Merton explains the two-column approach to sin . . .
In such an event, you get, not contemplation, but a kind of intellectual and esthetic gluttony—a high and refined and even virtuous form of selfishness. And when it leads to no movement of the will towards God, no efficacious love of Him, it is sterile and dead, this meditation, and could even accidentally become, under certain circumstances, a kind of a sin—at least an imperfection.
Experience has taught me one big moral principle, which is this: it is totally impractical to plan your actions on the basis of a vast two-columned list of possibilities, with mortal sins on one side and things that are “not a mortal sin” on the other—the one to be avoided, the other to be accepted without discussion.
Yet this hopelessly misleading division of possibilities is what serves large numbers of Catholics as a whole moral theology. It is not so bad when they are so busy working for a living that the range of possibilities is more or less cut down and determined: but Heaven help them when they go on their vacation, or when Saturday night comes around. It is one reason for the number of drunken Irishmen in the world on Saturday nights for, as we know—and it is quite true—incomplete drunkenness is per se a venial sin. Therefore apply the two-column principle. You run your finger down the column of mortal sins per se. Going to a movie in which a man and woman maul each other at close range for hundreds of feet of film is not a mortal sin per se. Neither is incomplete drunkenness, nor gambling and so on. Therefore all these belong to the order of pursuits which are not illicit. Therefore they are licit. Therefore if anyone says, no matter with what qualifications, that you ought not to do these things—he is a heretic. If people are not careful, they get themselves into the position of arguing that it is virtuous to go to the movies, to gamble, to get half-drunk ...
I know what I am talking about, because that was the way I was still trying to live in those days. Do you want to see the two-column principle in operation? Here is an example of a lot of things which were not mortal sins in themselves. What they were per accidens I am afraid to say: I leave them up to the mercy of God; but they were done by one whom He was calling to a life of perfection, a life dedicated to the joy of serving and loving Him alone . . .
Of course, Merton is going to go on to list and explain sins that he's committed. Not necessarily mortal sins. More like, sins that won't get you kicked out of the heavenly clubhouse. Only mildly chastised. For those of my disciples who aren't Catholic, let me give you a quick lesson in this two-columned approach to sin. First, there are venial sins. These are sins that are less serious and won't put your mortal soul in danger of eternal damnation. In this category would be things like gossiping or gluttony or lustful thoughts or reading Nicholas Sparks books. All bad, but easily and quickly forgivable. Then there are mortal sins, which buy you a one-way ticket to the hot place. Included in this column are things like adultery or murder or voting for Donald Trump. Mortal sins are not unforgivable. No sin is unforgivable. It's just that, if a person knowingly commits a mortal sin, that person needs to repent (in the case of Catholics, go to Confession) in order to save him/herself from sharing a dorm room with Satan.
So, people can pick sins from the venial garden, but should stick away from the poison ivy of the mortal garden. And that's what Merton does. He won't stray so far from God that he'll put himself in the queue for hellfire, but he's not about to give up drinking or telling dirty jokes or having indiscriminate sex. Basically, he's cherry picking how he's going to break the rules.
We've all done this as teenagers. Seen how far we can push out parents before they take away the keys to the car, lock the front door, or kick us out into the cold. That's part of growing up, and, I suppose, it's a part of growing up as a follower of God. How much can we get away with before God won't let us borrow the car anymore?
Tonight, I led my monthly poetry workshop. It was for Black History Month, and I chose prompts based on poems by some of the best African American poets of the 20th and 21st centuries. Langston Hughes. Rita Dove. Gwendolyn Brooks. Claudia Rankine. Robert Hayden. Yusef Komunyakaa. Natasha Trethewey. And it was sort of a revelation.
As a white male, I am privileged. I am fully aware of that. I don't have to worry about getting pulled over by the police because I'm driving through the wrong neighborhood with the wrong skin pigment. Or my kids being seen as intellectually inferior in school or "dangerous" as they walk down the street. I will never be discriminated against in the workplace because of my race, and nobody will ever think that I should have natural rhythm because I'm descended from slaves.
I've taken my privileged status for granted most of my life. Accepted it without thought. Benefitted from it in ways that I'm probably not even aware of. I like to think that I'm an enlightened person now, but it's easy for a white male to say that he's racially enlightened. It doesn't cost me anything. I don't have to give up my job or accept a salary reduction. It doesn't affect my kids. I can use my enlightenment to look down on people--label them as racist and dismiss them. Go to bed at night and sleep with a clear conscience because I celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day instead of Presidents' Day. And I think that Presidents' Day should be replaced by Indigenous Peoples' Day.
See? I'm a good person. I'm on the right side. I'm moved when I hear the song "We Shall Overcome." Get outraged when another African American becomes the victim of police violence. Try to include diverse points of view in the classes I teach at the university. Lead poetry workshops for Black History Month in which I read aloud these words from Claudia Rankine:
When you arrive in your driveway and turn off the car, you remain behind the wheel another ten minutes. You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level and want time to function as a power wash. Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists the medical term—John Henryism—for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were high. You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend.
My whole life is the product of a society that was created on the backs of slaves. If that isn't a mortal sin, I don't know what is. The question then is this: what should my penance be?
I don't know the answer to that question. Certainly, this blog post is a step in the right direction. The workshop I led tonight was, too. It's about speaking truth, even when it is uncomfortable. Because I have been comfortable all my life.
This isn't a sin that can be forgiven by saying three Our Fathers. It's not that simple. The last four years in the United States have proven that. Penance is work. Hard work. Requiring a change of mind and heart and deed. Until everyone starts doing this penance, there are going to be a lot more George Floyds and Trayvon Martins.
So, Bless Saint Marty, Father, for he has sinned. It has been an entire lifetime since his last confession . . .
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