June 20, 2011
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
Overcoming sin is the first step leading to what St. Francis de Sales calls "the devout life." It is also the most difficult step, one never fully completed in this lifetime.
No one expressed this better than St. Augustine. His Confessions describes an ongoing war on many fronts to overcome sin. Augustine simply would not be baptized so that he could become a lukewarm Catholic. If he was going to be a Christian, it would only be when he made a commitment to obliterate sin and its vestiges from his life.
Augustine was jealous of his friend Alypius who had been living a life of complete chastity. In contrast, "I was bound down by this disease of the flesh. Its deadly pleasures were a chain that I dragged along with me, yet I was afraid to be freed from it" (VI.12).
When his mistress was sent back to Africa, Augustine immediately found a new one. "I was more a slave of lust than a true lover of marriage," he wrote (VI.15).
Pages later, the battle is still raging and Augustine recounts what has become a famous prayer, "Give me chastity and continence, but not yet. For I was afraid that you would answer my prayer at once and cure me too soon of the disease of lust, which I wanted satisfied, not quelled" (VIII.7).
Today, this prayer is often cited in a jocular fashion. But Augustine has an important, a crucial, insight into the Christian life. We want to be one with God; we also want the pleasures of the world. Augustine has such an awesome integrity that he will not settle for having a divided soul.
Augustine finally conquered his desires when one day, sitting in a garden, he heard a child say repeatedly, "Take it and read." He hurried to pick up a copy of St. Paul's letters that he had been reading and the book fell open to Romans 13.13-14: "Let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires."
In reading that passage, Augustine said, "It was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled."
Francis de Sales says the purification of the soul, unlike that seemingly experienced by Augustine, "takes place little by little and by passing from one advance to another with difficulty and patience." It's a slow process.
One reason that it is slow is that God wants to keep us humble. Too much success too fast makes one proud. The main thing is to keep on fighting and to keep on trusting that God will help you. "In this war we are always victorious provided that we are willing to fight."
St. Augustine overcame the 'disease of the flesh' that kept him from a holy life
The battle, however, is not just against sin itself. It is also against "the affections, connections and occasions that lead to it."
So it was with Augustine. He not only loved the sin, but he loved loving the sin. If you want to love God, it's not enough to stop doing bad things. You also have to stop loving the thought of doing bad things. You have to remove yourself from the situation where it even enters your mind.
Sexual sins are not the only sins. But for many people they gain a hold of the imagination in a way that say, missing Sunday Mass or exploiting foreign workers does not. They are thus particularly hard to root out.
St. Francis urges his readers to get a book that can help with an examination of conscience. Write down all the sins of your life in as much detail as possible. Once you have done that, "detest and reject them by the greatest acts of contrition and sorrow you can conceive."
Following that, make a good Confession and resolve never to look back as Lot's wife looked back at the city of Sodom. Sin and the affection for sin are slavery. In order to walk in God's love, we must first be freed from that slavery.
We should not be obsessed with sin. But sin must be overcome. Once we have made great strides in ending our attachment to sin, our hearts become much freer to do the good that must be done.
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