Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Lenten Reflections on Venial Sin

First Prelude

Composition of Place – Imagine you see a soul living the life of grace, but because of venial sin it resembles Job on the dunghill amid crawling worms an filth, in a dying condition, now almost at the point of falling into mortal sin and undergoing a death of grave guilt. For God Himself says that one who makes light of small faults, little by little comes to fall into grave sins. (“…He that despises small things, shall fall by little and little.” Ecclus. 19:1).

Second Prelude

Prayer of Petition – Grant me, my Lord, a horror for light faults so that I may never fall into them, and a great sorrow for those I have committed up to now, so that I will not have to pay for them in Purgatory.

First Point

Consider, my soul, what venial sin is, and why it is called venial. It is an offense, though a light one, which a creature does to the Creator. It is called a light fault not in itself absolutely, but by reference to mortal sin, in comparison to which a venial sin, though enormous in its mischief, is called a small evil; just as the earth, vast in itself, is called small in comparison with the whole universe. Or it is like the Mediterranean Sea, which is itself immense, but compared to the ocean is small.

Venial sin is an offense done to God, and this offense contains in itself so much malice that one should not commit it, not even if thereby he could save a man’s life, not even if he could save all the inhabitants of the world. If, for example, by a small lie one could draw all the damned out of hell and convert them into saints and save everyone, one could not tell that lie, because it is an offense against God.

Saint Camillus de Lellis used to say that he would let himself be cut into a thousand tiny pieces rather than commit a single venial sin advertently. Venial sin is more terrible than the pains of hell. Convinced of this truth, Saint Anselm said that if on one hand he saw hell opened up and he saw that on the other hand he would be obliged to commit a deliberate venial sin advertently, then rather than commit it, he would choose to fall into hell. I ought to do the same in such circumstances; for hell is an evil of suffering, and venial sin is an evil of guilt.*

*Note – While this is true doctrine, it is not the wise approach for the priest while hearing confessions, according to St. Alphonsus de Liguori, who teaches that to receive forgiveness, our sorrow indeed must be supreme – supreme in our rational appreciation of things (summus appreciative) – so that we detest nothing more “than sin and would rather undergo all the evils of this world than morally sin against God; yet there is no need, and in fact it is not expedient (for the confessor) to make particular comparisons – for example, ‘I prefer to undergo this or that evil rather than sin mortally’; for this is dangerous. It is even less expedient to imagine our choice of hell. Since hell in God’s present Providence is destined for those who have become fixed in sin (at death) with an eternal hatred for God, a man acts incongruously who, to avoid sin, would choose hell, in which he could not remain without sin.” (Theol. Mor., vi, 433)

The same saint says: “Something that often discourages many on their way to God, is worrying about the painfulness of having to proceed until death with much strictness, always resisting selfish impulses. The best means to conquer this temptation is to imagine that you only need live for that day. If one knew he had but one day to live, would he not take care to do everything well and perfectly? But souls that are strong and fervent in Divine Love do not need to shun thoughts of the hardships ahead; for they are glad to and thirsty to suffer in order to please God.” (Vera Sposa, vii, sec 4 n. 16) And he adds: “Holy souls…live always with a firm resolve to suffer death rather than sin with eyes open, even venially.”)

Suffering – as suffering is not an offense against God, so no matter how horrible a suffering may be, it is a lesser evil than sin, even if it were the destruction of the whole world, the exile of all angels and saints from Heaven, and the condemnation of all souls to the fires of hell. The reason is that all these evils, great as they are, touch limited creatures, whereas sin, even light sin, touches and offends God, Who is Infinite and most deserving of all honor and glory, Who ought to be loved above all things and yet is disregarded for a trifle. God is a lovable God, a loving God. He has created us for Heaven. He preserves us. He gives us every kind of natural, supernatural, visible and invisible benefit. And we fail to love Him! We offend Him! Oh, what ingratitude!

If the malice of venial sin is frightening, its frequency is more horrifying. Alas! Scarcely a day passes that you do not commit many venial sins, either out of malice or from frailty, or by not paying due attention to what you do. These sins may be vain, useless thoughts, a dislike for neighbors, disordered affections, or words that are idle, proud, loose, sarcastic, untruthful, or actions or omissions. They may occur in our eating, our drinking, in our retiring or our rising, by acts of laziness. They may happen in public streets, at home, in church, in the way we walk or look about, or otherwise behave. And even in undertakings which are good, how many faults do you not commit, by being too hurried, or by carelessness or laziness, by voluntary distractions, by unfaithfulness to God’s inspirations! So many are the faults you commit that one may say they outnumber the hairs of your head.

