The Family: Damaged by Sin and Restored in Jesus
Sister Andrea Fraile FAITH MAGAZINE September-October 2014
Why can the family so often be a place of conflict and suffering? In her Tuesday evening talk, Sister Andrea Fraile suggests that we cannot understand the difficulties of family life unless we grasp the reality of original sin.
It has been revealed to us that God is love. God Himself, in His very person, is a communion of love,a trinity of love. The Father is the lover; the Son, His beloved; and the Holy Spirit, the love that binds them as one. That’s great but, and we’re often challenged on this, if there is a God, and if He is so loving, then how come there is so much suffering and evil in this world? And no one can deny it. We’re all too aware of war and starvation all over the world, of the weak and defenceless being attacked because they are weak and defenceless. If we consider marriage and family specifically, we don’t have to look far to find a complete lack of respect between the sexes. Many people find themselves in abusive relationships – whether that be psychological, physical, sexual – and that abuse is suffered by young, innocent children as well. Women suffer degradation and humiliation, all over the globe. Polygamy still exists; divorce is on the rise. In our own selves too, we cannot deny at various stages of our lives, a sense of guilt, uneasiness, overwhelming sadness, a feeling of hopelessness and, at times, a sense that our lives are without purpose.
“Sin is the most disastrous thing to have befallen humanity but we are not without hope. Sin is a disaster, but we are not a disaster. Sin damaged human nature, but it never destroyed it.”
Yet at the same time, we can’t be entirely pessimistic because, the fact remains, Man has the capacity for real greatness. Think of the saints who suffer for Christ; think of powerful and courageous religious and political leaders who refuse to be swayed by the prevailing evil ideologies of their day; think of any amount of achievements in the fields of music, art or architecture. There are plenty of examples, even among our families and friends, of startling goodness and brilliance. And, if we’re honest, the thing that’s “wrong” is not just out there – it lies within. Man is a real conundrum. There is a contradiction that lies, somehow, at the very core of his existence. St Paul expresses it well when he writes to the Corinthians and says: “I do not understand my own behaviour … the good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing which I do not want – that is what I do.” (Rom. 7:15, 19).
There is a reason for this contradiction and the Church has explained it in a way that makes sense. It’s called the doctrine of Original Sin. It explains what sin really is; where it came from; and why we have a tendency to sin. Marriage and family are under attack today; we know that. But nothing threatens marriage and the family half as much as sin and unless we understand the origins of sin and the mechanics of it, then we’ll never really get to the heart of the problem. Sometimes people say, “You Catholics, you’re obsessed with sin. What about the Resurrection?” and it is bad to focus too much on it but, the fact remains, Christianity is a religion of salvation and redemption. The very name of Jesus means “the one who saves us from our sins.” We simply won’t understand Jesus or what He has done for us, or what makes us tick, unless we take an honest look at the sinfulness of fallen humanity. Samuel Coleridge, one of the great Romantic poets of the early 19th century, pondered on the state we’re in and thought there had to be some kind of Fall: “without this hypothesis”, he said, “man is unintelligible; with it, every phenomenon is explicable.”
However, let’s be clear about this from the outset: sin is the most disastrous thing to have befallen humanity, but we are not without hope. Sin is a disaster, but we are not a disaster. Sin damaged human nature, but it never destroyed it. The doctrine of Original Sin, which is full of hope, shows us that sin is not simply a part of our make-up. We’ll come to realise, in fact, that those gifts we were given in the very beginning – gifts of freedom and responsibility – have not been annihilated in us. There is a way out of the mess. In fact, that’s why I like talking about this subject – because, through the grace of Jesus Christ – about whom, more later – our sordid sinfulness has become the platform for something unimaginably wonderful: our new life in Christ, a place in the very heart of the Trinity.
How is Sin Even Possible?
