THE RESULTS OF UNHAPPINESS
Perhaps one of the saving graces of our age is the fact that we have begun to bring beauty back into the everyday life of man. Kitchens, bathrooms, peeling knives and face cloths are recognized as capable of attractiveness as well as of utility. That note of splendid order has crept into our designs of motor-cars, locomotives and railroad coaches. And perhaps we are beginning to imagine that we belong to an age that is in love with beauty; in proof of which we might adduce the constant interest in beauty contests, the elevation of actresses and actors to the rank of fabulously salaried individuals, our horror of ugliness, pain and suffering.
The cult of beauty — a modern paradox
But against all this we would have to balance the ugliness of our industrial centres, the disorder of our economic life, the terrific toll we have taken from industrial workers, our lack of interest in the human things of human life — the spiritual values of man. In other words, only a superficial observer could make the mistake of thinking we were in love with beauty. Only a superficial observer could fail to see that we have been robbing man of his capacity for appreciating the beautiful, blinding man to the sources of beauty, depriving man of his greatest beauty. There is a significance in the design of our streamlined locomotives, a significance that is made startlingly clear as one sees them slide beneath the huge buildings that now serve as railroad stations, as an insect scuttles beneath a rock to escape the healthy light and air of a summer day. For all our love of beauty presents the constant paradox of love which destroys, the paradox of a creature made for the spiritual world vainly attempting to satisfy himself by burrowing into the sensible only to destroy both himself and the sensible world with which he has fallen in love.
Beauty of soul — the splendour of natural and divine light There is a spark of that forgotten spiritual beauty in every man, or at least the possibility of that spark of beauty; a spark, tiny in comparison with the infinite fire of supreme beauty, but still bearing all the vital brightness that clings to the child of such a divine fire. It is very difficult to translate the Latin word used to describe the beauty which belongs to the soul of man (nitor). It expresses the sheen of new garments, the pure brightness of gold, the gleaming beauty of silver. Perhaps the best translation would be “lustrous splendour”; whatever the translation, it must call forth the image of pure streaming light, of bright beauty breaking forth from the soul to adorn the actions of man with splendour, like a burst of sunlight escaping from the splendour of the sun to breathe the breath of beauty into the lifeless, stained-glass windows of a cathedral.
We can gain a deeper insight into the beauty of the soul by looking for a moment at one of the briefest definitions of beauty. Beauty has been called the “splendour of order”; order, in other words, so clearly breaking through the material in which it is found as to command our attention and admiration. It is a profound, a compact definition, one that could well stand long and serious examination. But even a cursory glance at it gives us the clue to the essential beauty of the soul, for the soul has a double principle of order; the reason of man and the reason and wisdom of God. Both of these carry with them the notion of light, of clarity, of splendid illumination: the one the light in the hands of a wayfarer, guiding each of his steps, sweeping about the dark world around him in a constant revelation of truth, of goodness, of beauty; the other the powerful creative beacon that calls into being the path followed by the pilgrim man, that creates the beauty he sees, that calls him home to the source of all beauty.
It is in this double light that the soul of man was meant to bask. It should never for an instant be out of the field of this double light. All of its actions should shine forth with this brilliance which penetrates the very essence of the soul. This is the beauty of soul which is so hard to describe in stiff language: the splendour of the light of human reason, of divine reason and wisdom, breaking forth from the soul to give life and beauty to the actions of man.
- Immediate and fundamental result of sin — ugliness of soul:
- Sin as cause of the staining of the soul.
The beauty of a stained-glass window could be destroyed by hurling a brick through that window; or that beauty could be rendered ineffective by hiding the window in a dark cellar where streaming sunlight could never filter through it. There is no brick that will shatter the soul; once called into existence it must go on and on through all eternity. But it can be hidden from the streaming light of human and divine reason; it can escape the paths mapped out by reason and slink into the dark by-ways of sin. In those by-ways it comes face to face with ugliness; in those foul alleys a man sees sights that take the light out of his eyes, the spring out of his step, the hope out of his face, that leave his soul stained and befouled.
