A good friend of mine was raised Catholic. Now in her 40s, she and her husband attend an Episcopalian church which she believes is in some sense “Catholic.” She wasn’t married in the Church and hasn’t been to confession in years, but she is truly convinced that all of these things are just “details.” When she did last go to confession, she told the priest that she was pretty sure God wasn’t going to send her to hell just because she never had her marriage convalidated. She said the priest really didn’t seem to know what to say to that.
I’ve heard several variations on this argument. I remember vividly one Marian holy day of obligation years ago when I compelled my adolescent son and daughter to accompany me to Mass in the middle of the week only to find rather few people in attendance. I was treated to a sly teenage whisper in my ear along the lines of “Do you really think the people who didn’t fulfill their ‘obligation’ today are going to hell?”
Nosing around online will turn up similar assertions:
“Just because you don’t go to church Sunday morning doesn’t mean you forfeit your right of having any help or guidance from God.”
And it isn’t just the laity who decline to sweat the small stuff. Monsignor Charles Pope tells the story of his encounter with a “radicalized” religious sister who insisted that there was no such thing as original sin. “Do you really think,” she asked him, “some apple in a tree caused some terrible fall?”
An apple – such a little thing!
We can actually prove from Scripture that the fruit which precipitated the first sin was no big deal: Scripture never even bothers to tell us what kind of fruit it was! The “apple” could have been any kind of fruit, a mango, a papaya. My money’s on a pomegranate, but the point is that the “apple” is not the point! The fruit was such a minor detail that the inspired writer didn’t bother to tell us what kind it was, because the point wasn’t horticultural – it was theological. Adam and Eve disobeyed.
That was the point.
Our first parents did not disobey simply out of hormonally-fueled teenage rebelliousness. They disobeyed because they stopped trusting the One Who created them. Everything in the Garden was good; everything was perfect. Only one commandment was laid upon them, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely;
but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” No explanations, no rationale behind the prohibition was given. Trust Me, God was saying to them. I loved you into existence!
I know what’s best for you.
We all know how that worked out. When the serpent hissed his sly insinuations, Eve was all ears. God doesn’t love you… God doesn’t want the best for you… God’s whole intention is to keep you from living life to the fullest. If He loved you, He would look the other way while you made your own decisions. Commandments, orders, injunctions – this Garden is run like a totalitarian regime! God’s trying to ruin your fun! What’s the big deal, anyway??
IT’S JUST A PIECE OF FRUIT!!
Yes, it was just fruit, but upon that fruit hinged mankind’s relationship with the Creator. Eating the fruit wasn’t a big deal. Eating the fruit was a symptom of the real big deal, which was Adam and Eve’s lack of trust in God. They fell for the first oily huckster who shuffled up to them with a suitcase full of shoddy goods and a preposterous sales pitch: You surely will not die! God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil! Come on! If you can’t trust Honest Lucifer, who can you trust?!
Eating an apple is just a little thing, like the tip of an iceberg. “Forgot” to show up for Mass on a holy day of obligation? You weren’t the only one! Scarfed down cream puffs and a milkshake on Ash Wednesday? Seriously, do you think God cares? It’s such a little thing!
Quite right – these are little things! These things are just symptoms – they don’t seem like much, and in and of themselves they really are not. Their true significance, and the reason the Church gets so worked up over them, lies in the fact that they are signs pointing beyond themselves, warning us of serious underlying spiritual disease. Eating the forbidden fruit was a symptom of a disintegrating relationship with God. Eating dessert on a day of fasting and prayer is a symptom of a disintegrating relationship with God’s Church that He Himself established to shepherd us. And that is serious.
To put this in physiological terms, let’s say you have a cough. It’s not a big deal – it doesn’t stop you from eating or sleeping, you can still work, it’s not painful, and when you’re not coughing you forget about it. But it doesn’t go away. You have it throughout the winter, and when the weather warms up it’s still with you. Just a little cough. Nothing to worry about. You finally think to bring it up at a routine checkup. No big deal, you tell your doctor – it hardly bothers you. A look of concern crosses her face. “With your history, that doesn’t sound good,” she tells you. “I’m going to get you set up for a chest x-ray.” But, you reiterate, it’s no big deal!
You’re right – the cough, in and of itself, is no big deal. Trust me, you’re not gonna die from that cough. You may die, however, from the underlying cause of that cough, which is the real problem. THE COUGH IS A SYMPTOM. Symptoms don’t kill you, but the illness that generates them just may….
Treating obligations such as Mass attendance on holydays, abstention during Lent, or confession of our sins to a priest as burdens means falling for the oldest lie in the Book. God doesn’t love you… God doesn’t want the best for you… God’s whole intention is to keep you from living life to the fullest. If He loved you, He would look the other way while you made your own decisions! Anything that smacks of an obligation should be viewed with distrust because, as we all know, God wants to ruin your fun! If you start viewing your Catholic experience as one long “to-do” list rather than as a relationship with a loving Father, you’ll soon begin exhibiting the symptoms of apathy, of lackluster devotion to the things of God. Your prayer time will wither, your spiritual fortitude will weaken, and gradually God will become distant and unfamiliar. Little foxes ruining the vineyard, as Solomon called them – little things. Little symptoms pointing to bigger, much more serious problems….
Look, if you’re experiencing rectal bleeding, for heaven’s sake hightail it on over to the nearest Guts-and-Butts and ask the experts if you need a colonoscopy. The rectal bleeding won’t kill you – it’s just a symptom – but the cause of the rectal bleeding might just do you in. And if you’ve been afflicted with a recent case of indifference towards the teachings of the Church, I beg you, don’t blow it off. It’s a symptom of something that could be quite serious, even grave – as in “mortal.” You need to get it checked out. Find a priest who takes sin seriously, and discuss your symptoms with him.
The life you save may be your own.
On the memorial of Bl. Peter To Rot
Deo omnis gloria!