We know that we are different and superior to the whole of material creation. Matter is programmed and determined: the saints, Saint Francis, for example, often speak of the various elements of material creation praising God, and so they do. The sun, in its rising and setting, praises God; the plants praise God in their beauty, and the mountains in their greatness. They praise God by being truly what God created them to be and by serving the function they were called to have for us. By their very nature, they reflect the beauty and harmony of God’s cosmos. But you can hardly congratulate them for it, because they really have no option of doing anything else. Their lives are governed by deterministic laws. It’s different for us. Our lives are characterised by knowing and loving, by relationships that are both personal and free. And that freedom we have, within our spiritual environment, is terribly important because it means that we can truly love and be loved; it also means we are capable of making real choices, both as regards our material environment and our spiritual environment, who, as we know, is God. So the moment Man appears on the stage of cosmic history, sin is possible for the very first time because, in essence, sin is the misuse of our freedom.
“The problem is that Adam was not only the physical head of the human race, but the moral head too. He had a position to maintain and he failed.”
For a profound, mature, reflective expression of what sin is, you can do no better than go to the Bible and, specifically, to the Book of Genesis. Here you’ll find a text that explains us as we are and deepens our understanding of human freedom. It’s often dismissed as unscientific, unsophisticated, but it contains truths about God and Man which, because of that, remain relevant forever. We read Genesis with scientific eyes, but the book was never intended to tell us how God created, but rather what and why He created.
The Church has always maintained that there are truths in this book that are essential for our salvation. What truths? That God transcends creation – He is a thing apart; He wanted His creation and made it a gradual process, and He made it good; we’re made in His image and likeness and we’re very good; on the seventh day, God rests and creation basks in His delight. Notice that there is no mention of any original element of evil. Everything was good.
In the Beginning
So Genesis tells us how we began and also how we went so badly wrong. Adam and Eve lived in harmony with God, with each other and all of creation. They had respect for each other and felt no shame, even though they were naked. Genesis puts it very well: “God walked with them in the cool of the evening”. I think it’s worth mentioning here the distinction the Church makes between what is natural in Man and what is supernatural. It is natural for us as human beings to breathe, sleep, eat, walk, talk – it is part of the nature of the human being to do that kind of thing. Likewise, it’s natural for fish to swim, birds to fly, rabbits to hop. Okay, what is natural to Man is contrasted with that which is supernatural, i.e. something that goes beyond the claims of our nature. That supernatural gift which God gave Adam and Eve was the destiny of seeing God face to face in eternal happiness. So, after creating Adam and Eve and giving them all that their spiritual nature required (that was the first gift), God added a second and totally gratuitous gift – the capacity and desire to know and love Him, and be united with Him forever. Both natural and supernatural gifts are gifts, but very different in their magnitude and significance. It’s like the difference between giving your girlfriend an iPhone and giving her a diamond ring. The iPhone is good and useful; the diamond ring says, I give you my life. Adam and Eve had it all.
Then along comes the serpent, the figure that introduces temptation, that figure who is Satan. Satan is an angel and one of God’s creatures and, like all creatures, he was created good. The angels are spiritual beings and so they have free will, just like us. However, unlike us, they don’t have material bodies and don’t live in the material world – this effectively means that, whatever choice they make, whether for good or for evil, their decision is final. I do something really nasty to my friend … I regret it, I say I’m sorry and we can start all over again. The angels cannot repent 10 minutes, 10 days or 10 years later so their hatred for God is eternal. It’s not that God refuses His mercy; it’s just that because the angels are pure intellect and will, the choice they make is totally irreversible. Satan chose to reject God as his God and so he is, and remains, an eternal enemy. So anyway, all is good in the Garden of Eden. What happened?
Satan seduces them into eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. What does that mean? Adam and Eve had everything they needed – all they knew was good and that was all they needed. The temptation they fell into, which is the original sin we’re talking about here, was to disregard, reject, their proper place within God’s perfectly balanced and harmonious creation: they didn’t want to be dependent on God, they wanted to be self-sufficient. No creature can be self-sufficient – it makes no sense. A creature of its very nature demands a creator to exist at all. Satan said, “You will be like gods”, and if there’s one thing worse than a lie, it’s a half-lie. They were already like gods, made in His image and likeness, already sharing many of His traits of intellect, free will, creativity, immortality, albeit to a lesser degree. They were like gods! But they were not God.