For there is more to the ruin of the beauty of the soul than mere darkness. In our earlier treatment of sin we spoke of its double element: a turning away from reason and God and a turning to the partial goods the world has to offer, an aversion from the last end and a conversion to creatures. The first robs the soul of the splendour of the light of human and divine reason; but it is the second that befouls the soul. Every sin is unnatural, is irrational, every serious sin is a revulsion from the true goal of reason and of human life. But every sin is more than that. Every sin is a dragging of the human soul through the mud of earthly aims that destroys the sheen of humanity’s splendid garments.
The pure, rich beauty of gold is destroyed when gold is mixed with some baser metal to form an alloy. Silver is tarnished by exposure, its beauty lost when it is bound to rougher, coarser metals to do the work of man. In much the same way does man stain his soul, mar its beauty with ugliness. We must stoop to something beneath us, tie ourselves in intimate union with the world that was made to serve us, if ugliness is to enter our souls.
St. Thomas could have accurate, scientific knowledge of all the base things of which men are capable and yet be the “Angel of the schools”, for he was not stooping to the level of these things, but rather bringing them up to his level; what a man knows he brings into himself, stripping the object known of all the material elements incompatible with existence within the mind of man. On the contrary, we are dragged down to the level of the things we love, for love goes out to the object loved and embraces it. Let a man’s love soar above himself into the regions of divinity and man is lifted out of himself; but let that love plunge into the world of the beasts and man becomes a beast. In other words, we are brought back to our old conclusion that human unhappiness — sin — is in the will of man; it is by the act of that will, love, that the soul of man can be dragged through mire or can be mixed intimately with baser things and so robbed of the lustrous splendour that belongs to it on its own level or on the heights of divinity.
Essence of this stain: darkness
This accurate notion of the immediate and fundamental result of sin brings out some discomfiting truths. It lends a deeper meaning to the title “Prince of darkness”, for it reveals that prince as the prince of sin. With sin and darkness so closely linked, we can understand why it is that only in the state of sin do the slinking inhabitants of the dark corners of the soul dare to make a bold appearance, like so many bats or owls which would flee from the blinding light o f the sun. It is easier to understand that there is no beauty in night precisely as night; its beauty lies in what little light still exists, a light which because of the overwhelming darkness takes on greater value. The beauty of this pale light is a beauty of dreams, of fiction, covering up ugliness and allowing us to pretend that ugliness is not present. In the clear, bright sunlight we see things for what they are. Perhaps the truth is harsh, much less seductively soothing and flattering than the dream light of the stars. But we can make no such grotesque mistakes in broad daylight as we can under cover of darkness. The saints were not by any means “queer people”, thoroughly eccentric, if not a little insane; they were rather persons of eminent sanity because they were walking in the light of day and seeing things for what they really are.
Duration of this stain
Unlike the course of physical darkness, the darkness of sin is not something that automatically comes to an end. It is caused by a turning away from the light of reason, not by reason turning away from our acts. It endures just as long as we remain turned away from the double light of human and divine reason, just as long as we give our love to things beneath us rather than to the goal of all humanity. It is a darkness that may last only for an instant, for a day, or a month or a year; or it may last through all the reaches of eternity. But certainly until a man turns back to the light of reason and God he is asking the impossible when he demands that darkness cease while at the same time he forbids all light.
It is not enough to claim that a man had stopped committing murder years ago. Sin, like every human action, is a motion to a goal but to a goal that is off the track of reason. Mere stopping at the goal does not effect a return to the path of reason; the sinner must turn around and come back, he must retrace his steps to the point where the road of reason was abandoned for the alleys of sin. He must turn from the creature in which he has placed his end and go to God.
- Consequent result of sin — punishment: Debt of punishment as result of sin:
- Natural punishment.
This is the first and fundamental result of sin, though oddly enough we are much more perturbed at the consequences of this ugliness of soul than at the ruin of the soul’s beauty. It is odd. After all, we do not rail at the natural law that makes the rain pour through a broken window, nor at the wind that is carrying the rain through the broken window. If we have any growling to do, it will be at the little boy who has broken the window. What is more important, we shall do something about the broken window. That is the natural thing to do. But we are not at all natural in our attitude toward sin, perhaps because it always hits so close to home.
