“Scratch out sinners!” he said. For an instant the words hung in the air like a verse from a cursing psalm. He saw the hesitation.
“I mean the word sinners!” It was a Liturgy in preparation. To refer to people as sinners, he said, is to belittle them. It cuts across the theme of the Liturgy, which is that God is love. At that moment he was called away by one of the sinners in his parish, and there was time to reflect on what he had said.
In the 4th century one of the Desert Fathers, Abba Matoes, said, “The nearer you draw to God the more you see yourself a sinner; it was when Isaiah the prophet saw God that he declared himself ‘a man of unclean lips’.” As if commenting on this, St Teresa of Avila said: it is when the sun shines into a room that you see how dirty the room is; in the shadows it looked spotless. These were two reliable witnesses, not known for belittling humanity in the least.
This other, this embarrassment about sin, looks like a deep consciousness of God's goodness, but it is not a consciousness of God at all, or of anything to do with God. It is not apokatastasis, a belief that God's mercy will save everyone in the end. It is more or less the opposite: an unformed belief that we do not need God's mercy at all.
When we pray, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner,” we are not reminding God to be merciful. God's mercy reaches out to us eternally, whether we plead for it or not. We are reminding ourselves to receive it graciously. Our sins attract God's mercy; or, you could say, they incline us to receive it. And so, to scratch out the word 'sinner' is to scratch out the most gracious and tender part of our relationship with God. It is to destroy God for us, as far as we are able. “God is dead,” said Nietzsche long ago, “we have killed him.” God is still dying under our knives; modern consciousness, even in the most amiable people, seeks to replace God with the human ego.
That busy liturgist would never agree that God is dead, but he is implying that God has retired from active service. What is happening? Why are we doing this?
We allowed ourselves in the past to think about sin without at the same instant thinking about God reconciling us in Christ. Yes, we knew that there could always be absolution on Saturday, but what of the time between? We allowed a separation where a separation of even a millimetre is fatal. When we think of sin without also thinking of Christ, the picture is all darkness. To alleviate this darkness we try to be our own saviours; but this , but we plunge into guilt and despair.
It is often repeated that we have a diminished sense of sin to day. This is certainly strange, because in our lifetime there have been some of the worst atrocities of all time: genocide, cities devastated by nuclear bombs, widespread destruction of the unborn, pollution of the whole earth How is it that we have a diminished sense of sin when there is so much evidence of its reality? Perhaps it is because the sins of the world are so vast that our own sins seem puny beside them. Against sin on that grand scale we feel powerless and ineffectual; nothing that we do as individuals seems to make any difference. But this thought undermines the very source of action, for it robs our actions of their meaning.
We had better not give in to feeling meaningless and powerless. Such a vacuum cannot be endured for long. The human heart, like nature, abhors a vacuum. It becomes quickly filled with anger and irrationalism. This is all around us and plain to be seen. All in all it is far better to be just a sinner.
My liturgical friend is in the afternoon of his life, when shadows are more visible, so he ought to know better. Having once experienced the mercy of God, how could Christians live with denial of sin, and mere optimism? How could we bear to live on such slim provisions?
“Have you finished?” he asked. Yes, finished and even typed up. The Gospel reading is the story about the two men who went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other (pardon the expression) a sinner.
From In a Fitful Light, Donagh O'Shea
(Dominican Publications, Dublin 1994)