Affective Acts

(1) Admiration – O my God, I am full of wonder and alarm! Yes, my Jesus, I am frightened as I consider the malice of venial sin and the great number I have committed. I can say that from the soles of my feet to the crown of my head I have nothing but the bruises of sin. I am also alarmed, my Jesus, at Thy patience in bearing the many faults by which I have offended Thee. I cannot bear a fly that harasses me, but am quick to chase it away. I cannot endure it if a dog snaps at me, and for a long time Thou hast borne it when by my venial sins I have harassed Thee and snapped at Thee!

(2) Repentance – O my Jesus, pardon me. My will is to sin no more. I know now the malice and numerousness of the venial sins I have committed. Note: St. Alphonsus de Liguori writes: “Because our nature is infected by sin, we carry within us such an inclination to evil as to make it impossible, without a very special grace (such as was granted [for example] to the Mother of God), to avoid all venial faults throughout life, even those committed without full awareness…As for deliberate, fully voluntary venial sins, with Divine help these can all be avoided, just as holy souls indeed avoid them who always live with the firm resolution to rather suffer death than commit a venial sin with eyes opened.” (Vera Sposa, V, nn. 1-3). And the saint adds: “in confession one’s purpose of amendment must be universal…This is meant to refer to all thoughts, words, deeds that could take away God’s friendship…More spiritual persons, furthermore, ought to be resolved to avoid all deliberate venial sins. As for unintentional ones, since it is impossible to avoid them all, it is enough to resolve to guard against them as much as one can.”*

I repent, and I declare with the Prophet: Cleanse me, Lord, of all my sins, grave and light, known and unknown, and I ask pardon for the sins that I did not commit myself, but caused others to commit.” (“Who can understand sins? From my secret ones cleanse me…and from those of others spare Thy servant.” Ps. 18:13-14)

Second Point

Consider, my soul, the effects which a venial sin causes. It does in a soul what sickness does in a body. There are two ill effects which sickness causes in a body: a present one, which is weakness, fatigue, pallor, and the like; and as for the future, it hastens death. Likewise venial sin, which is a sickness of the soul, at the present time does not eliminate the life and beauty of grace, but does remove that special bright splendor which would be enough to move the Divine Eyes to tender, devoted satisfaction. It is true that it does not deprive the soul of God’s friendship, but it does deprive us of many special favors. Alas! Venial sin makes a soul unworthy of God’s generous gifts, it prevents many particular, extraordinary graces. It deprives it of a large part of the fruit of the holy Sacraments, especially Holy Communion, as it hinders that very intimate union which the Lord would want. As heavy fluids in the body hinder movement and perception, venial sins do the same thing and worse in the soul. They weaken the will; they make devout exercises distasteful and boring; they make a soul dislike to do works of charity; they cool down its fervor, and leave it miserable.

The soul in venial sin is like a sick person with a stomach obstruction, who eats without relish, sleeps without resting, laughs without joy, is so wearied in everything and so fully bored that he drags himself rather than walks. Such is the soul with venial sins. They make a soul captive of bad habits and inclinations, which leaves it with a kind of obstruction to all good works, so that many are omitted, and the few that are performed are done without devotion and with distaste and reluctance. Prayers and penances are omitted, or if they are done they are without fervor, few in number and small in merit.

Because of venial sins the soul proceeds to grow weaker, graces continue to withdraw, and finally it comes to the point where it falls into mortal sin. A seriously wicked act of grumbling into which one lapses, a secret hatred which rages in the heart, an impulse for revenge which is not yet put down, a depraved desire to which one consents – these succeed in extinguishing and putting out that dying flicker of God’s grace. The Holy Scriptures are full of examples of this truth. There is the example of David: From a curious look came desire; from desire came acts of adultery and murder. With Judas it was from a disordered love of wealth. In the beginning this was a light fault; but in time it grew so much that he even sold Jesus Christ, his Divine Master. The Jews began with a light sin of jealousy and envy at the miracles and wonders which Jesus Christ performed. But on seeing everyone follow Him, the envy in their hearts grew to such size that they did not stop until they did away with Him by crucifixion. Who should not be horrified at the effects of venial sin!