Instead of looking at the cause of the punishment of sin — at our own deliberately controlled action that brought the whole thing upon our heads — we prefer to grumble about the type of punishment, the duration of it, the unkindness of God in demanding our punishment. As a matter of fact, we are demanding our own punishment. This act of sin is ours and we cannot deny the parentage of our own child; we have stained our souls and it is that stain that demands punishment; we have turned away from the light of human and divine reason, and so long as we stay turned away, we are crying out for punishment.
Sin as penalty of sin
In ruining the beauty of our souls we are rebels against order; we have attacked and reduced to ruin the splendour of order within ourselves. It would, as a matter of fact, be disastrous if this were a one-battle rebellion, if the order we have overthrown did not rise up in anger against us. For that would mean that we would be left undisturbed in the confusion and horror of disorder, in the darkness of ugliness; it is the ultimate of punishment in this life for the sinner to be delivered over to his own desires. That rising of the injured order in its own defence is the essence of the punishment of sin.
I am not at all sure that a worm does turn; tat least it does not seem that it could do much damage even if it did turn upon its tormentor. But if it does not turn, at least it offers the defence of flight; and here it is one with all nature, for every order in nature rises in immediate defence against the attacks of an enemy, because every order has within itself the principle of self-conservation. The sinner has rebelled against a triple order; and all three of those orders rise up against him, defending themselves by punishing the rebel that threatens their integrity.
More concretely, the sinner has risen up against the order of his own reason, against the civil order — political, economic or ecclesiastical — if his sin be external, finally against the divine order. By each of these orders is he punished. And he is wholeheartedly punished, for in a very real sense this rebel has attacked everything contained in those orders. Order implies a bond of unity, such as the bond of charity that makes all Christians one, tying them together so intimately that an injury to their order is an injury to every Christian.
Still more concretely, we might say that the punishment inflicted by God for the attack on the divine order is the slowest, the most merciful, the easiest to escape. That undoubtedly sounds ridiculous to the modern mind; but look at the facts. Let a man knock down the mayor of a city, start a rebellion against the Federal Government, blow up a few department stores, or run off with the gold reserve of the Federal treasury and how much explaining could he do? How much absolution would he get? How many times would he be forgiven and told not to do it again? Who makes any effort to determine the quality of the contrition of a spy or a traitor during a war?
The punishments of nature are more severe, more relentless. Nature takes its toll regardless of the disposition of the sinner. A practical example of this to-day is found in the young couple who start off married life intending to violate nature’s order, but only for a few years, until they are financially secure, until they have a better social status, or for more individual social activity. It reads, to-day, like a sensible programme. But only too frequently long before the allotted time is up, the wife hates the husband or the husband hates the wife; nature is exacting its toll for the abuse of love and no amount of sorrow, of absolution, or resolutions will soften that punishment. There are, of course, the more obvious punishments of nature: remorse of conscience, loss of self-respect, building up of inclinations to sin and tearing down of inclinations to virtue, physical toll exacted by sin, and the increasing slavery of the senses with the consequent lessening of capacity for love, for joy, for any activity that does not furnish fuel for that devastating fire of introversion.
St. Gregory’s description of the physical effects of envy brings out vividly another angle of this automatic punishment of nature: ” . . . paleness seizes the complexion, the eyes are weighed down, the spirit is inflamed, while the limbs are chilled, there is frenzy in the heart, there is gnashing with the teeth.” Even the sin itself can be its own punishment. Even more patently a sin is its own punishment sometimes from the very external difficulties which must be overcome to commit the sin; after all, the burglar does not enjoy climbing up ladders to rob second-storey apartments or unwittingly commandeering a radio car for his escape. Indeed the very essence of sin is itself a punishment, for, as we have seen, the sinner does not want to turn away from God, even though he wants this partial good more than he wants God and is regretfully willing to give God up because he so loves his sin.
