Saturday, March 29, 2014
The English Dominican Simon Tugwell once observed in his excellent little book Ways of Imperfection (1984) that there is a sense in the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers, the great ascetics of the early Church, that the most dangerous kinds of sins involve not so much our actions as our attitudes to those actions. To put this another way, if we are able to recognize and confess that our sins are indeed sins, if we are able and willing to acknowledge that we have done wrong, then even if we succumb to the same temptations time and time again the venom of these sins is to a large extent drawn. The fact that we are able to acknowledge our guilt in itself opens us up to forgiveness and mercy.
On the other hand, if we are unable to acknowledge when we are at fault and instead direct our energies towards justifying ourselves and excusing ourselves even when we have done what is wrong, then we risk putting ourselves beyond God’s mercy and forgiveness simply because we refuse to accept our need for this mercy. In short, we risk refusing God’s grace through overconfidence in our own righteousness.
In our Gospel reading, the tax collector leaves the temple at rights with God because he has had the courage to look his sins in the eye and ask for mercy, beating his breast. The Pharisee, on the other hand, is so blinded by self-congratulation that he repents of nothing and does not ask for forgiveness. Now it is clear that the Pharisee is in many ways a good man, it seems that there is much in his life that ought to be commended. Nevertheless, he is a proud man and this pride prevents him from becoming intimate with God, it impedes his journey to holiness. Traditionally, Lent is a season where we make an extra effort to make a good confession. Let us not be like the Pharisee, and allow complacency or pride to prevent us from seeking out God’s mercy. Instead, let us be like the tax collector and have the courage to ask for God’s forgiveness in humility and truth.