Sin and Theresa of Avila

When I read through spiritualities of the past, I find that I don’t have the same psychology of sin. A great many of the medieval mystics, Caroline Divines, and other luminaries I read speaking of weeping over sins–and they mean that literally. I’ve never done this. Is not that I’m not sorry for my sins, but they don’t pull at me the way that these folks apparently felt. I wonder why that is . . .

Part of it is probably attributable to the decline in auricular confession. Because we don’t have to ennumerate our sins, we don’t recognize them or even notice them as much as our spiritual forebearers. This loss of attentiveness is not a good thing, but it’s where we are. The Episcopal Church has no official stance on Confession that I’m aware of but there is a liturgy for it (pp. 447-452) and many of the higher churches offer appointed times for the sacrament; for Lutherans, of course, private confession is confessionally mandated . . .

Part of it too is a shift in psychology. We live in a more humanistic time. Our worldview is different from theirs. Furthermore, our current liturgies are addressed to and reinforce our worldview rather than theirs. The liturgies that are most in my bones, the ELCA Green Book and the ’79 BCP don’t emphasize penitence the way that earlier liturgies did and (as I have remarked before) when I look at those liturgies with modern eyes their humility seems excessive to the point that it borders on spiritual pride (Look at me!–how wonderfully humble I am! I’m *so* much more humble than you, etc.). I’d probably feel different if I were raised with these liturgies–but I wasn’t.

As a result, I’ve never know quite how to approach sin in a constructive fashion. One thing I know I need to do is to find a confessor; I hope to do that when I move. But something really clicked for me today in relation to an image from Theresa of Avila. It was in reference to the nearness of Christ to us and the soul as a mirror.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried lighting your house with candles or oil lamps, but they don’t produce very much light at all. One of the tricks for improving this problem before electricty was to put a mirror behind the light source, effectively doubling it by redirecting the light. I suddenly had an image of Christ, Lux Mundi, standing near, even next, to each one of us. The soul is a mirror and sin a black stain upon the mirror that absorbs light, not reflecting it. We are called to letour light so shine before others….but we are not the original source of that light–we reflect rather than create. It is in reflecting Christ that we share his love to the world. Sin, then, diminishes the effect of his light through our own diminished capacity to reflect. For some reason this way of looking at the subject touched me and caught me in a way that others haven’t to this point. Our sin dimishes his witness in the world; the exercise of virtue, on the other hand, as motivated by the Sacraments and the movement of the Spirit restore our reflective abilities…

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About Derek Olsen

I'm a layman within the Episcopal Church with a PhD in New Testament and an interest in most things medieval, monastic, and liturgical. My chief job is keeping up with my priestly wife and our two awesome kids. In addition to that, I earn a living, run the St Bede's Breviary, listen to loud goth/industrial music, and do some stuff for the church. I currently serve as Secretary to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music where I'm also co-chair of the Calendar committee and chair of the Digital Publications committee.
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14 Responses to Sin and Theresa of Avila

  1. Annie says:

    It’s interesting that you should be considering the role of sin and humilityy. I should get back to Teresa! I can’t read these mystics very quickly.

  2. Derek the Ænglican says:

    No intentional connection to current events. 🙂

  3. *Christopher says:

    derek,

    This is a fine image.

    I intend to write a post on the image and likeness of God, which as I understand is that reflection or transparency as we exercise virtue motivated by the Sacraments and the movement of the Spirit (grace). We become less opaque as the Orthodox would say and more transparent or iconic. Sin is exactly that a black spot or stain that dims the reflection or clarity as if a window.

    I’ve always tended toward beating up on myself with regard to sin to the point that that itself is a sin–scrupilosity and often a poor sense of self worth, which is itself a form of pride. But a good confessor, like my priest has been helpful in guiding me in a more healthful direction. I also recommend Martin L. Smith’s work “Reconciliation”. I have never not wept in Confession, but some of us are more expressive emotionally than others as well, so I think there may be more than one sign of compunction.

  4. bls says:

    Don’t know if you’d be interested, but a modern, pragmatic take on the subject of sin (the 7 Deadlies, that is, also called “Character Defects”) can be found in A.A.’s Step Four.

    Not Christian – but still valuable and I think interesting. And let’s not forget their empirical results; nothing to sneeze at.

  5. bls says:

    (Step Five is the “Confessor” step, BTW.)

  6. Annie says:

    Oh, I’m not considering current events at all. I had gone back to review the mystics, especially considering the concept of detachment. Eckhart considers detachment the most important thing of all. At any rate, I began with Teresa of Avilla and then had the bright idea of gathering comments on each topic such as sin, humility, etc. from each of the mystics. The list became overwhelming as I began the project with the idea of comparing three or four mystics and the list kept growing. Last I knew, I was still working on it. I’m reading the complete version of Revelation of Love for the first time. My reading goes very slowly when I enjoy it so much!

  7. LutherPunk says:

    Confessionally mandated, yes, but never done, as I am sure you remember.

    This year we had posted times for confession during Lent, and I heard exactly one confession. One.

  8. Derek the Ænglican says:

    It’s a problem, lp…

    Have you found a confessor? I know we have some similar issues and fears especially in terms of the potential abuse/manipulation of the office.

  9. Gracious Light says:

    I’m in the same boat with you, Derek. In my current faith stage, I don’t literally cry over my sin. I have in the past, but I wonder if it was the sin or other issues in my life that I was crying over (another post).

    I agree, that our modern corporate worship belittles the place of confession in our worship. Heck, I don’t even know a UM congregation that regularly prays a prayer of confession.

    Tied into that, it seems as if most small group/ accountability group/ Sunday School literature pretty much ignores confession, opting to leave confession for private prayer.

    I guess thats mostly because as protestants we distrust the notion of a confessor or a spiritual guide. Rather that see the benefit of such a relationship, we disregard any benefit for fear of a mandating of having some type of intercessor between the believer and God.

    Like you, I read the older liturgies and come away with the same feelings of “come on” with all the humility. But it seems if they were too humble, we’ve become too arrogant in our worship.

    I’ve recently been using the OSL resource for the Daily Prayer in worship. People complained to me because I would use any confessional language in worship…. it feels bad.

    How far we have come.

    What are some things we can do to healthily recover the notion of confession, corporate or private.

  10. Derek the Ænglican says:

    I think trust has quite a lot to do with it. Especially since I want to do work in church circles and since M is in church circles I feel I have to be extra careful. I’ve thought about seeing a Roman confessor on the sly but since it’s a sacrament I don’t think it’s licit for non-Catholics to do that…

    Funny how a sense of sin seems to conflict with a sense of entitlement… Our culture needs to hear this word; I have no idea how to make it happen…

  11. K.E.B. says:

    Thanks for your post.

    A poem related to your image of the soul as the mirror of Christ, and sin as the “black spot,” obscuring the light, continuing the analogy by considering the painful mirror-cleaning that is sanctification… Perhaps the Holy Spirit is the Windex.

    “The Trial is Lovable”

    I want to be pure polished gold
    Reflecting the divine,
    So more and more, as I grow old
    The glory more will shine.
    But will you not consider me
    Quite foolish like a child,
    If while the sculptor’s polishing
    I do not want the trial?

    Keith E. Buhler
    http://www.mereorthodoxy.com

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