Properly speaking, one sin is not the penalty for another. Penalty, after all, is something against our will; and sin is essentially a free act. Our sins, like all our acts, are our own; they are not thrown at us by God or by anyone else. they are not the infliction of a superior power but the choice of our own free will. In a way one sin follows another, even naturally speaking, for one sin, like any one human act, leaves its mark behind, blazes a trail, increases an inclination that will make the succeeding act easier, more likely.
Supernatural eternal punishment
From the viewpoint of the supernatural, one sin by destroying grace removes the helps that might have impeded the commission of other sins and so is indirectly the cause of other sins. Certainly the subtraction of grace is a penalty wrapped up with the sin itself; but still the following sins are our very own and not really penalties. However, in the supernatural order the penalty upon which our interest is constantly focused is the eternal punishment of hell. And it is the punishment which to the modern mind seems most ludicrous.
Fact of eternal punishment
This is not the place to enter into an extended discussion of hell. That is work which is taken up in detail in the fourth volume of this work. But it is essential here that we insist on the absolute certitude of the fact of eternal punishment as far as Catholics are concerned. The fact of eternal punishment is vouched for by the infallible authority of God Himself. It is expressly stated in Scripture;(e.g. Mark iii. 29; Matt. xxv. 46, xii. 32; 2 Thess. i. 9) and has been repeated again and again by the Councils of the Church (e.g. IV Lateran Council, chap. I, Denzinger, # 429; Council of Trent Sess. VI, canon 30, Denzinger, # 840).
It is quite a task, even for our efficient modern world, to laugh God out of existence. The attempt is in fact an insult to human intelligence. Yet to escape the fact of eternal punishment we must either laugh God out of existence or, what is no less insulting both to God and man, we must paint the divinity as a sentimental half-wit. Even without attempting a study of hell, from what we have seen in this book it is evident that a man cannot refuse to have the goal of life and still have it, since that goal depends on his choice; from what we have said in this chapter it is evident a man cannot forbid the entrance of light and at the same time expect the dispelling of darkness. More concretely, sin is a perversion of order, a rebellion against order that demands the resistance of that order; just as long as man insists upon escaping from the light of human and divine reason, just so long does he ask for punishment. When death intervenes, man’s ability to return to the paths of reason ceases, for death shuts off the flow of divine grace. Putting it in another way, by sin man steps down from a supernatural plane; as far as his natural powers are concerned he can never again achieve that plane. Unless supernatural help be given, he must for ever remain off that plane; and supernatural help ceases after death. From then on for ever he must remain in the ugly darkness of sin and this is the essential pain of hell.
One of the foundations of our restlessness in the face of this truth is due to our visualizing hell in terms of a spanking given to a child for stealing cakes, while, as a matter of fact, it is like the blindness that follows on plucking out an eye. This latter destroys not only vision but the very power of sight; so sin destroys the very principle of supernatural life and refuses to take the steps that might win back that principle of life which is grace. The sinner refuses to return to God; he deserts God, he is not deserted by God.
Its immediate causes
The immediate cause, then, of this eternal punishment is a sin that disrupts the divine order, a sin that turns man from the path leading to his goal, i.e. a mortal sin. As long as he stays off that path, as long as that order remains disrupted by his attachment to partial goods in preference to the universal good, so long will that punishment endure.
Quantity and duration of punishment
It has seemed to many men and women that the notion of hell is particularly obnoxious because there is no proportion between the sin and the punishment. An infinite punishment for a moment of sin seems beyond the limits of the most severe justice. The truth is that the proportion is very exact indeed. We might put this proportion clearly and briefly by saying that the duration of the punishment corresponds to the duration of the guilt of sin, the quantity of the punishment responds to the gravity of that sin. In other words, the duration of this punishment is without limit because the sin never ceases, because a man never forsakes the darkness to turn back to the light; the quantity of that punishment is finite because no matter how wholeheartedly we turn to a creature, our embrace of that creature is still a limited, a finite act.
Duration of debt of punishment
Perhaps it will be clearer to state this in terms of the elements of sin by saying that the duration of the punishment corresponds to the aversion from the goal of life or from God — and so is equal in all men, infinite in the sense of never ending for the double reason that it is a turning away from an infinite good and it is the answer to an eternally enduring choice.