“Since we no longer see God as our Sovereign Creator and Lord, we no longer see others as fellow creatures, brothers and sisters. The Church has said it before: when we lose the sense of God, we lose the sense of Man.”
That sin of theirs is the essence of all sin: in disobedience and pride, we prefer ourselves to God. We want to worship ourselves rather than God. It’s not enough for us to be made in His image: we want to be God. Why? When we have everything we need and more besides? We don’t know. Sin is profoundly irrational. But do you see the point here? Sin is a far deeper thing than simply “making a mistake” or infringing some arbitrary rule: sin is a path of self-destructive behaviour where we deliberately turn away from God’s plan and reject the very fabric and purpose of the cosmos. It’s as unnatural and ludicrous as turkeys voting for Christmas, or birds tying stones to their feathers and walking into the sea. The effect of that first sin of Adam was catastrophic.
How Did Adam’s Sin Affect us?
The impact of that first sin has been described in various ways: sometimes like a tiny stone that cracks the windscreen and then slowly spreads till the whole window is shattered. Or, like Japanese knot weed. Or, like a nuclear explosion in which we all, until the end of time, experience the fall-out. The problem is that Adam was not only the physical head of the human race, but the moral head too. He had a position to maintain and he failed. Imagine David Cameron declared war on France, we would all be at war too (even without an explicit declaration on our part). It’s the same with Adam. He declared war on God and so, inevitably, have we. How do we experience Original Sin?
Separation from God: Fundamentally, we are separated from God. After sin, Adam & Eve were driven out of the garden where beauty, harmony and order reigned, and were compelled to live in the jungle, where chaos and survival were the order of the day. There was no more walking with God in the cool of the evening for them – they had rejected God as their true environment. And so with us. He has not withdrawn from us but His presence can be a cause of fear, it’s a threat, because to accept the gift of His presence is to admit that our self-sufficiency is a lie. We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and dependent, and we don’t like that. And remember what we said about the supernatural gift God gave Adam and Eve in giving them an eternal destiny with Him? Well, they lost that too. They, and therefore we, were forever excluded from the possibility of reaching heaven and beholding God face to face – something our whole nature longs for. Thwarted.
Damage to mind and body: Likewise, our minds and bodies have been affected. Our minds have been darkened by the effects of sin so that God’s existence is no longer obvious to us: St Paul wrote to the Romans (1:16-25) – “Ever since God created the world, his everlasting power and deity – however invisible – have been there for the mind to see in the things he has made.” But we know that many minds don’t, or won’t, see God’s hand at work. What we witness, in fact, is what Paul also said, “The more they called themselves philosophers, the more stupid they grew.” Prayer is also difficult for us, we get easily distracted. Our conscience is not the guide it was meant to be. Doing right does not always feel good; doing wrong doesn’t always feel bad. Take abortion and euthanasia as classic examples. Many people genuinely think these are good and loving (and responsible) paths to take. Secularism, hedonism, relativism, materialism – these giants of our time are the fruit of minds darkened and distorted by sin.
We know that Man is a perfect meshing together of spirit and matter so it is inevitable that sin will affect our bodies, too. The soul has separated itself from its life-source and the body, which is driven by the soul, is now drawn to act in a way that is totally contrary to God’s law. The body no longer seeks the true and good – it craves pleasure and comfort. You hear it said so often – “You just have to do what your body tells you.” No you don’t! Your body, thanks to Original Sin, is some maverick organism that seldom listens to reason. There are very few people who could ever have done what their bodies told them to do: Adam and Eve before the Fall, Jesus Christ and Our Blessed Lady. Unless you find yourself to be any of the above mentioned people, do not, I repeat, do not always do what your body tells you to do.
