What can we learn from the sins of the saints?

St. Brigid of Kildare (iStock photo)

Have you heard the saints confess? It deeply moves you, fills you with wonder at God’s grace, so clearly at work in their lives, in our world. Granted, very few of us are charged with the task of hearing confessions, but people show their souls all the time, to the right sort of person. If they think that you can hear them and have something to say to them, they’ll seek you out.

To fully appreciate a saint’s confession, contrast it with our own, the sort that you and I produce. But first, dispel any notion that hearing confessions is interesting. I have never heard a priest say any such thing. Sin is sad. It is a tale of opportunities missed, of fears winning out over grace. When it woos us, sin is alluring, even intoxicating, but, by the time it arrives in the confessional, sin is so haggard. It has been rid hard and left out in the rain. It holds no allure.


Most of the time, in hearing confessions, one listens to good people, who are frightened and who live in rather small worlds of thought and imagination. That is simply who most of us are. The confessor is not there as accuser, so there cannot be any thought of assailing self-conceits or debunking delusions. Remember, priests themselves go to confession, and we are very grateful that no one does that to us. Each soul must walk in the light it has available. Shoving a soul into a glare that would wither it accomplishes nothing.

The closer we come to God, the more we see in ourselves that is not of God.

Light! That is what is amazing about the confessions of the saints: what they are able to see in the light that they have been given. They are beyond the rules they might have transgressed. They are worried about the quality of their relationship with their Lord. Often, when I listen, I find myself thinking, “I do that all the time. You’re right. It is a sin. It is resisting God’s love. I never realized it.” (I quickly think that. I don’t say it. This moment is not about me.)

And here is a humbling paradox: how sad sin makes the saints. Sometimes they cry, having been made aware of how they continue to resist the Lord. Or they tear-up because they have discovered a new area of their lives that has lain fallow, not been watered by grace. Sometimes, the saints express astonishment that the further they journey, the more aware they are of their sins. They can be tempted by despondency.

Here, even a mediocre confessor must quote the saints to the saints, must share the wisdom of canonized saints with those still in the pews. The closer we come to God, the more we see in ourselves that is not of God. Put another way, the awareness of our sin is itself God’s great gift of grace. St. Augustine insisted that if God has given you the grace to see the sin and humbly to confess it, then surely the same God will give you the grace to overcome this sin.

Only love can knock a modern person off his or her pedestal.

Sadly, the converse is true for so many of us. Sin blinds. Sin disguises itself. Sin numbs the soul, saps its strength like an undetected virus. The Gospel says that we live in a world of self-made delusions. We insist that our shortcomings do not matter, at least when we compare them to some area in which we think that we excel. We forget that both virtues and vices are symbiotic. When one grows or weakens, it brings along its fellows.

The whole tenor of modern life is that I am a perfectly good person, trapped in a world of lazy idiots, who want to take what is mine from me. I don’t owe anything to others. I am the source of all rights, and no one may limit my rights, my self-expression. The world owes me a happy life, and then surely, at its end, God will realize that I am also owed a happy, eternal life.

We comfortable moderns think that we ourselves represent the pinnacle of evolution. The cosmos has been struggling, mightily for eons, to produce us, and, now that we are here it can finally see the purpose of its long ascent.

Love is a light. When it enters our life, we finally begin to see: We are not love; we cannot be love. For that, we need others.

Only love can knock a modern person off his or her pedestal. When we truly fall in love, we realize how infinitely richer the world is by containing not me but the one whom I love. And that is, of course, what happens to the saints among us. At some graced moment in prayer, the Lord reached out and touched them, and then everything else felt insufficient. As they began to give themselves more and more to prayer, the world began to fill with someone other than themselves. They began to see how their world would need more room for this new love. How it needed to jettison that which was not of God.

You cannot think yourself into believing in God any more than you can think yourself into recognition of sin. (You can come to credit the notion of a God, but that is not the same thing as giving yourself over to a person.) It has to come as a grace. It comes in prayer. The more you pray, the more God in his glory becomes self-evident, and all that resists God, even in yourself, seems so paltry.

We moderns continue to plead. Show yourself God, and I will love you. Make the world in my image, and I will give myself to you. We shout into our own wind.

The saints have begun to love God, and God shows himself to them. They are saddened to see sin everywhere in their lives, but it pours off them as dark waters do when one rises from the deeps.

Love gives light. Love is a light. When it enters our life, we finally begin to see: We are not love; we cannot be love. For that, we need others. And we need the savior, the one who simply is love.

Readings: 2 Chronicle 36:14-16, 19-33 Ephesians 2:4-10 John 3:14-21

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Anne Danielson
1 year ago

How very beautiful, for it is not Loving or Merciful to desire we remain in our sin; we all need "The Light That Shines In The Darkness", Our Savior, Jesus The Christ. Only The Truth of Love can overcome darkness.

John Walton
1 year ago

Nicely written. When we think of Augustine, we as parents should think of what his mother St Monica must have been thinking!


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