To understand punishment, then, we must go to the root of it, to the first incurring of the obligation to undergo punishment. That starting point is the act of sin. It may be a thing of only a moment; but instantly the beauty of the soul is stained and the necessity of punishment is incurred. The connection between these three is intimate, absolute: as long as the sin endures, as long as the sinner refuses to turn back to God, so long does the stain remain on the soul and so long must he face the fact of punishment. Turning back to God, the sin ceases, the stem on the soul is removed and automatically punishment strictly so called, as an evil unwillingly sustained, ceases. Our renunciation of the sin and our return to the path of reason is itself an acceptance of the penalty for our fault, a willingness to satisfy for what we have done which takes all the sting out of the punishment. It may be only a few Hail Marys that we face so bravely, or it may be a few eons in purgatory; whatever it is, it is no longer punishment but satisfaction, an evil that we willingly accept (It is of faith that some debt of punishment — temporal — may remain after the remission of the guilt of sin and the debt of eternal punishment. Council of Trent, Sess. VI, canon 30, Denzinger, # 840). A delicate balance, an order, has been upset by our sin; and the equality of justice demands that that balance be restored, either unwillingly through punishment or willingly through satisfaction.
Sole cause of punishment: Guilt of sin, actual or original
But always punishment or satisfaction must be traced back to sin. We can no more expect someone else to undergo the punishment for our personal sins than we can expect to have someone else undergo our operation for appendicitis or our death agony. It is only when that punishment is no longer strictly personal, when it has become the proper matter of a group, that others can enter in. So the bond of charity that binds us to Christ and Christ to us and ourselves to all other members of Christ — makes the satisfaction for the sins of any member of that body of Christ the proper task of everyone joined to Christ. In this way could Christ satisfy for our sins; in this way can we carry on the work of Christ satisfying for the sins of others. The common bond of nature makes nature’s sin common to all children of Adam, and the penalties of that sin things to be carried on the shoulders of every child of Adam.
Perhaps we can put this in another way by saying that the spiritual penalties of sin are something that must be born by each man individually and personally; for these spiritual penalties, being the supreme evils to which man is subject, cannot be ordained to a good greater than that of which they deprive man. No one can go to hell as our substitute; no one can lose his sanctifying grace as a protection to our loss of sanctifying grace because of our mortal sins. On the other hand, the physical penalties of sin, depriving man of inferior and morally insignificant perfections, can be endured by others. In fact this is one of the privileges so jealously guarded by the saints; it is a task that at the same time perfects both the sinner and the saint, satisfying for one, elevating the other.
Comparison of personal causes of punishment : mortal and venial sin
Punishment is always dependent on sin; so that we can know accurately what punishment we deserve by knowing the distinction of sins. Of course, from the point of view of punishment, the most important of these is the distinction between mortal and venial sins. Mortal sin alone carries with it condemnation to the eternal punishment of hell.
It seems strange that the Church was obliged time and time again, particularly since the days of the Reformation, to insist that there were such things as venial sins. Normally we might expect men to be eager to look on sins as less grievous. But then the reformers were not normal. The despair of Luther, the unfounded confidence of Calvin and the narrow pride of Baius continued the work of the Pharisees in putting burdens on the shoulders of men that no man could bear, insisting that every single sin committed by men was a mortal sin. Indeed, to Luther every act placed by men was mortally sinful. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the modern world’s swing to the no less insulting extreme of denial of all sin. Certainly it was the reason for the thundering condemnations of the Council of Trent ( Sess. VI, chap. II, Denzinger, # 804. Confer: Condemnation of errors of Michael Baius by Pius V, condemned props. 25, 35, 67, Denzinger, # 1025, 1035, 1067).
