Random Thoughts: Mortal Sin/Slandering the Dead/His Guests ~ Fr. Daniel A. Lord


by Father Daniel A. Lord

“It’s Not a Mortal Sin”

“After all,” said the youth, as he kicked his little sister in the shins, “it’s not a mortal sin.”

The youth was probably right, even if rough; but his viewpoint was too cheap and terrible for words. Measuring life in terms of mortal sin is exactly like measuring conduct in terms of the noose or the electric chair.

One is good only if one feels eternal death is involved; or one will not commit murder though one will indulge in the lesser forms of theft and petty larceny. Yet the expression is so common that it can be thrown up to us as a taunt by non-Catholics.

Of course the Catholic attitude toward sin as the supreme evil is what makes us so often judge everything by the standard of serious sin. It is, besides, an almost natural reaction from the present pagan attitude that regards manners as so important and morals as so unimportant, and that substitutes courage, success, artistic temperament for the virtues.

Catholics keep their eyes alert for the danger of sin; the pagan watches out for the danger of pain and annoyance. Nevertheless mortal sin is certainly not the only thing that makes the world an unpleasant place to live in. It is quite possible for one who leads a virtuous life to be a not very pleasant person, just as it is possible to find quite agreeable sinners.

We have all known rather holy people whose holiness was a trial to others, and perhaps we have met some generous-hearted and kindly criminals. Hence one is altogether wrong in feeling that he is doing anything like a full duty when he simply refrains from seriously insulting God or soiling his own soul by mortal sin.

The so-called lesser sins, unkindness, cruelty, selfishness, lies, bitterness, bad temper, are often the very things that make life almost unbearable. A hot-tempered man in a fit of passion may commit a frightful sin and live to repent it with days of kindness and service. He may be a more agreeable companion or a better husband than the everlastingly surly man or the penny-pinching nagger.

And the woman who atones for a serious fall by the sweetness and unselfishness of a lifetime is certainly less likely to be a source of unhappiness than the woman whose shrewish temper or selfish heart is the cause of misery to all with whom she is associated.

Sin is frightful; but though mortal sin most seriously offends God, venial sin quite frequently causes greatest unhappiness to our fellow men.

As Catholics we have a horror of serious sin; but that is not the standard by which to regulate our lives. Life is not made up, as a rule, of serious crimes or magnificent virtues. It is made up of small faults and small goodnesses which mar or make the happiness of ordinary days.

The genial saints are the pleasant saints. The man whose soul is free from mortal sin and whose honor is free from the slightest stain and whose life from the slightest selfishness is really the man we love and seek out.

The woman who prizes sanctifying grace highly is just that much more lovely if she has a gentle hand and a kindly tongue.

 “It’s not a mortal sin,” adopted as an only rule of life, could make the world a family of bickering, nagging, unkind, unpleasant people.

Slandering the Dead

The ghoulish delight that drives our modern biographers on to tear the dead limb from limb has not as yet been satisfactorily explained. When Henry VIII dragged the saintly body of St. Thomas à Becket from his tomb and publicly burned it, a clear double motive inspired him : He wanted the precious gifts with which the faithful had ornamented the grave of their protector, and he meant to show that no man, not even a dead saint, dared defy the tyranny he was establishing.

But your Modern biographer, for the sake of a brief glory and a cheap return, without the monumental audacity of a Tudor Henry, defiles the tombs of the dead.

Lincoln was foul-mouthed, Washington a libertine, Caesar a cowardly epileptic, Gladstone a hypocritical Don Juan. The great were really small, and laughter is the fittest tribute to the heroic dead.

Now the body-snatching school of biographers has turned its attention to the saints. Aloysius was really a very unpleasant person; Joan of Arc was a neurotic; the Little Flower suffered from tubercular ecstaticism; St. Paul was an intolerant puritan and the father of puritans.

Time of course will justify the great and bury their petty slanderers under the scrap heap of their own rejected books. The great are greatest when the insignificant raise their trembling fingers in mockery.

But we Catholics are unwilling to wait for time to justify our saints. We remember that no detail of the lives of our saints was left unscrutinized by a tirelessly investigating Church. We knew that their innermost secrets were searched out and brought to light. And if there had been any blemish on their characters, the “devil’s advocate” would have dragged it out to end forever the process of canonization.

Even were this not true, we who love our saints, from Peter and Paul to Therese and the Cure d’Ars, resent the flippant hands of cheap critics laid upon their sacred tombs.

We have called them blessed; we have felt their power; we have loved them for showing mankind what splendid heights can be scaled by weak humanity ; and we have neither time nor patience for those who slander our precious dead.

