Editor’s note: During Lent The Compass is offering a series, “Ways to Jump Start Your Faith.” Local columnists draw on their experiences to offer ways for everyday Catholics to more fully experience the penitential season of Lent. This week’s column is by Fr. Maximos Davies.
Why do we seem to fall so often into the same sins? That’s an issue that comes up again and again when I hear confessions: the problem of habitual sin.
Very often the person who feels trapped in the cycle of repetitive sin comes to confession full of guilt. Guilt that has festered long in the hidden depths of a person’s mind may have turned into shame. I’m using these words to describe toxic — even paralyzing — emotional states that can lead to a sense that there’s no point even trying to do better in the future. Guilt and shame can go hand-in-hand with worthlessness, hopelessness, despondency, cynicism and even despair.
The ancient monastic saints of our church described a whole system to trace the movement from sin to habit to addiction to the more serious passion I have just described. This passion they called the demon of acedia, despondency. And once, on the wings of guilt and shame, we arrive at acedia, the moral effort pretty much comes to a halt. Acedia, says a fourth century Egyptian monk, Evagrius Ponticus, is a kind of spiritual death.
This sounds pretty serious, and it is. But I don’t mean to be alarmist! We’re Christians and so for us there’s no death without a resurrection. Grace stands ready to deliver us from the demon of acedia, as from all the passions. We just have to ask for it and be prepared to cooperate with that grace when he comes upon us.
The problem as I see it lies in that stage of the moral struggle, where we face the temptation to give way to an unhealthy psychological guilt. At some point, we will have to release our grip on that feeling.
One way to think about the problem is to apply the advice St. Paul gives in 2 Corinthians 7:10. There the apostle makes an important distinction between “godly sorrow” and “worldly sorrow.” “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.”
What’s the difference between the two kinds of sorrow? I like to use an analogy to physical pain. When you touch a hot plate on a stove, pain should make you recoil immediately. That’s pain’s job: to warn you of danger. If it lingers on after that job is complete, if it becomes chronic, then that’s a new and very serious symptom of some even deeper malady.
So it is with moral guilt. It’s God’s gift to us to warn us of danger. But if guilt itself becomes chronic then something more serious is going on.
And here is the insidious part. Chronic guilt, toxic shame, these do not do anything to break the cycle of habitual sin. On the contrary, they keep the cycle going.
How? Guilt and shame are immensely painful. We seek relief from pain. Immediate relief. Often we return to the same people, places, activities and things that have given us relief in the past. So we drink, drug, gamble, use porn, overeat, call someone up to gossip, shop, misuse our time or distract ourselves in any other number of ways.
Obviously, we run more or less serious practical risks with whatever cycle of distraction we choose. But that said, it almost doesn’t matter from a purely spiritual point of view which pattern besets us. In every case, the result can be that spiritual death of which Evagrius writes, the sense that any struggle against the addictive distraction is futile and so, in turn, we ask ourselves (or at least the demon of acedia asks us), “what’s the point trying to change?”
That’s why I said we have to loosen our grip on unhealthy guilt. The irony of habitual sin is that it becomes so much the way we process difficult feelings like fear, anger, confusion and so on, that we become extremely attached to the sin. It’s our refuge because — up to a point — it does actually provide the relief we seek. Guilt just adds to the pain from which we want to be distracted. It can also act as a kind of alibi: “I’m just so worthless there’s no point even trying to change. So why bother asking?”
But we are commanded to change! “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” says Jesus (Mk 1:15). That’s the key: the Gospel, the Good News. Guilt tells us we should know better, behave better, do better. But when it remains merely worldly, guilt also tells us we can’t manage this transformation.
So abandon the attempt to wrest perfection out of your own efforts! True repentance is not guilt fueled. It is moved by desire, yearning, love. Less guilt, more prayer, more love of God and neighbor. Your habits will change.
Fr. Davies is a monk at Holy Resurrection Monastery in St. Nazianz.