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The Stages of Sin from St. Bernard of Clairvaux ? Fasten Your Seatbelts!

By Msgr. Charles Pope

There are times when one reads something from one of the saints and is stunned by the tremendous insight, the piercing analysis, like a surgeon’s scalpel dividing diseased from healthy tissue. Such was my experience recently when reading a passage from St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

In this passage, Bernard analyzes the descent into the increasing darkness of sin experienced by those who refuse to hear the call to repent. I would argue that it applies not just to individuals, but to entire cultures.

Here is the entire passage:

If this cold once penetrates the soul when (as so often happens) the soul is neglectful and the spirit asleep and if no one (God forbid) is there to curb it, then it reaches into the soul’s interior, descends to the depths of the heart and the recesses of the mind, paralyzes the affections, obstructs the paths of counsel, unsteadies the light of judgment, fetters the liberty of the spirit, and soon—as appears to bodies sick with fever—a rigor of the mind takes over: vigor slackens, energies grow languid, repugnance for austerity increases, fear of poverty disquiets, the soul shrivels, grace is withdrawn, time means boredom, reason is lulled to sleep, the spirit is quenched, the fresh fervor wanes away, a fastidious lukewarmness weighs down, brotherly love grows cold, pleasure attracts, security is a trap, old habits return. Can I say more? The law is cheated, justice is rejected, what is right is outlawed, the fear of the Lord is abandoned. Shamelessness finally gets free rein. There comes that rash leap, so dishonorable, so disgraceful, so full of ignominy and confusion; a leap from the heights into the abyss, from the courtyard to the dung heap, from the throne to the sewer, from heaven to the mud, from the cloister to the world, from paradise to hell (Sermon 63.6b on the Song of Songs, “The Fox in the Vineyard”).

Let’s examine the passage in stages. My comments are shown in red. Fasten your seatbelts; turbulence ahead!