The distinction between mortal and venial sin is the distinction between sickness and death; the one destroys the principle of spiritual life, the other impairs its full healthy operation. Both classes are sins in the sense that both offend God; but that is the only similarity between them. There is no comparison between the sin that turns its back on human and divine reason, abandoning God and defying His law, and the sin that holds fast to the essential direction of human and divine reason, that clings to the love of the Supreme Good above all other things. There is a tremendous gap between empty-headed laughter and murder, between idle, harmless gossip and blasphemous hatred of God, just as there is a great gap between having a cold in the head and having a dozen machine-gun bullets in the heart. It is the gap between the irreparable and the reparable. Mortal sin, as far as the powers of the sinner are concerned, is definitely irreparable; only because Christ has died for us and because God is good can something be done about mortal sin.
Their points of agreement and difference
This distinction of mortal sin is not merely a question of subjective responsibility. Just as there are some diseases that are never fatal, so there are some sins that, objectively considered, are never mortal; essentially they are venial sins because the goals to which they are aimed are not contrary to the goal of human life. On the contrary, there are sins whose objective goal is in direct opposition to the goal of human life, sins that are essentially mortal, like murder, adultery and theft. Some of these latter are objectively mortal at all times, as, for example, murder; others are mortal only when the matter is grave, as in the case of theft or anger (ex toto genere et ex genere). The simple reason for this is that sometimes the object even of these sins is not in direct opposition to charity and the goal of life.
It is evident then that no matter how many venial sins are piled one on the other, the result will not be a mortal sin. The question is not one of weight or number but of the direction taken by these sinful human acts; and that direction is not reversed by the frequency of venial sin.
Venial sin a disposition to mortal sin
If there is to be any metamorphosis of mortal into venial sin it must be effected from the side of the sinner, from the side of deliberate control and not from the side of the object The essences of these acts, like all other essences, are eternally unchangeable. But because they must be human acts to be sins, they must proceed under our deliberate control. A man who falls to his death from a window is not guilty of sin, whereas another man who kills himself by jumping from a window has committed the sin of suicide. Any defect in that deliberate control which makes an act human is also a defect in the sin; if either the deliberation or the willingness is seriously impaired, the essential morality of the sin is proportionately cut down. To say that there must be sufficient reflection and full consent for mortal sin is no more than saying that this sin must be a complete human act, an act for which we are wholly responsible because it proceeded under our full control to goals of our choice. In fact the malice of venial sin suffers the same decrease for exactly the same reason.
Of course no amount of concentration is going to make any change in a sin already committed. But I can make a very real change in a sin that would objectively be venial. I can, for example, become so enamoured of bridge or golf that I sacrifice everything else in life to satisfy my passion for bridge or golf. I have placed my final end in these things and stand willing to prefer them to everything else. Really what I have done is to make of bridge or golf an object that is directly opposed to the goal of human life; though certainly in themselves bridge and golf are harmless things. Or again a man can tell a very small lie for a very evil purpose, such as to ruin a man’s character or to accomplish a seduction; while a lie in itself is a venial sin, yet here and now its direction is definitely changed, it goes far beyond the goal of mere lying to more tragic goals that are directly opposed to the ultimate end of man. And the lie itself becomes a mortal sin.
Possibilities of venial sin becoming mortal and vice versa
The example of the bridge or golf addict is not nearly so absurd as might appear at first glance. A venial sin, like any human act, starts the groove of a habit; it means that the succeeding acts become easier, more pleasant, more like nature itself. After a while these things become second nature to us, the appetite for them is constantly increased so that quite easily we slip into a way of acting that makes the love of play the end of our being rather than a means of refreshing the soul for the real tasks of life. That is one way in which venial sin disposes us to commit mortal sin; it is a psychological consequence founded on the nature of the habits we build into ourselves.
Still another way in which we are prepared for mortal sin by venial sin is by getting ourselves accustomed to offending God. We start out in little things, rebelling in a mild way against the divine order, rubbing elbows with sedition until we have to a great extent destroyed our respect for law. Then we are ready for a full-fledged rebellion that will outlaw us from the courts of heaven. This, as a matter of fact, is true of the overthrow of any order: religious, political, economic. It is rare, indeed, that beginnings are anything but small. It is not often that an expert thief got his start by filching crown jewels; the hardened murderer hardly had the same complete willingness and deliberation for his first murder that he enjoys for his fiftieth. It is as true of vice as it usually is of virtue that we “ease into it”.