Affective Acts

(1) Admiration – Ah, my God, how much the tubercular patient arouses our sympathies when he is too helpless to do anything! Now if one sickness puts a body in such bad condition, in what condition is my soul, with as many sicknesses as there are venial sins that I have committed? For every venial sin is a cancer which gnaws into the soul; it is a leprosy which loads it with filth; it is a palsy which weakens it from doing good; it is a dropsy which gives it a thirst for the goods of the world; it is a gout which will not let it march promptly ahead; it is an asthma which hinders it from sighing for Heaven; it is a deafness which will not let it hear God’s voice; it is a blindness which will not let it see the way of perfection.

(2) Supplication – O my Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me as Thou pitied the blind man on the road to Jericho, Grant that I may see! Cleanse me, O Lord, as Thou cleansed the leper! O my Jesus and my Redeemer, O true Samaritan! Pour the oil of Thy Mercy and the wine of Divine Grace upon my wounds and bruises caused by the thieves which are venial sins, into whose hands I have fallen. See, Lord, how they have robbed me of virtues and merit and have left me half dead along the way.

Third Point

To perceive the malice of venial sin, a suitable way is to observe the sufferings with which God has punished it, taking into account that He Who punishes is a wise God, Who does nothing from ignorance; that He is a just God Who does not let Himself be carried away by passion; that He is a merciful God Who is on His part more inclined to forgive than to punish; that He is a kind God Who does not punish except when constrained to do so; and yet He punishes venial sin in a soul which is in grace, which is His friend and an heir to Heaven. Yes, He punishes it nevertheless.

Oh, how great must be the evil of venial sin!

Numberless examples are in the Holy Scriptures. Because Miriam, sister of Moses, had murmured venially against her brother, the Lord suddenly punished her with the unclean disease of leprosy (Num. 12). God punished Lot’s wife and turned her into a pillar of salt because she had venially sinned by turning her eyes out of curiosity toward the city, against the Lord’s command (Gen. 19). For a small mistrustfulness into which Moses and Aaron lapsed, they did not enter the Promised Land (Num. 20). The deaths of Nadab and Abiu (Lev. 10:2), sons of Aaron, the deaths of Oza (2 Kings 6:7), of Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5:5), and of many others, resulted from venial sins. Who will not fear? Who will not walk with care to avoid such faults? Not only does God punish those faults with these penalties, but He also punishes them with other greater sufferings in Purgatory. For a light lie, for an indecent smile, for an improper word, for grumbling, etc., etc., souls there suffer a pain of loss from being denied the sight of God, and a pain of sense in very dreadful fires for a longer time than people think, and their suffering is more than all the pains that can be witnessed or experienced in this world. What conception would you have, my soul, of those light sins which you easily commit, if you were now in Purgatory amid the sufferings you deserve for them? Would you call them slight faults which keep you from an Infinite Good, which is the sight of God and the possession of glory in Heaven? Would you count as trifles, and dismiss as scruples, the faults that earn a most dreadful confinement with the most painful afflictions? Suppose you saw some distinguished person dragged from his home or palace and carried off to prison, and that there, in the middle of the courtyard, they set a fire and thrust that person into its great blaze. Suppose then, when you asked what crime he had committed, the person in charge answers that he was punished this way for having told a lie, for a little grumbling, or another venial fault. Would you then say that a venial sin is nothing? Realize, then, my soul, that in Purgatory venial sins are punished by very painful confinement and torment.

Affective Acts

(1) Repentance – O my God, now I know something of how great is the evil of venial sin! Ah, if I had understood it before, I would not have sinned as I did! Up to now I have treated it as a joke. But I give Thee my word, my God, that from now on, with the help of Thy grace, I will avoid sinning again. Forgive me, my Father, because Thou art Who Thou art, Infinite Goodness, and I promise Thee I will yield worthy fruits of repentance.

(2) Resolution – My Father, I give Thee my word that from now on I will make use of the means I know to be best suited to keep me from ever falling again into venial sins. Therefore I promise, my God, that every morning I will make a firm resolve not to sin venially that day, and at night I will examine myself and make an act of repentance if at any time I have sinned. I will avoid the occasions of falling down; I will proceed with more caution in my conversations, and I will keep my passions and senses mortified. I will in particular keep my eyes modest and recollected, and will take greater care to guard my tongue. I will keep silent, and when I have to speak, I will proceed with great caution so that my words will not be lacking in the truth, in charity, in humility, or in chastity. I will reflect that I am in Thy Divine Presence, and that on Judgment Day Thou must pass judgment on everything, even an idle word (Matt. 12:36) and even things that are just. (“…I will judge justices.” [Ps. 74:3], says the Lord.)

Now pray one Our Father and the Hail Mary.

(Source: The Golden Key to Heaven, An Explanation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius by St. Anthony Mary Claret)

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