Naughty or Wicked?
Ash Wednesday. Fr Peter Hunter helps us to understand why Lenten practices are good for us.
Years ago, after the death of someone we knew, I was talking to some of my Dominican brothers about the man who had died. “He was a very naughty man, but he wasn’t at all wicked,” said one of the brothers. A wise old priest who overheard our conversation said, “Well, maybe, but don’t forget: Jesus died for the wicked.”
I think what that priest was reminding us of is that our Church isn’t simply for saints, it is for sinners, and indeed, for truly wicked sinners if they repent. Christ’s death was for murderers and adulterers, not just for people who are a bit grumpy with their family in the morning, or (as in the case of the man we were talking about) who love a good gossipy story.
Actually, when the Church talks about sin, it’s mostly talking about the kind of sin committed by the truly wicked. To take an obvious example, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, confession as I learned to call it growing up, is really geared to those dramatic moments in our Christian life when we choose radically against God, against love, against some great good, those moments when we do what is genuinely wicked. And it is wonderful that God holds out his forgiveness to us even in those moments.
The difficulty that most of us end up having is that we don’t end up thinking very clearly about our naughtiness. Our small, everyday sins aren’t like wicked acts, only less so. The mother who is a bit grumpy with her children in the morning isn’t committing an act that is like murder, only a bit less serious. If we end up thinking about our naughtiness like that, I think the danger is that it’s such a ridiculous view that we end up finding it hard to take seriously, and so hard to take our small sins seriously. Grumpiness isn’t a choice against God or against love. It’s at most a little detour on the way of love.
Thomas Aquinas tells us that our small, everyday sins, our naughtiness, venial sins, as we call them traditionally, do not affect the life of love that God has given to us in baptism at all. Nothing can cool the flames that God has lit in our hearts. We can stamp out the flames of love entirely by acting wickedly, but love can only be undone by being unloving. It isn’t affected by our detours on the way of love.
So if naughtiness, venial sin, doesn’t affect my relationship with God directly, why is it important? It’s when we come to understand the answer to this that we will see the point of the Lenten season. Sin, if it is serious, can stamp out love, but all sin, naughty or wicked, distorts us. It involves a kind of growing addiction.
When I choose my own pleasures, my own comfort, my own way, over the love of God and love of those around me, I become gradually addicted to those things. I end up becoming more interested in my own desires, my own interests, than in God and the people around me. And that’s bad for me.
It’s not that I, as it were, accumulate a bad score card with God, as if life were one great morality test. God commands love and forbids murder because that’s whats good for us. And the same is true of our naughtiness. It’s not that grumpiness in the morning makes God angry. It’s that when we indulge ourselves, with grumpiness, or gluttony, or gossip, that’s bad for us.
For one thing, when we allow our addiction to our own desires to grow, they can grow into a desire for what is truly wicked, but even when they don’t, that addiction slowly imprisons us. We end up slaves to our own pleasures, our own fears.
Lent is all about breaking our addictions, and the three great traditional practices of fasting (giving something up which we like a little more than we should), prayer (taking on an extra practice of prayer to remind ourselves that at the centre of our Christian lives is the love of God) and almsgiving (giving something away to those who need it, which reminds us of our love of others) are specifically designed to undermine them. Christ died for the wicked. It’s true. But even when we are merely naughty, life could be so much better, and so every year, we act to try to leave even our naughtiness behind.