Of course, the ultimate effect is death. Because there’s no longer any harmony between Man and God, no harmony between body and soul, we experience decay: disease and sickness are part of our human fabric now. We age and we die. It’s so much a part of our daily experience that it can be quite startling to think that it was never meant to be like that. There’s a beautiful passage in the book of Wisdom that expresses it well: “Death was not God’s doing, he takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living. To be – for this he created all” (Wis. 1:13). We know that we are made to be with God forever; before sin, Christ would have come at some appointed time to lead us to the Father and bring us to fulfilment – we don’t know how (though Our Lady’s life gives us a clue) but we do know that death as that tragedy we experience was never the plan. (And it’s amazing, when someone you love dies, how incredibly unnatural it feels.) In death, the body separates from the soul, and experiences disintegration and decay; the soul, as we saw earlier, is no longer fit to be with God forever, and all those loving relationships we have enjoyed in this life, and all the good that has come from them – these too collapse into nothingness. We’re talking here about spiritual death or eternal damnation.
Effects in society
Society is affected too. In the garden, Adam blamed Eve. Adam effectively wants to be at the centre of his own universe – God challenges and threatens that delusion of self-sufficiency by His very presence, and not only God, but everyone else too. God intended us to be gifts to each other, reflecting Him in His mutual self-giving, while we set up a society made up of atomised individuals, striving to be first, always on the lookout for “number one”. The social disorder spread and worsened with alarming speed: only one generation later, the presence of others was so intolerable that we started to kill each other. Adam’s son, Cain, murdered his own brother. So throughout history: we treat each other with suspicion; we are no longer persons for each other but objects to each other. Since we no longer see God as our Sovereign Creator and Lord, we no longer see others as fellow creatures, brothers and sisters. The Church has said it before: when we lose the sense of God, we lose the sense of Man.
And the family
Naturally enough, that experience of evil around and within us makes itself felt in our relationships, specifically within marriage and the family. How many times have you looked at a couple and thought, “I don’t think they actually like each other – in fact, they probably hate each other”? Is that a sign that male and female are not compatible after all? No. Is it possible that some people are genetically disposed to infidelity or have some psychological make-up that makes them unable to sustain life-long commitments? No. It’s a sign that the couple has sadly given up. It could be that there are economic and societal pressures – external pressures – putting a burden on their relationship, but the fundamental problem lies in the fact of sin, which has been given free reign. It’s not to do with human nature per se; it’s to do with sin: envy, jealousy, possessiveness, quarrelling, a lack of willingness to forgive and forget, infidelity, manipulation, the desire to control and dominate, lack of consideration in matters to do with running a home as well as in the bedroom (sex can be one of the highest expressions of love between a man and a woman; it can also be incredibly selfish); hearts that are consistently closed to new life.
All of these speak very eloquently of ME, of my rights, my needs, my wants, which are far more important, frankly, than you. The whole thing is made worse by an ever-increasing breakdown in communication between the couple so that, before you know it, you have two very separate, discreet individuals who happen to live under the same roof, both trying to find lives for themselves beyond home. Separation and divorce frequently follow. And if there are children involved, they suffer. Inevitably. They often don’t have a clue what’s going on, but they don’t like it. They know that much. And the whole thing is the effect of Original Sin.
It started with Adam and Eve. That original, beautiful communion between man and woman was ruptured very early on. First of all, there were early recriminations (“it wisnae me, it was her”); then the natural attraction they felt for each other, of mind, soul and body, changed quickly into a relationship of domination and lust; and their glorious vocation to be fruitful and multiply, and subdue the earth, was marred by the pain of childbirth and the toil of work.
The first sin was a historical event. We don’t know exactly when, but it must have happened very early on in our history because we have all been affected. That’s why it’s called Original Sin – it was the first sin; and it is the origin and source of all sin.
