, often when I was most vulnerable. Yet, it was not a public sin. I was the only one who knew. It was a habitual sin so ingrained that I realized that early on my culpability, my actual control over myself in this regard, was quite low. But as soon as I realized it was wrong, and for every time I confessed it, I received greater knowledge of my guilt. Further each instance of this habitual sin became more serious. I was confessing my sin, struggling against, but still falling.
Yet, I see the workings of grace helping me against it. I got to the point where I gave in so rarely, grace and discipline had helped me develop better habits, that whenever I did give in I started to doubt my worthiness to receive Holy Communion. I began to seek Confession before I received Holy Communion again, but if I was not able to I fearfully received, afraid of judgment by those around me. I felt that the lack of Communion reception would be like a scarlet letter upon my breast before all. I would seek Confession when I was able.
Then one day, after years of Confessing this sin, the priest I was confessing to said outright, “You know, that is a mortal sin.” It shocked me to the core: a mortal sin.
Outcast in the desolate spaces where the hyenas roam at night and the rubbish heaps smoke in the daylight. No way back; the gates barred; all the saints and angels posted along the walls. Nothing but bare stone and dust and the smouldering dumps... (Waugh, Brideshead, Book II, Ch. 3)
But like Christ and the woman caught in the very act of adultery, this priest gave me absolution. He brought me Christ’s forgiveness. He gave me a penance, and I took it all to prayer and took the steps I needed to be freed from my habitual sin once and for all. The truth was that God had been freeing me all along through the years of Confession and seeking Him in prayer, but it was only when my sin had become most serious, when my compliance with the temptation was so deliberate that it really, completely separated me from the life of grace.
One of the most profound experiences I have had reflecting on serious sin and the way it affects one’s whole being was through the four book novel The Master of Hestviken by Sigrid Undset. Her main character, Olav Anderson spends the bulk of his life living in a state of unabsolved mortal sin. He has sorrow for his sin, longs to be reunited with God, but the obstacles in place by the Church which would require public penance and his sin being widely known prevent him from confessing his sin. His Confession would create a great scandal, ruin the reputation of his wife, and change the inheritance of his wife’s son.
This he can never bring himself to do despite his constant desire to be reunited with God. It eats away at him; his whole being is dulled in his sin. It impacts his family and his household. It wears him down his whole life. He knows his need for repentance, but he just can’t do it. And eventually he just learns to live that way. He becomes complacent in his continual state of sin. He takes his sin to the very end of his life, yet, God continually seeks him to show him mercy. He comes to Olav at night under the stars. He comes to Olav in nature on the sea shore. He comes to Olav through the very person who reminds him so vividly of his sin for whose sake he cannot confess the sin. Yet, when a human soul reads about Olav’s state she cannot but relate to the feeling of unworthiness.
Christ has given us a gift in the Church. We do not have to go around like Lady Macbeth in the night trying to wash the blood off our hands, “Out, damned spot! out, I say!” The blood has already been washed away by the blood of him who loves us. And that is what I want post-abortive women to see, to know. None of us is free from the stain of sin. We are all guilty. But Christ’s love is greater than our sins. I pray that the faculty of priests to absolve the sin of seeking, participating in, having, supporting abortion, bring many to repentance and to experience Christ’s mercy. I pray that they will feel the nudging of grace to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation and be freed from the sin that is keeping them from living a life of grace. I need that grace daily to see and overcome my own faults, for none of us are without sin.