This is a polished up re-post from Lent, 2014. A fav of mine. Broken into two parts, per my new custom.
The term for an external set of circumstances—whether of things or persons—which, either because of their special nature or because of the frailty common to humanity or peculiar to some individual, incite or entice one to sin.
What is a near occasion of sin.
— Catholic Jeopardy
The Act of Contrition Catholics traditionally recite at the end of sacramental Confession contains a phrase that is essential to our contrite resolve to “sin no more,” and I’d say most Catholics, myself included, don’t truly think deeply enough about what we mean when we say it:
Ídeo fírmiter propóno, adiuvánte grátia tua, de cétero me non peccatúrum peccandíque occasiónes próximas fugitúrum, “I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin.”
I would like to offer a few thoughts on what we are pledging to God when we say these words.
Avoiding the near occasions of sin.
Actually, I’d think a better translation of the Latin behind that prayer would be to “flee” (fugitúrum) the near occasions of sin. It just adds a bit more oomph to the promise we make. Run!
It is absolutely crucial for spiritual and moral health to reflect daily on how people, places, things, circumstances tend to pave the way for bad choices, destructive behaviors or are simply conducive to maintaining our present state of general mediocrity. In addition, we should also become acutely aware of who/what in our lives fosters good choices, healthy behaviors and the pursuit of excellence. The Catholic spiritual tradition is unanimous that real spiritual growth is impossible if we don’t consistently — daily — discern our own limits, weaknesses, as well as our strengths. Think of it, if we don’t become intentionally savvy about what leads us to transgress our limits and fall into sin, or develop a plan for avoiding them, how can we possibly cooperate well with God’s saving grace?
The unexamined life
Essential to a healthy spiritual life is our nightly examen (see here for a superb overview of this practice). The examen is a prayerful review of our day that discerns the manner in which we did or did not do God’s will, reflecting on both the interior and exterior influences that helped shape our choices throughout the day. No man is an island, and we swim in a sea of influences — physiological, spiritual, emotional, relational, etc. — that inform our thinking, our desiring, our feeling and our choosing. In order to grow in self-mastery, which is freedom for excellence, we must become aware of those influences, discern their origin and impact, evaluating them in accord with God’s Word. And we must turn to God and seek from Him timely aid, not imagining we are Promethean giants who can navigate this sea alone. Sheer willpower, brilliant planning or firm resolve, without divine grace, is good but insufficient.
Here’s a light example — that likely many of us could relate to — of what it means to resolve to “flee” from a near occasion of sin:
I was talking with someone the other day about a particular person’s “issues” and found myself quickly shifting from sharing a legitimate concern to calumny and toxic gossip. That night when I reviewed my day during night prayer, I clearly saw that I should avoid talking about people’s faults or issues with that person, not only because he loves to gossip, but because of my own inability to “keep it charitable” with him and stop the flow once the gates open. For whatever reason, when I am with that person the worst of me comes out and we feed on each other’s pettiness. Now, while the better thing for me would be to simply not go along with, or contribute more to, that person’s proclivity to gossip; or even courageously “call them on it” midstream. But I know myself right now at this point in my life and that simply avoiding such conversations with him is probably the more realistic route for me. At the end of my time of reflection I asked God for pardon, prayed for my gossip partner and for the people I spoke ill of, and asked for the grace to help me in keeping my resolve.
I recently heard a powerful example of this kind of discerning approach that will make my point more concrete for you. This is an excerpt from a transcript of a talk given by the always provocative Orthodox theologian, Fr. Tom Hopko, on the role of thoughts, feelings, memories and external circumstances in navigating the spiritual life. You can hear the whole (55 minute) talk in audio form here. It’s a long excerpt, but so excellent and gritty that I think it’s worth the length.
So now, here’s Fr. Tom:
I knew two young women in my pastoral life over the years who could not go to an Orthodox church and look at the icons. They could not go to communion without having a headache and throwing up and [getting] sick to their stomach and everything. Because when they were little, church was so unpleasant to them. Their mother would pinch them, beat them, drag them to church. The father didn’t want to go. There would be a fight in the family. The mother would throw them into the car. The [kids] didn’t want to go. They got them in church. They made them stand there. And in one of the particular churches, the icons were incredibly ugly. They weren’t nice, beautiful icons. They were… The apostles looked like dwarves, and they were holding the images of their martyrdom: axes and saws and spears and so on. They had big heads and they were very ugly. And Christ on the icon and God the Father was like an old man with a stern look, and his eyes were crossed. And the Holy Spirit was like a big, huge bird with claws. Well, it traumatized and terrified these girls. And they just didn’t even want to go to church. One of them told me—she became a doctor in her old age—she said she could go to a Catholic or a Protestant church where there were no icons or maybe just a few or something, and she could basically hold it together, but the minute she walked into an Orthodox church which was covered with frescoes and icons and the icon screen, she would get sick and want to run away.