His Guests

“I have a hospitable mind,” he said and looked up from the book he was resting on his knee, “but sometimes I don’t like the company I am asked to entertain.”

“No?” I said, with a leading inflection in my voice, for I liked to hear him talk.

“No!” he answered emphatically. “My mind to me a palace is, and I love to entertain there. No doubt about it, I’ve had some of the world’s greatest people making themselves quite at home in my mind.”

He waved toward the bookshelves that lined his walls. “I listened to Demosthenes and Cicero; Shakespeare produced his finest tragedies for me, and acted in them sitting in yonder chair; Milton has struck his lyre for me, and I’ve sat by my fire while Tennyson and Keats sang softly to me in the rhythm of rain gently falling on the roof. I’ve talked philosophy with Plato, and asked and answered questions of the shrewd old Socrates.

“And on long winter evenings I’ve had such tales told me in the house of my mind as held me bound with a magic spell. I’ve heard Stevenson and Conrad spin their glorious sea yarns. Dickens trailed whole crowds of people behind him when he called. I’ve sat and talked to pirates, bless their honest wickedness And giants and fairies and banshees have knocked at my door and been glad to come in.

“Yes,” he summarized, “I’ve had noble company visiting this mind of mine. And I hope I’ve made them feel welcome.”

He paused. Then he took the book from his knee and deliberately dropped it into the fire. I almost leaped from my chair, but he sat quietly watching it burn.

“But,” he said, “much as I dislike being unfriendly to strangers, I’m afraid I’ll have to begin slamming the door in the faces of visitors.

“I don’t like the sort of people who are asking hospitality in the house of my mind. I don’t mind the clean, honest dirt of the fields, the kind that sticks to Adam Bede and John Ridd. Good mud doesn’t foul one’s carpet, and it even looks right near a fireplace. But I dislike dirt that smells of the sewers. And I won’t have visitors reeking with it tramping about my house.

“I’ll welcome a cutthroat if he comes admitting he’s a cutthroat and ashamed of his sins. But I’ll not have any villainous rake sitting at my fireside and bragging of his sins as if he thought them achievements. I’ve opened my doors freely enough even to sad women who dragged themselves back from the gutter to warm themselves at my fire. But I’ll order from my door the next damsel who comes strutting in, red with sin and glorying in her filthiness.

“It’s sad for a man who’s kept open house these many years to have to stand guard at his door. But I’m beginning now. I’m scrutinizing with a flashlight every man or woman who asks admission to my mental fireside. And I’m afraid that I shall have to turn many of them back to their gutters and their filth.

“A man’s mind is his palace, and I don’t want it fouled with the cheap clutterings of sinful cities and the ugly children of ugly brains.”

“Painful trials strengthen our faith and make it purer, more supernatural; the soul believes, not because of the consolation that faith gives it, not because it trusts in its feelings or enthusiasm, not even in the little it does understand of the divine mysteries, but it believes only because God has spoken. When the Lord wishes to lead souls to a more intimate union with Himself, He almost always makes them undergo such trials; then is the moment to give Him testimony of our faith by throwing ourselves, with our eyes closed, into His arms.” – Divine Intimacy

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In With God in Russia, Ciszek reflects on his daily life as a prisoner, the labor he endured while working in the mines and on construction gangs, his unwavering faith in God, and his firm devotion to his vows and vocation. Enduring brutal conditions, Ciszek risked his life to offer spiritual guidance to fellow prisoners who could easily have exposed him for their own gains. He chronicles these experiences with grace, humility, and candor, from his secret work leading mass and hearing confessions within the prison grounds, to his participation in a major gulag uprising, to his own “resurrection”—his eventual release in a prisoner exchange in October 1963 which astonished all who had feared he was dead.

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Captured by a Russian army during World War II and convicted of being a “Vatican spy,” Jesuit Father Walter J. Ciszek spent 23 agonizing years in Soviet prisons and the labor camps of Siberia. Only through an utter reliance on God’s will did he manage to endure the extreme hardship. He tells of the courage he found in prayer–a courage that eased the loneliness, the pain, the frustration, the anguish, the fears, the despair. For, as Ciszek relates, the solace of spiritual contemplation gave him an inner serenity upon which he was able to draw amidst the “arrogance of evil” that surrounded him. Ciszek learns to accept the inhuman work in the infamous Siberian salt mines as a labor pleasing to God. And through that experience, he was able to turn the adverse forces of circumstance into a source of positive value and a means of drawing closer to the compassionate and never-forsaking Divine Spirit.

He Leadeth Me is a book to inspire all Christians to greater faith and trust in God–even in their darkest hour. As the author asks, “What can ultimately trouble the soul that accepts every moment of every day as a gift from the hands of God and strives always to do his will?”

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