It Has Been Passed on
People often object to the idea that a sweet, innocent, newborn baby should need Baptism to remove the stain of Original Sin. ‘What has she done?’ they say. The answer is, she hasn’t done anything. She hasn’t committed any personal sin (she doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong!) but she has inherited a fallen human nature. Adam’s was a personal sin and, because he was the moral and physical head of our race, it was he who introduced disharmony into our human nature. It’s deeper than simply picking up sinfulness along the way, learning it through social observation. It is true that we learn to sin through others (we learn virtue from others too) but this is a sinful state that has become part and parcel of our human condition. Since Man is spiritual and material, so the damage is found in the spiritual and material. We receive a flawed material nature from our parents and a good soul from God. These unite to form a human identity. But what happens? A soul united to fallen flesh, we inevitably have a damaged orientation towards God. That’s why we need Baptism! But, as I said earlier, just because we’re born in a sinful state, doesn’t mean sin is part of what it is to be human. Sin is not inherent to us, it’s not originally natural to us. When someone does something terrible, we say “well, they’re only human”. I understand why they say that but it’s not very accurate. To be human is a really great thing – sin is an aberration that lessens our humanity. If you want to know what a true human being looks like, turn to Jesus and Our Lady. They were without sin.
Personal Sin and Concupiscence
Original Sin, then, is a tragedy but we are not without hope. We are flawed in our nature, without a doubt, but sin has not completely destroyed us and, thanks to Jesus Christ and all He has done for us, the grace we have lost can be restored again through faith in Him and through Baptism. We are wounded but our nature is still fundamentally good and we’re still capable of real goodness when we cooperate with God.
“We needed a new head for the human race, one who would do things right. But of ourselves we are too weak. The One who saved us would have to be both God and Man.”
The wound in us, however, means that we have to turn to Jesus every day. The stain of Original Sin is removed in Baptism, and our personal sins are washed away in repentance, through going to Confession, for instance, but we still have an inclination to sin, and that’s what we call concupiscence. Imagine a boy is told by his parents that he’s not allowed to drive the car while they’re on holiday. The boy decides to do it anyway. He drives too fast, he’s in a car crash and he nearly dies. The sin there is the boy’s disobedience. His parents are angry and upset – but he’s sorry and it’s not long before they forgive him. The sin is finished with, but the effects of that sin are not, because he’s left for the rest of his life with damage to his back. Concupiscence is like that: sin is forgiven but we’re left with the consequences of it. And that is why we find being good so difficult. It’s why sin is so easy! We know our true happiness lies in God, but we look for it almost anywhere else – in money, power, sex, reputation. Our relationships should be characterised by truth and love, but instead they’re riddled with jealousy and the desire to possess.
In our state of sinfulness, the gulf between us and God was simply too great. How could we ever make amends? We got ourselves into this mess; it had to be one of us who got us out of it. We needed a new head for the human race, one who would do things right. But of ourselves we are too weak. The One who saved us would have to be both God and Man. Archbishop Fulton Sheen, whose cause for canonisation is currently underway, gave us a brilliant analogy to describe what Jesus has done. He said the whole thing can be compared to a musician in an orchestra striking a bum note. He played the wrong note of his own free will – he was perfectly competent, the orchestra was competent, but he just decided to do it. The conductor can then do one of two things: he can start the whole movement of the symphony all over again or he can ignore it completely. Either way, the note’s out there. The deed is done: that point of disharmony stands for ever in the midst of an otherwise harmonious whole. There’s only one way to restore harmony – by making that discordant note the first note in a brand new melody, maybe now in a minor key rather than a major, but beautiful nevertheless. God could have ignored Adam’s sin, but that would have been untrue to His justice. So He asked a woman, a woman representing humanity in its original, beautiful state, free from the stain of original sin, to cooperate with Him in giving Him a human nature – and, with that, He would start a new humanity. Jesus is often referred to as the New Adam.
He makes all things new by laying down His life for us. We had decided we didn’t need God anymore. When He actually came and lived among us, it seemed inevitable that we would try and do away with Him completely. And there’s the rub. We thought we were taking His life by crucifying Him; and all the while, He was giving it away. He was treating our wound at the very root: reconfiguring human nature to His own Person, Christ restored us again to our true environment, who is God. As St Paul said to the Corinthians, “When anyone is joined to Christ he is a new creation; the old is gone, the new has come. All this is done by God who, through Christ, changed us from enemies into his friends, and gave us the task of making others his friends also” (2 Cor. 5:17–18).