There is, then, a grave danger in venial sin, the grave danger of slipping bit by bit into mortal sin and so into the eternity of hell’s punishment. We can look at venial sin as an offence against God and see that it outstrips any or all physical evils that can come upon the human race, and so is unjustifiable for any reason whatever. We can look at it as a disposition to mortal sin and so as something to be carefully avoided as a serious threat to our eternal happiness. Or we can look upon venial sin in comparison to mortal sin and see only the tremendous gap which separates one from the other and lightly dismiss a small boy’s rudeness to his sister as “only a venial sin”.
A reversal of scale of values: Modern attitude towards mortal and venial sin
No matter what viewpoint we take, it is difficult to explain the modern attitude towards venial sin. Certainly a world that has denied the existence of God is not worrying about a slight offence against the divinity; an age that has laughed hell and heaven and sin to scorn is not worrying about a disposition to mortal sin. Yet very frequently among the neo-pagans of our age we find a scrupulous avoidance of venial sin. Petty theft, lying, rudeness, idle gossip, wasting of time are all looked on with real horror; even though side by side with this horror is an indifference to contraception, divorce, large-scale theft, unlimited greed, irreligion, and so on. In other words, they seem to have disregarded the absolute essentials of human life while clinging desperately to the things that make for the adornment, the perfection, the integrity of that life.
Carelessness towards venial sin: Its foundation
On the contrary, looking only at the gap between mortal and venial sin, those who are working desperately, courageously to keep intact the essential demands of reason are apt to shrug their shoulders at an unkind word, a white lie or a bit of gossip as “only a venial sin”. But venial sin cannot be shrugged off. If a single lie would save the human race from extinction, that lie could not be lawfully told. Not only is venial sin an offence against God and a disposition to mortal sin, it carries with it sufficient evil effects to give us pause just considering the venial sin in itself.
Its gravity — results of venial sin
The beauty of the soul does not emerge from contact with venial sin totally disfigured by acid burns or with long gashes dug by a destroying knife; but it does come out with a muddy face. Venial sin does not destroy the lustrous splendour of the soul because it does not turn the soul away from the streaming light of human and divine reason; but it goes far toward preventing that splendour of the soul from shining forth in our acts. It is like a heavy coating of dirt on the windows of a cathedral, blocking out the sunlight; or, more accurately, like a heavy bank of clouds blocking out the light of the sun. For venial sin does operate against acts of virtue, not only in the venial sins themselves, but in their effects — the dispositions they cause to similar acts, the habits they engender, the increase of the appetite for sin, the impediments they place to the graces and movements of the Holy Ghost and to the increase of charity.
We can picture venial sin graphically as the ropes that securely bind the hands and feet of a man; they do no intrinsic injury to man’s ability to act, but certainly they hinder his activities. Or venial sin can be likened to a heavy blanket hung between a warm fire and the shivering wretch who is trying to get warm; for while venial sin does not extinguish or even diminish the fire of charity, it does prevent the saving heat of it from spreading out into our actions as it could.
Venial sin a fault proper to fallen man
There is one more interesting point to notice about venial sin, namely that it is peculiarly our own. Adam or Eve could not commit venial sin until they had lost their original justice, no angel or devil is capable of venial sin, and no man with original sin on his soul can commit venial sin without having first either freed himself from original sin or committed mortal sin. All of these apparently disparate conclusions follow from the very notion of venial sin as a disorder affecting not the end or goal but the means. Evidently where there is perfect order, even the slight disorder of venial sin is not possible without the destruction of the basis of that absolutely perfect order; Adam and Eve possessed that perfect order which followed from the subjection of the will to God and of the lower powers of man to his reason. The angels, whose knowledge deals not with conclusions but with principles, cannot suffer disorder concerning the conclusions without disorder having first invaded the principles; and in the moral order, the end is the principle, the means to the end — the material of venial sin — are the conclusions. Likewise a man in original sin either has not reached the age of reason and so is incapable of any sin; or having the use of reason, must first make a choice of end or goal before dealing with the means to that end. That first act of choice of a goal will then be either an act of virtue destroying original sin, or an act of vice putting the stain of mortal sin on the soul, for it will be a choice of a right or a wrong goal.
