Sunday, April 02, 2006

Sin and the Art of Cosmic Maintenance

My dad has mental illness – which is a sin.

I’m not at church this morning, so I think I’ll talk about sin. The Orthodox concept of sin is not juridical. It is not the breaking of a law. The Greek word for sin means “missing the mark,” an archery term. (I’ve probably talked about this before here.)

Dad was here this weekend. He looks terrible – so frail and bony, with a constant smoker’s cough. He seems even more unsteady on his feet than he was a month ago. He’s been sick with a cold he says he can’t shake. This, also, we could call sin.

My back aches this morning – a sin. My son wants my full attention while I am writing this and I’m not giving it to him – another sin. I have more things on my list to do than I can possibly do this week – more sin.

In Romans Paul says, “…for all sinned and are coming short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) In context, he’s talking about all people: Jews and non-Jews in his way of viewing the world. Paul goes on to say that “the creation itself shall be freed from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth together and travaileth together until now.” (Romans 8: 21-22) The idea is that we have lost Eden – that even the physical world has become subject to decay and death, which are not the original order of things.

So what am I trying to say? Perhaps it is that the entire model of sin that I’ve held for most of my life must be rebuilt. Perhaps sin is both inevitable and not inevitable.

Orthodoxy understands that we are capable of divinization – becoming like God. St. Athanasius said, “God became man so that man could become God.” That is returning to our original state in complete union with God.

At the same time, “falling short” of God is not just a matter of deliberate destructiveness – as I’ve always seen it before – but of things over which we seem to have no earthly control: illness, ageing, miscarriage, mental illness. These are challenges that are organic and which we have accepted as part of our creatureliness. We are called on to have patience with ourselves and others when we or they are subject to such things.

So what of deliberate destructiveness? Might it also be a form of mental illness? The man who killed all those teenagers at a rave in Seattle last week – surely he was not in his “right” mind. The mother who beats her child – surely her mind is not functioning the way it was designed to function. The friend who says something cutting or is “not there” when we needed comfort – if her mind had all the clarity of God, would things not be different? In fact, if she were not constrained also by the limits of time, would things not be different?

If we were not burdened by the weakness of our bodies, by time, by the fluctuations in our emotions, the polluted state of the planet, the machinations of dynasties, the limits of physical space, the fear of others’ cruelty – would we not be able to fully see one another, embrace one another and the cosmos, to truly and completely love?

And yet what we have here in this life is what we have. We’re born into a world that is not whole. A beautiful and holy world.

If sin is the “falling short” with which we are surrounded, then divinity is also that which surrounds and infuses us. This is the paradox: that our very struggle with the effects of fallenness is holy. And perhaps we would not find the holiness without the fallenness.

What if we were to see no difference between our bodies’ uncontrollable “falling short” and the deliberate destructive actions of another (since that’s the sin we seem to recognize first)? Would we be so quick to mete out condemnation and punishment? Would we be so eager to see the perpetrator suffer? Would we continue to hate him?

We all live in this condition. All of us. And rather than condemn ourselves we would do well to have self-compassion which could then extend to compassion towards the entire beautiful, fallen cosmos.

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