I was at the early Sunday Mass at St. Mary's in Sleepy Eye. My brain was full of stuff about harvest work and the family. It was all swirling around in there, and I began to settle myself as I try to do every Sunday. That is one of the gifts of church; it can be like stepping into the eye of the storm where there is calm.
That's when I noticed some discomfort: a little achy, stomach out of sorts, head not quite fitting on right. "Oh, yeah, that's right," I groused to myself. I wish I could report that this was some virus doing the damage. No, this was self-inflicted. Somewhere in the evening before, several Schell's Oktoberfests too many crossed my lips.
Being as Sundays always follow Saturdays, my condition on this morn was not entirely unique. The irony of it is obvious. There I am at Mass trying to draw closer to the Lord and go about the never-to-end task of making myself a better person. At the same time I am suffering from misdeeds of the night before.
Every time I enter the church and genuflect before the altar, I do so as a sinful person. But on Sundays like this it is abundantly clear, too clear. I suppose I am in just the right place.
Different denominations look at drinking differently. There are Mennonites and Methodists who would say any drinking is a sin. John Wesley told his followers "to taste no spirituous liquor, unless prescribed by a physician." For many individuals, one drink is too many and might indeed be a sin.
I am like a lot of others in that I don't consider a few beers to be a sin. A couple beers with friends is among my favorite things to do. But too many beers? At some point it crosses a line of overconsumption, and I would say that it becomes a sin. As much as I'd like to blame the August Schell Brewing Company for my condition, it is my own darn fault. Were this the only sin tarnishing my soul, God might be pleased. I'll reserve further enumeration for the confessional.
Recently our new Pope Francis was asked in an interview, "Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?" That is his given name. He answered starkly, "I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech. I am a sinner." With that simple statement, Pope Francis presented himself squarely in the midst of all of us.
While Pope Francis may not have ever sat in a pew the morning after too many Schell's, he bound himself with me, a fellow sinner. Sin binds all of us. It is why we shouldn't be too harsh with each other. We are all on the journey, some of us in the smooth center, some on the gravelly shoulder, and some trying to navigate the ditch.
Did I feel guilty that Sunday morn in my pew? A little. More sheepish really. Borrowing from Britney Spears, "Oops, I did it again." I tell God, "That's it. I'm done. I'll never drink again." Alas, we've had this conversation before. God doesn't believe me. I guess we'll continue the work of improving me, two steps forward, one step back.
A little guilt can be useful. At times in my life, guilt has propelled me to work on some behavior of mine. Guilt can be the "push" from the person I am to the "pull" of the person I want to be. Can guilt be harmful? No doubt there are cases where that is true. Guilt is central to a number of psychological disorders that we would not wish on anyone. If one becomes so racked with guilt that they are incapacitated, no good comes of that.
Of course, we Catholics and "guilt" have been linked forever. There is an entire cottage industry of humor built around it. The irony is that we have a sacrament devoted to forgiveness, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or just "Confession." I know this one seems strange to my non-Catholic friends. But it works for me. I compare it to making my marriage work. Somewhere in the early years, I had to learn to say, "I'm sorry," out loud and with feeling.
Notions of sin and guilt aren't unique to Catholics. We share with every religion the concept that there are standards that are beyond merely our will. These are standards that come to us from outside of our lives and outside of this time and place. A Buddhist might call it living an inauthentic life. A Hindu might speak of actions against Dharma, or a moral order. I am a Christian and ill behavior is a sin.
Back at my recent Sunday Mass, I sit with my slight physical affliction. This is a small town; I can look around and know most of the people. I could tell you some of the sins of my fellow worshippers. But we are told to ignore the sliver in our brother's eye and to worry about the log in our own eye.
That is good advice. It is especially so in a world where I can turn on the TV and watch the next spectacular sinner who has the attention of the news channels. Part of the attraction of these sins-turned-media-events is that we can all feel better about ourselves. "Well, at least I didn't poison my wife and feed her to the Great Dane, all the while I was carrying on with a 20-year old stripper that I met on a meth run with my toddler. Hey, I'm not so bad!"
On one fall morning, the log in my eye was obvious. It felt like the log banged me upside the head.