Conclusion: Some definitions of beauty
Perhaps we can best sum all this up by going back to our starting-point — to beauty. There have been men from ancient times who maintained that beauty is something completely objective, outside of man; there have been others holding that beauty was entirely subjective, a projection from within man himself. Both schools still have their disciples. Aristotle, and after him Thomas, insisted that beauty was neither entirely objective nor entirely subjective, but the result of the combination of both subject and object. St. Thomas expressed this neatly when he defined beauty as “that which being contemplated, pleases” (quod visum placet). In other words, beauty arises from reality plus a relation to a knowing subject.
Looking at the very foundations, we see that reality as merely known constitutes truth; reality as merely desired or possessed is the good; but reality as known and as pleasing because known is the beautiful. For beauty reality must affect the intellect, but not the intellect alone; it must affect the appetite, but in a disinterested fashion, in a fashion that precludes desire and possession, resting serenely in contemplation.
For beauty, then, there is demanded a fullness of reality; an integrity that means not only lack of defect but richness of perfection, a proportion that means the completion of perfect order, and a brilliance or clarity that means the presentation of that perfection and order in a vivid refulgence of the form or principle of perfection and order breaking through the material envelope and bursting upon our intelligence. Beauty is a thing of reality, not of dreams, a thing of full rich reality, a thing of splendid reality that is sought unselfishly, disinterestedly, with a serenity that precludes the clouding of passion.
- Beauty and modern world:
- A surface worship; A worship that destroys its object
It is because of the nature of beauty that in the beginning of this chapter it was said that we are not an age in love with beauty. We are not an age in love with reality, but only with that superficial, partial reality that falls under the senses. Our philosophers have chained man down to the sense world, so they have made his taste for the beautiful a taste that destroys the object it feeds upon. If the sense appetite of man is his only appetite, then his search for reality is an acquisitive, grasping, passionate search that can be satisfied only in absorbing the object of its search, that must be constantly immersed in the uproar of passion. And he must end his search in the realization that even the sense beauty available to him always eludes his grasp.
The home of beauty Actually the scale of the beautiful is the scale of being, of actuality, of reality. Our age has insisted that man stay on the lowest rung of the ladder. As we go up step by step through forms dependent on matter to forms independent of matter but in matter, through forms utterly independent of matter to the final pure form or pure act which is God, we are advancing by each step into worlds of ever increasing beauty. As our joy in those worlds becomes more and more disinterested, more and more unselfish, as our contemplation becomes more and more penetrating, more and more pure, this beauty breaks upon us with more and more force until in that last supreme vision we are indeed overwhelmed with beauty.
Of course sin is an attack on beauty, for sin is an attack on reality. It is an attack on the integrity, the perfection, the brilliance of humanity and humanity’s acts; sin is a defective human act, a disorderly human act, a rebellious human act which does its utmost to destroy that form of human acts which is reason. There is in fact nothing of beauty in sin. That deliberately invoked ugliness deserves punishment; that deliberate attack on order meets with the prompt resistance of order; that deliberate clouding or destruction of brilliance meets the just deprivation of light and splendour.
Beauty and God
Sin is the enemy of beauty, for sin is the enemy of virtue. Virtue is the principle working for greater perfection, for the rich fullness of man’s powers under the perfect order of reason; a principle whose climax is the ultimate perfection of man’s union with the Supreme Reality which is the goal of his life. Virtue makes for constantly increasing beauty within a man himself, and a constantly more penetrating vision of the beauty outside of himself; it works for greater perfection and at the same time for greater mastery over the lower faculties of man. That serene contemplation demanded for beauty is possible only where passion is under the rule of its master and where love is so great that it is able to be utterly selfless. The virtuous man walks in beauty to the goal of beauty which is at the same time the Supreme Beauty and the source of all that is beautiful. For the virtuous man walks the roads of reason to the mansions of God.