Sin is a great topic for a Sunday. Actually, I didn’t go to church today, and according to my Catholic upbringing, I have committed a mortal sin that condemns me to Hell for all eternity if I should die unrepentant. I reckon that Mark Twain had it right when he said that Heaven might be preferable for the climate, but in Hell we’ll find the best company. At least, that’s where most of my friends will end up.
Of course, I am also joining Mr. Twain in his irony. It did seem truly ironic, even to my young mind, that Heaven was portrayed as an incredibly boring place where one contemplated the face of God for all eternity. That did not sound very captivating to a 12 year old, but since I was Irish, I would at least get to play a harp. Hell, on the other hand, was vivid and dramatic: fire, brimstone (whatever that was), devils, and naked people suffering terribly for ever and ever. I can remember trying to make a deal with God: I didn’t need to get very far into Heaven, maybe just inside the door. But please Lord, keep me out of Hell! I even wondered just how bad I could be and still escape eternal damnation, because the cliche seemed true: everything I really enjoyed was guaranteed to singe my tail feathers. At the onset of puberty, I figured that the best place to sin was in the church vestibule just before I rushed into confession. That is, if I could convince my girlfriend to join me. This business of sin certainly made life complicated.
I have written the above paragraphs in a light tone, but I am feeling true sadness as I think about the millions of young souls tyrannized by the weight of heavy rules carrying the sanction of eternal damnation to Hellfire. What a dauntingly long road one is expected to travel from abject terror to the God of Love.
In the movie “Oh God,” George Burns was asked if Adam and Eve really sinned in the Garden of Eden. “Of course not, “he answered. “Kids can’t sin.” At the age of 8, I remember trying to understand the point of sin and confession. It suddenly hit me like a revelation that the point must be not to sin at all! So I set myself the task of getting through an entire week without slipping up once: no talking back, morning and evening prayers, the whole megillah. After many months of effort, I finally made it. On Saturday I marched triumphantly into confession, and when It was my turn to confess, I proudly told the priest I did not sin at all this week. “Well, why are you here wasting my time!” he exploded. “Tell me some of your old sins and say the rosary.” As I write this, I still feel the jolt of failure, confusion, and rejection. On my way home, I passed a woman I had never seen waiting at a bus stop. “Are you coming from church?” I asked. “No,” she answered. “I’m Jewish.” “Well,” I said, “I have just gone through a whole week without sinning once!” The most beautiful smile lighted her face. “Why, little boy,” she said, “I think that it just wonderful!” After almost 70 years, I can still feel the kind touch of her hand upon my heart.
I think it is clear that I no longer live in a universe governed by a grumpy god bent on coercing conformity to a code of conduct chiseled in stone. However, I would like to reflect briefly on two meanings of sin that might make some human sense and even offer some comforting insight into life’s ways.
The Greek word often used in the New Testament translated as sin is “Hamartia.” It was used in Greek tragedy to indicate a tragic flaw, whether in one’s character, as in the rage of Achilles, or brought on by fate, as in the tragedy of Oedipus. The ancient meaning of Hamartia, however, was taken from archery, and it meant “missing the target,” or missing the point. So sin might be thought of as missing the point of every moment, and the point of one’s life. I used to tell my students that I dreaded dying and having someone put on my gravestone, “Here lies Hanagan. He missed the point.” If I now tried to write an abstract essay on the point of life, I think I would be missing the point of writing this essay. For we all know when we are unaware or uncaring. We know when we are out of synch with life’s flow. We know when we make an enemy of life. And I think we all recognize that the lady at the bus stop in the above story deeply got the point.
The second helpful meaning of “sin” that I have come across is from Houston Smith’s book on World Religions. In his informative chapter on Islam, Smith observes that there is no notion of a catastrophic fall from the grace of Allah in the Koran. He continues, “The closest Islam comes to the Christian doctrine of original sin is in its concept of ghaflah, or forgetting. People do forget their divine origin, and this mistake needs repeatedly to be corrected.” This is one of the beautiful things, I think, of the Muslim practice of praying five times each day. It is taking time to remember.
In my case, Smith is correct: I need to be repeatedly reminded of how forgetful I am. Albert Einstein once said that the most central question a person could ask is “Is the universe a friendly place or not?” I answer with a resounding “Yes!” But it is all too easy for me not only to forget that I live in a friendly universe, but I even forget that I believe it. I then act in frightened and defensive ways that betray life, betray the holy energy in which I wish to believe, and of course I betray myself. In that act of forgetting, I condemn myself not to an eternal Hell, but to an internal Hell of suffering, or dukkha in Buddhist terms.
In the traditional teachings of salvation history, the emphasis was on the quality of one’s life after death. But for me, these richer meanings shift the focus. Now the question becomes “Is there life before death?” If I can do my best to raise the percentage of each day when I remember to live my deepest beliefs, then just maybe I will be living closer to the point of it all. “Heaven,” Jesus said, “is within you.”