1. If this cold once penetrates the soul when (as so often happens) the soul is neglectful and the spirit asleep – It too easily happens that we are morally or spiritually asleep. This provides a doorway for the world, the flesh, and the devil. Jesus warns, Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matt 26:41).
And yet we love to sleep. We also love to anesthetize ourselves with alcohol, drugs, and other diversions. Jesus says in one of the parables that he sowed good seed in his field, But while everyone was sleeping, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away (Matt 13:25). Bad things happen when we are spiritually and morally asleep.
2. and if no one (God forbid) is there to curb it, then it reaches into the soul’s interior, descends to the depths of the heart and the recesses of the mind – If we are smart, we walk in spiritual company with the Church, close spiritual friends and spiritual leaders within the Church. Even if at times we get sleepy, they can rouse us and warn us. Too many do not do this; if they pray at all they are “lone rangers” and many drift from or discount the voice of the Church and family members. So either we have put ourselves in a position in which there is no one to warn us, or we ignore the warnings we do get. Thus the darkness of sin reaches deeper into our interior.
3. paralyzes the affections, – The first thing we lose is our desire for spiritual things.
4. obstructs the paths of counsel – The darkness of sin makes good counsel offered to us seem difficult at first and later on appear downright obnoxious. For example, one may begin to wonder, “Why does it matter whether I go to Mass?” or “Why is looking at a little porn so bad?” or “Why is the Church so ‘uptight’ about things?”
5. unsteadies the light of judgment – Severed from good counsel, our judgment becomes poor and self-serving.
6. fetters the liberty of the spirit – The (human) spirit is that part of us that opens us to God, that delights in truth and goodness. But as the flesh begins to dominate, the spirit’s influence is diminished. Its “liberty” to move within us to draw us to the good, true, and beautiful, is hindered.
7. and soon—as appears to bodies sick with fever—a rigor of the mind takes over: – Our thoughts become distorted; “stinking thinking” begins to seem sensible. St. Paul said of the Gentiles of his time that, having suppressed the truth, they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools (Rom 1:21-22).
8. vigor slackens – What was once virtuous and easy to do now seems hard, and one lacks strength to do good.
9. energies grow languid – Without the enthusiasm of an alive spirit infused with grace, we begin to lack the energy to do what is good and right. It all seems so much harder, so much effort!
10. repugnance for austerity increases – As the spirit descends more into a “coma” and the flesh becomes more demanding, attempts to limit pleasure make us angry. It is almost like the situation with gluttony, wherein the stomach is stretched so that more and more food is required to reach satiety.
11. fear of poverty disquiets – The more we get, the more we have to lose and hence the less secure we feel. The world and the flesh now have in their grip on us through fear. Poverty is freeing, but wealth enslaves. You can’t steal from a man who has nothing to lose; you can’t intimidate him. But a rich man, one rooted in the world, has too much to lose and is thus disquieted by even the most benign of threats. The laborer’s sleep is sweet, whether he has eaten little or much; but the rich man’s wealth will not let him sleep at all (Eccles 4:11).
12. the soul shrivels – Just as any part of the body that is underused begins to atrophy, so too the soul and its faculties. Increasingly unused, they recede, weaken, and go dormant.
13. grace is withdrawn – As sin grows more serious and descends into mortal sin, the soul is robbed of graces.
14. time means boredom – Without spiritual insight, boredom is sure to come. Nothing has real meaning; even the delights of the flesh fail to satisfy. Regarding a soul in this state, Scripture says, All things are wearisome; Man is not able to tell it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, Nor is the ear filled with hearing. That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun (Eccles 1:8-9).
15. reason is lulled to sleep – Foolish thinking is not seen for what it is. One cannot follow the path of simple logic or reason because the flesh feels threatened by it. Sins of the flesh are not the most serious of sins (sins of the spirit are) but they are the most disgraceful because of their capacity to cloud the mind.
16. the spirit is quenched – The human spirit becomes increasingly dead.
17. the fresh fervor wanes away – Good days, spiritually speaking, become fewer and fewer.
18. a fastidious lukewarmness weighs down – One actually begins to cultivate mediocrity, to celebrate it as open-minded, tolerant, and praiseworthy because it avoids “extremes.”
19. brotherly love grows cold – Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people.” Yes, sin is growing very deep now. The world is closing in on an increasingly petty object: me.
20. pleasure attracts – It always has, but now inordinately so and with greater and greater power.
21. security is a trap – In other words, it is a lie. This world is a thief; it takes back everything (no matter what the John Hancock Insurance Co. says). But increasingly, the sinful soul prefers lies to the truth, even knowing deep down that they are lies.
22. old habits return – Even if one had made progress in virtue, it now erodes.
23. Can I say more?The law is cheated – In other words, legalism and minimalism become tactics. One uses every trick in the book to take the clearly manifest will of God and parse words to claim it is unclear or does not apply, or to see how it can be observed in the most perfunctory of ways. One will often collect “experts” to tickle one’s ears. Whatever it takes to cheat the law, skirt the edges, and reinterpret the clear norms.
24. justice is rejected – After cheating the law, the next step down is to reject it outright. The person does not care what God says. He now begins to exalt his imperial, autonomous self. He says “I’ll do what I want and I’ll decide whether it’s right or wrong.”
25. what is right is outlawed, – Next comes trying to prevent others from proclaiming the truth: call what they say “hate speech,” fine them, arrest them make them answer in court, banish the truth from schools and the public square, demonize them, and criminalize all possible ways of proclaiming the truth.
26. the fear of the Lord is abandoned – The delusion that one will never face judgment for one’s actions is embraced.
27. Shamelessness finally gets free rein – Things that ought to (and used to) cause shame are now celebrated. Scripture laments them saying, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them (Rom 1:32). The celebration of sin—even the exaltation of it as virtue—shows that the darkness is now complete. The fall is complete with a crushing thud. St. Bernard describes it this way:
28. There comes that rash leap, so dishonorable, so disgraceful, so full of ignominy and confusion; a leap from the heights into the abyss, from the courtyard to the dung heap, from the throne to the sewer, from heaven to the mud, from the cloister to the world, from paradise to hell.
Pay attention to what the saints say! I’m sure that some people will dismiss this post as being overly “negative,” but I am more concerned with whether it is true. My own experience as a pastor, teacher, disciple, sinner, and denizen of the world, is that St. Bernard is right on target with his analysis and has given us a kind of diagnostic manual of the progression of the disease known as sin. Read this, ponder it, and consider your own life and the lives of those you love.

Unattended, disease has a way of moving deeper in stages. It becomes a grave matter if we do not soberly assess its presence and power and then apply the medicines of prayer, Scripture, the Sacraments, and fellowship with the Church (cf Acts 2:42).

Are you praying with me? Listen to St. Bernard of Clairvaux!


This article has been reprinted here by permission of the author after original publication at Community In Mission-http://blog.adw.org/2016/09/stages-sin-st-bernard-clairvaux-fasten-seatbelts/

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