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Brookline Carmel Bulletin                        

January 29, 1961

Cogitatio Sancta

(Holy Meditation)


Obstacles to Spiritual Perfection



Three obstacles bar the way to union with God:  mortal sin, deliberate venial sin, and deliberate imperfections.  Though a world of difference exists between them, each is incompatible with complete conformity to the Will of God.  According to the celebrated figure of St. John of the Cross, a bird may be held to earth by a light cord as well as by a stout one.  It cannot soar aloft until the cord, regardless of its ‘gauge’, has been severed.  The only difference between them, in so far as they both hold the bird captive, is that the lighter one can be broken more easily.


Mortal sin is clearly an obstacle.  It is the deliberate turning away from God in order to adhere to a creature.  It subverts the order of things and places a created good higher in the hierarchy of values than God Himself, the Uncreated, and Subsistent Good.  It amounts to saying:  I’d possess this thing for all eternity rather than possess God.


The consequences of mortal sin are truly frightful.  Divine life of grace is forfeited; the bereft soul ceases to be a child and friend of God.  The Holy Trinity no longer dwells within it.  It becomes the slave of the devil.


All of this is known to us only through faith.  Few are the privileged souls who have been allowed to see a representation of what a soul in the state of mortal sin is like.  On the surface, no change has taken place.  All the natural talents and perfections remain.  It is even said by some that sinners are more attractive than saints, possessed of warmer, more human, more charming personalities.  Which is utterly false, highly irreverent, and bordering upon blasphemy.  At any rate, since the departure of an incomprehensible God cannot be perceived by the senses, there isn’t any reason why a man who has committed a mortal sin should feel any different after than before.  We must count it an inestimable grace, a pure gift of God, therefore to feel compunction and remorse after committing sin.  Sometimes, too, God allows a person to be aware of an immense void within him.  This is a proof of His loving solicitude for us.  He never stops pursuing the souls that have strayed far from Him.


Sins that are by nature venial are as different from mortal sin as the moon is from the sun.  Venial sins do not destroy the life of Grace; they do not expel the Divine Guest from the soul.  Their only immediate effect is to diminish the fervor of Charity.  Were we to compare Charity to a flame, fervor would be its temperature.  Lessening of fervor would mean that the flame would lose some of its warmth, though it would not necessarily decrease in size and brightness.  Deliberate venial sins, then, cool the ardor of Charity.  If a burning substance falls below its kindling temperature, it would cease to burn.  If a man deliberately attached his heart to venial sin he would eventually become so cool toward God that in time of unexpected adversity and violent temptations his love would be completely extinguished.  Were his ardor to remain intense, those same chill winds would serve to fan the flame of Divine Love.


We have yet to explain how such a thing as venial sin can exist, that is, an action that offends a God of infinite majesty without destroying the friendship that exists between Him and the culprit.  We are indebted to St. Thomas for a beautiful formulation of the reason.  Unlike mortal sin, venial sin does not subvert due order; it does not place a creature before its Creator.  Rather, venial sin distorts due order.  It leaves God in His rightful place as Supreme Good, our final goal and eternal destiny, but makes inordinate use of the means given us to draw close to Him.  Thus, deliberately overeating (intemperance) is by nature a venial sin because it is an inordinate use of a necessary thing:  food.  Such acts do not cause us to turn from God, but neither do they bring us any nearer to Him.  They simply cannot be referred to His greater honor and glory.  Undue attachments of the heart to creatures, provided they are not valued more highly than God, are venial sins.  Clearly this excludes perfection, which seeks the greater honor and glory of God in all things.


Concerning imperfections, there is no widespread agreement among theologians.  Without giving an essential notion of what they are, some would apply the label of imperfection to the omission of a counsel that is enjoined by say, one’s confessor, or the Holy Spirit.  This sounds reasonable because a counsel does not bind in conscience; it is not a sin not to do it.  Others would include also the breaking of a penal law:  one that does not bind in conscience, but under penalty of a prescribed punishment if caught.  In general, we can explain imperfections best by saying they are acts, which are good and capable of being referred to God’s glory, though not as perfect as they could be.  For example:  attending Mass with less devotion than one is ordinarily capable of.  Obviously, to be an obstacle, an imperfection must be deliberate.  God, who is consummate perfection, cannot be united to him who lacks a perfection he could and should enjoy.


Indeliberate venial sins and imperfections do not constitute obstacles to holiness.  They are purged away by the suffering God in His loving Providence that He sends to His children.  Those that are deliberate are fixed in the will and resist those purgations just as ‘fast’ colors resist the action of ordinary household bleach.

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