Well, those are the kind of memories, thoughts, and feelings we’re talking about, and they have a physical reaction on a person, and a mental reaction, and a spiritual reaction. They do. And we’ve got to deal with them. You can’t avoid them. You can’t repress them. But the method is to flee to God and to bring light, and then the light is stronger than the darkness. The beauty is stronger than the ugliness. The mercy is stronger than the judgment. The comfort is stronger than the pain. That’s what the spiritual life is all about.
We’re going to have prosvoloi, provocations. We’re going to have apyrasmon, trials and temptations. We’re going to have all kinds of attacks of the Evil One and of memories and feelings. We cannot hope for the day when they won’t be there, but we certainly can hope for the day when they no longer touch us. So the exercise, the asceticism, the discipline is all about not engaging them. Not coupling with them. Not giving assent to them. Not joining with them.
One more thing can be said—well, millions more things, but, at least for now just a few things more could be said. One is that usually the thoughts, the memories, the feelings, and the temptations, they have a kind of a routine; they have a kind of a pattern. You might even call it a ritual. I know people, for example, that, if they just go into a room and turn on a television set, sooner or later, or a computer, they will be caught by pornography. So they can’t even turn it on, because if they do that, that’s what’s going to happen. Other people, of course, can’t take a drink. If they take one first drink, they’re shot.
I know a guy who is same-sex attracted, and he struggles with sexual passions of the homosexual nature. But this guy told me that every time when he would not do his spiritual reading and say his prayers, but would go across the street to the drugstore and buy a pack of cigarettes and start smoking them, it was guaranteed that he would act out within 24 hours. The first step toward acting out was not saying the prayer and buying the cigarettes.
I know people who would say if they would walk home from work and take a certain street, go left instead of right to get around the block, they will be in trouble. They can’t go left; they’ve got to go right, because if they go left, they’re going to pass a certain store. They’re going to pass a certain place, a certain bar or something. And then, they’ve had it.
So the spiritual warfare also consists in re-patterning. It’s like a person who’s had a stroke: you’ve got to learn how to walk again. And you’ve got to be courageous about it, and you’re going to fall down. And you have to learn how to fall and get up again. When you fall down, it ain’t the end of the world. It says in Proverbs, “A righteous person falls, a wise person falls seven times a day, but they get up again.” That’s why they’re wise and righteous, because they get up again. They don’t stay down.
St. John Climacus says, “It belongs to God alone never to fall. It belongs to the angels to fall and become demons forever and to be unable to stand up again. But human beings fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up.” And we have to learn how to fall and not freak out. We have to learn how to be tempted and perhaps even to yield and assent in sin, but the minute we come [to] ourselves, we do not despair. Despair is really the victory of the devil. We stand up again. We start over again. And we break the pattern. We don’t take the first think. We don’t take the first drink. We don’t take the first step. We don’t buy that first cigarette. We don’t go to that person. We don’t go to that place. Because if we do, the thoughts, the memories, and the feelings are not going to be able to be contained. They’re going to overwhelm and crush us.
And this can happen even in our own room. This can happen even when we’re all alone. St. Anthony said it. You can be in the middle of the desert, and the thoughts and the feelings and the memories and the demons are going to come upon you. And even there you’re going to deal with food in some manner. And you’re certainly going to have to deal with the weather. You know, heat and [the] thirst that comes from it, and so on. That’s just being in this world.
What’s the teaching? The teaching is: the thoughts, the memories, and the feelings are going to be there. The teaching is: it’s not sinful to have them. You just have them. It’s not moral. You just have them. Now, the morality may be that you’re guilty for letting them into yourselves in the first place, but sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes they were put into you before you even had any kind of choice or moral power at all. They’re in you from childhood. Or they’re in you just because something happens to you, somebody rapes you or something.
But there is a moral dimension when we choose them and cultivate them and assent to them and nurture them. Then of course there’s a moral [dimension]. For example, St. Athanasius the Great, he was asked the question, “Can you go to holy Communion if you’re a man and had emission of semen the day before?” And he said, “If it just came upon you in a dream or some blasphemous thought or something, unwilled memory, put the Cross upon yourselves. Ask for God’s mercy and go. But if you yourselves were engaged in pornography or went to a brothel or brought it on yourselves, then of course you must repent and do penance and endure not receiving Communion as a sign of penitence.” Or, put it another way, relating to the Communion as a penitent by not actually going forward because you’re saying to God you’re sorry that you have defiled your holiness, your body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.
So it all depends why. It all depends how. And that’s where we need help. That’s why we have spiritual fathers and mothers. That’s why we have friends in spiritual life direction. That’s why we have recovery groups. Because we need support and we need help and we need instruction and we need correction. We need all these things. You can’t do it by yourselves. But you’ve got to do it yourselves. And it’s by grace and by the help of others.