Cette Claudication Mysterieuse

August 11, 2012

I usually don’t post on Saturdays and Sundays but recently I’ve been finding stuff, stuff that I’ve posted before or just a quote that caught my eye. I’ve decided to post these from time to time on the weekends. Those words from Paul below replay themselves over and over again in my mind.


More than any other passage, Moses’ farewell speech in Deuteronomy  30:15-20 brings out the real nature and tragedy of sin. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.

But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.

Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”


“So the project is knowing that we are sinners, but what, exactly, is sin? This is a much more difficult question than it seems, because sin is a negativity, a dysfunction, and hence cannot be looked at directly. Henri de Lubac spoke of it as cette claudication mysterieuse, this mysterious limp, and thereby caught its elusive, derivative, and parasitic quality. We might begin to shed some light on the issue by distinguishing, in accord with biblical instincts, between Sin and sins, that is to say, between the underlying disease and its many symptoms. When, at the end of his career, the Curé d’Ars was asked what wisdom he had gained about human nature from his many years of hearing confessions, he responded, “People are much sadder than they seem.”

Blaise Pascal rests his apologetic for Christianity on the simple fact that all people are unhappy. This universal, enduring, and stubborn sadness is Sin. Now this does not mean that Sin is identical to psychological depression. The worst sinners can be the most psychologically well-adjusted people, and the greatest saints can be, by any ordinary measure, quite unhappy. When I speak of sadness in this context, I mean the deep sense of un-fulfillment. We want the Truth and we get it, if at all, in dribs and drabs; we want the Good, and we achieve it only rarely; we seem to know what we ought to be, but we are in fact something else. This spiritual frustration, this inner warfare, this debility of soul, is Sin.

It is nowhere better described than in the seventh chapter of the letter that Paul wrote to the Romans toward the end of his life. The passage begins simply and magnificently: “I do not understand my own actions” (Romans 7:14). Paul knows, even twenty years after his conversion to Christ, that he remains an enigma to himself.

And the mystery is clearly articulated: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Paul lives at cross purposes to himself, his best inclinations stymied, his highest thoughts countered by his lowest desires, his good will giving rise to sordid acts. Sounding like an alcoholic who knows that taking a drink is the very worst thing he could do precisely as he raises the glass to his lips, Paul continues, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it” (Romans. 7:18).

When he looks within, he sees, not an ordered harmony, but a battlefield: “for I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind” (Romans 7:23). And the conclusion of this bit of brutally honest introspection is an anguished statement and an equally anguished question: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). The Apostle to the Gentiles …sees the truth of his situation with awful clarity his spiritual life is a civil war, and no amount of fighting will resolve the conflict.

Pascal mines further this Pauline vein when he says, “We are incapable of not desiring truth and happiness and incapable of either certainty or happiness.”This is both our greatness (we know what we ought to have) and our wretchedness (we cannot achieve it). In one of the best known of his Pensees, Pascal says, “Man is neither angel nor beast, and it is unfortunately the case that anyone trying to act the angel acts the beast.”  In other words, when we convince ourselves that all is basically well with us and that through our efforts of mind, will, imagination, can work our way out of our wretchedness, we do not resolve our dysfunction; we intensify it. Part of the mythology of the Enlightenment was just this confidence in auto-salvation.

Many nineteenth-century thinkers, including some Christians, held that our technological advances, our improvements in medicine, our growing political wisdom would conduce, finally, to the emergence of the kingdom. The prophets from Kierkegaard to Barth pointed out the dangerous hubris behind this assumption, and the horrors of the twentieth century — two global wars, several attempts at genocide, the nuclear threat, and the beginning of terrorism — have shown the truth of Pascal’s dictum. The perpetrators of the greatest violence in human history were not those who believed in the fall but precisely those who denied it.

Every Advent Christians sing a haunting song whose words and tune go back to the ninth century, but I wonder how carefully they aver to the lyrics:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appears.

In the ancient world, people were tremendously afraid of being kidnapped and held for ransom, Alone, far from home, malnourished, often tortured, hostages could only hope against hope that their deliverance might come. This is the situation evoked by that well-known song: Israel, the people of God, are held for ransom in their lonely exile, and they cry out for their savior, the Son of God. To be in Sin is to know the truth and to feel the texture of this imprisonment.

In his homilies on the book of Exodus, Origen proposes an allegorical reading of the battle between the children of Israel and the Egyptians. The Israelites, he says, symbolize all of the positive powers of the soul — creativity, intelligence, energy, love — while Pharaoh (and his minions) stand for the negative forces of fear, hatred, and violence. What has happened in our fallen state is that Pharaoh has come to dominate Israel, that is to say, the power of Sin has co-opted and mastered for its purposes our positive energies.

Now our minds (which remain hungry for the Truth) are placed in service of falsity; and our wills (which still love the Good) are pressed into service for evil; and our creativity (which still longs for the beautiful) is harnessed to ugly purposes. According to Exodus, Pharaoh compels the Israelites to build fortified cities and monuments to himself. And so, following the allegory, our sinner’s souls are given over to producing fortifications to protect the ego and monuments to trumpet its prominence. This enslavement of our best to our worst is Sin.

Augustine offers one of the pithiest definitions of Sin: itis the state of being incurvatus in se (caved in on oneself). The powers of the soul, which are meant to orient us to nature and other human beings and the cosmos and finally the infinite mystery of God, are focused in on the tiny and infinitely uninteresting ego. Like a black hole, the sinful soul draws all of the light and energy around itinto itself.

Dante illustrates this Augustinian insight by placing Satan at the pit of Hell, frozen in ice, incapable of movement, and weeping from all six of his eyes.’The Devil’s angel wings (now devolved into unsightly bat wings) beat the air furiously, but he can go nowhere: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” Trying to fly while stuck in the ice; driving your car with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake: that is the dysfunction, the frustration, that the Bible calls “Sin.”

But we mustn’t despair, even after surveying this depressing series of images and metaphors, for we have a savior. We cannot set this condition right (“who will deliver me from this body of death?”), but there is someone who can. Paul’s lament ends with an exultant proclamation: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25). Christianity affirms that Emmanuel (God with us) has come and has gone right to the bottom of Sin in order to defeat it.

In his full humanity, Jesus entered into the complex nexus of Sin, and in his full divinity, he did something about it. He stood shoulder to shoulder with us in the muddy Jordan waters of our egotism, but he was not simply a fellow sufferer, He also lifted us out of those waters and offered us transfiguration. And it is none other than those so lifted up and so transfigured that can look with confidence, and even a touch of humor, at the mess from which they are being saved. It is the saints who know that they are sinners.”
Fr. Robert Barron, And Now I See

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