So with Jesus, everything is made new. God’s original vision of marriage is restored and made even greater. In Matthew’s Gospel (19:1-12), the Pharisees want to test Jesus and they ask Him if it’s lawful to divorce your wife for any cause and He tells them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so”. By saying this Jesus calls all those with the vocation to marriage and family to something much deeper: not only to personal holiness, but now also the Christian family is called to be the very sign and expression of Christ’s love for His Bride, the Church.
Now, too, the complementarity which exists between male and female is restored – the differences in the way men and women think, feel, see reality, are no longer a cause of tension but a cause of rejoicing, one more element of the mystery of the other which only makes us love them all the more. It’s a further insight into the Mystery of the nature of God Himself. Likewise, the reality of their being ‘one flesh’ is understood more fully because they see that only by giving themselves to the other do they achieve wholeness. This is no longer the sin of trying to be God, but the incredible, God-given grace of reflecting Him more perfectly. We come closer to each other, and understand each other better, the closer we are to God. But how do we get close to Him? Through the sacraments.
This is the call to holiness, of “being holy as He Himself is holy” (1 Pet. 1:15) and it’s not easy. Of ourselves, of course, we cannot do it but by coming close to Him, by drawing constantly from the sacraments which He has left us, we can. Everything is possible.
Christ’s Life Given Through the Sacraments
Remember, the sacraments are, in essence, a direct encounter with the living God here on earth. We are never so close to God as when we receive the sacraments – they’re more than an encounter: it’s the infusion of one life into another.
We desperately need Christ. We still have a tendency to sin – the fallout of Original Sin – and so we need Him every minute of every day to sustain and strengthen us in our vocations. We can rely on Christ and His power, because He is God, not us. That’s the whole brilliant point, when St Paul says, “I am proud to boast of my weaknesses, for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9). I often think of the words to Adele’s song at this point: “Next time I’ll be braver, I’ll be my own saviour when the thunder calls for me…” Don’t do that, Adele! We need Him in Holy Communion and we need Him in Confession.
Just as the cross is at the heart of our family relationships, so must the fruit of that cross be at the heart of our relationships too: the Body of Christ broken for us; the Blood of Christ poured out for us. In Holy Communion, we find the source of sacrificial love itself. In marriage, a couple who receive Holy Communion regularly drink deeply from that source of sacrificial love: they renew once again their desire to give themselves to God through each other and the spiritual food they eat gives them the strength and the will to die to themselves every day and give themselves utterly and irrevocably to their spouse. The family they have created in co-operation with God is also strengthened in love. And so, day by day, the travesty of Original Sin is reversed.
Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother?” (Mt. 18:21). If you have to forgive your spouse every single day of your married life, then that’s what you have to do. It’s not easy, and you can’t do it without Christ. You need to know the power of His forgiveness and mercy in your own life before you can forgive others – but if you do forgive, then you are truly a sign and expression of Christ’s love for His Church and you are truly Christ to your spouse, which is what He intended when He called you to the great Sacrament and mission of marriage.
So take heart! Sin is everywhere apparently and can cause us a great deal of strife but it does not have the last word. Sin and death have no power over us whatsoever, so long as we stay close to Jesus through His Sacraments and let his life be our life.
As the author Christopher Derrick put it in his book This Strange Divine Sea: “Here, we are still alienated and in exile but are on our way home; we cannot yet see the satisfaction of our deepest longings, but we do know where to look; we are still sinners, but we can get our innocence back; we are still going to suffer, but not pointlessly or absurdly; we are still going to “die”, but not in the old sense, not permanently. The meaning and point and purpose of life has come upon us and taken us over: we are free!”
And remember, at the end of the day, this is not our home. We’re on a journey, and heading to a better place. Christ spoke to us at Mass today. He said: “He will wipe away all tears from their eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness. The world of the past is gone.” Then the One sitting on the throne spoke: “Now I am making the whole of creation new.” (Rev. 21:4-5).
Andrea Fraile is a Sister of the Gospel of Life, a UK-based religious community who describe their main apostolate as “the promotion of the dignity of the human being, particularly as regards the role of the family, the sanctity of motherhood, a renewed understanding of the complementarity of the sexes and catechesis”.