Stages of Sin from St. Bernard of Clairvaux
By: Msgr. Charles Pope
There are just times when a saint speaks and one is stunned by the insight, the piercing analysis, like a surgeon’s scalpel dividing diseased from healthy tissue. Such is the case with a quote I read recently from St. Bernard that Ralph Martin references in his Book “The Fulfillment of all desires.”
In this quote Bernard analyzes the descent into the increasing darkness of sin experienced by those who do not turn back, who refuse to hear the call to repent. And not individuals only, but, I would argue, cultures too.
St. Bernard’s quote is long enough that I can only make brief comments. But consider it first in toto, and then in stages. Here is the full quote:
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energies grow languid, repugnance for austerity increases, fear of poverty disquiets, the soul shrivels, grace is withdrawn, time means boredom, reason is lulled to sleep, the spirit is quenched, the fresh fervor wanes away, a fastidious lukewarmness weighs down, brotherly love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 court-yard 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).
And now consider the stages, with brief comments by me to them along the way. Fasten your Seat belts, turbulence ahead.
1. If this cold once penetrates the soul when (as so often happens) the soul is neglectful and the spirit asleep – For it too easily happens that we are morally or spiritually asleep. And this provides doorways for the evil one, 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). We love to sleep. Bad stuff happens 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, and with close spiritual friends and spiritual leaders in the Church. Even if, at times we get sleepy, they rouse us and warn us. But too many do not do this and if they pray at all they are lone rangers and many drift from or discount the voice of the Church and family members. Thus, in our weakness there is no one, by our own fault, to warn us, or if some one does, we ignore or ridicule them. Thus the darkness of sin reaches deeper into our interior.
3. paralyzes the affections, – our desires being to go awry first. Our desire for spiritual things is shutting down.
4. obstructs the paths of counsel, The darkness of sin makes good counsel seem difficult at first, obnoxious later. For example, one may begin to wonder, “Why does it matter if I go to Mass or not? What’s the big deal….Why is looking at a little porn so bad….why is the Church so “uptight” about stuff?”
5. unsteadies the light of judgment – Severed from good counsel our judgments become 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 the truth and in goodness. But as the flesh begins to dominate, the spirit’s influence is diminished and 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 masquerade as sensible. As St. Paul says 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, i.e. a good habit and easy to do, now seems hard and one lacks strength or vigor 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 goes more into a coma and the flesh becomes more demanding, any limits to pleasure make us wince and get angry. It is almost like a gluttony wherein the stomach is stretched and must have a bigger meal each time to satisfy. Never, satisfied, the flesh demands more and more, and any notion of limits causes anger and avoidance.
11. fear of poverty disquiets – The more we get, the more we have to lose and the less secure we feel. The world and the flesh now have in their grip 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 person, a person 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 which is underused begins to atrophy (weaken and shrink) so too the soul and its faculties, increasingly unused, recede, grow weak and go dormant.
13. grace is withdrawn – as sin grows serious, now mortal sin robs the soul of graces.
14. time means boredom – without spiritual insight, boredom is sure to follow. Nothing has real meaning. Even the delights of the flesh, now so demanded, fail to satisfy. Scripture says regarding a soul in this state: 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 feel 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 – Even good days, spiritually speaking are fewer and fewer.
18. a fastidious lukewarmness weighs down – one actually begins to cultivate mediocrity, compromise and to celebrate it as open-minded, tolerant and avoiding “extremes.”
19. brotherly love grows cold – Was it Camus or Sartre who 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 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 truth, even knowing deep down that they are lies.
22. old habits return – If one had made progress in virtue, now it erodes.
23. Can I say more? The law is cheated – In other words, legalism and minimalism becomes a tactic. One seeks the “least expensive” interpretation of everything, parses words, and uses every trick to see how the clearly manifest will of God is either not clear, does not apply or how it can be observed in the most perfunctory of ways. One will often collect experts to tickle their ears. Whatever it takes to cheat the law, skirt the edges and reinterpret clear norms.
24. justice is rejected – After cheating the law the next step down is just to reject it outright. The person does not care what God says. They now begin to exult the imperial autonomous self saying in effect that they will do what they want and they will decide if it is right or wrong.
25. what is right is outlawed, – next comes trying to outlaw 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 and criminalize all possible ways of proclaiming the truth.
26. the fear of the Lord is abandoned – The delusion that one will never face consequences of judgement for what they do is embraced. They will answer to God, but they deny it and are permitted a very deep delusion that they will never have to answer for what they do.
27. Shamelessness finally gets free rein Things that ought to cause shame, and used to do so 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 exultation of it as virtue shows that the darkness is now complete, the fall reaches as cracking and crushing thud. St Bernard describes it this way:
There [has come] that rash leap, so dishonorable, so disgraceful, so full of ignominy and confusion; a leap from the heights into the abyss, from the court-yard 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. There are some who will no doubt dismiss this post as negative etc. I am more concerned if it is true, rather than negative (or positive). My own experience as Pastor, teacher, disciple, sinner and denizen of the world, is that St. Bernard is right on target and has given us a kind of diagnostic manual of the progression of the disease know as sin. Read this, ponder it, consider your own life, and consider too the lives of people you love.
Disease unattended has a way of moving deeper in stages to become grave if we do not soberly assess its presence and power and use the medicines of the Prayer, Scripture, Sacraments, and Fellowship with the Church (cf Acts 2:42).
Are you praying with me?? Listen to St. Bernard of Clairvaux