I was thinking the other day about those coal miners who died in the accident in West Virginia. Unfortunately, I was thinking about them while I was standing in the confession line. I say "unfortunately" because times like that tend to cause you to think about things that make you uncomfortable, thoughts you'd rather not have to admit or deal with. Sin and collective responsibility is one of those thoughts.
In one of the more memorable passages in The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton recounts the feelings he had when the Second World War broke out in Europe. There was relief, he said, in that the uncertainty under which everyone had been living for the past several months was over. The tension had broken; for better or worse, the war was one. But his thoughts didn't stop there:
"There was something else in my own mind - the recognition: 'I myself am responsible for this. My sins have done this. Hitler is not the only one who has started this war: I have my share in it too . . .' It was a very sobering thought, and yet its deep and probing light by its very truth eased my soul a little."
Merton's response was to go to Confession and communion later that week, on the first Friday of September.
Why did he respond in such a manner? Communion is understandable, of course; often in bleak times we seek to draw nearer to our God, and there's no better way to do that than through the True Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. But we might wonder about his desire to go to Confession. Was there something he'd done that would prevent him from receiving communion? Merton might have said so, but his mind was on something bigger than the state of his own personal soul. The poet John Donne famously wrote "no man is an island," and so it is also with sin.
Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that our sins affect only us. In the clarity in which we often find ourselves after the fact, we resolve to go to Confession, certain in our knowledge that God forgives the repentant sinner. And this is a good thing, because it is true. But we often look at it in the most personal of terms, in the need we have for our souls to be cleansed of our sins. Less often do we think of the accumulated weight of collective sin, and the need for those sins to be redressed.
Obviously our sins affect others; just as there's no such thing as a victimless crime, there's no such thing as a victimless sin. But often we fail to realize that our sins affect not just our friends and family, or others that in some direct way might be involved in our actions. When it comes to sin, the buck doesn't stop with our own soul. Our sins not only tarnish ourselves, they diminish all of society. In the collective Body of Christ that is the Church, you can't isolate one part of the body from the others. Just as an act that strengthens one body part can be good for the entire body, something that damages or weakens that part will do the same to the rest of the body.
That's not to put too fine a point on this. After all, to look at this in the wrong perspective is to court scrupulosity. Pretty soon you become a walking guilt trip, blaming yourself for everything and anything that happens to anyone anywhere. Not only is that not healthy, it's not true.
But our sins do affect others, in ways we cannot always understand. Merton didn't really start the war, of course, any more than you or I might have cause the explosion that killed those miners. But in a sense Merton was right; his sins, and those of millions of others throught time, did play a part in the start of the war. It was not only the Jews and the Romans who shouted, "Crucify Him!" - our voices were joined in that cry, just as they are every time we sin. He felt the pain of our sins when the crown was pressed on His forehead, when the lashes tore into His back, when His hands and feet were hammered onto the Cross. And every time we reject His teachings He feels them still.
As I said when I started this piece, thinking about such things while standing in the confession line can make you uncomfortable. Perhaps you'd rather not think about it at all. Perhaps you feel shame and regret, or maybe you just try to push it out of your mind all together. But if you do think about it, as you enter the box and prepare to confess your sins, you might also remember that your confession and penance, will also do a world of good for the Church. If your sins have weakened the other members of the Body, it is just as sure that your repentance will strengthen them.
The realization of this can help deal with the discomfort that many of us feel in confession. To meditate on it - to consider the interactive role we play with the entire Church throughout all places and times, here on earth and in heaven - well, perhaps such thoughts will help strengthen us in the first place, so that we realize that our sins hurt not only ourselves, but all of God's children. To live better, more Christ-like lives, is something we don't do only for ourselves.