A Shrug Is Meager Exercise by Pat Gohn

Venial sins are the by-product of our mediocrities. 
When we shrug them off, we say being mediocre is good enough.

Pardon me, but my spiritual mediocrity is showing.

Lent is approaching—Ash Wednesday on February 22—and it’s causing me to consider my spiritual health. For a Christian, the resolution to be good and do good should permeate every day, not just at the onset of the penitential seasons. The call to holiness is in season and out.

The trajectory of our lives should be a movement from our initial conversion—a turning away from mortal sins and toward Christ. Indeed, the full maturation of the children of God is the call to be living saints, resembling Christ by imitation.

Yet sometimes my witness is a bit shaky.

No, let me say that more truthfully: I often settle for mediocrity.

I settle for well, I haven’t broken any of the Ten Commandments recently, and I don’t have any mortal sins to confess, and so I coast. Even though I am old enough to know better, I am not immune to the lure of bad habits.

There are many days when the demands of life seem burdensome, and I get tired and weak. Rather than responding positively to the overwhelming love that I know and trust God has for me, I get overwhelmed by fatigue and busyness. That leaves me open to laxity in prayer and, in turn, to a loosening of the moral sensibilities that should guide my actions.

It starts by “not sweating the small stuff”: ignoring the small civilities that should characterize my speech and actions; shrugging off the occasional swear word bubbling up when I’m frustrated; rationalizing having listened to gossip because I did not add to it; breaking my word because I engaged in frivolous activities instead, wasting time online when I should have been working.

If I do not actively choose to eliminate the venial sins that are habitual in my life, they will never go away on their own.

My personal response time regarding obedience needs serious work. I need to shorten the gap between what God asks of me, and my actually doing it. I’ve long known that my life should be characterized by “on-going” conversion; lately that expression has seemed a little too tame for me. I mean, my physician will say my attempts at exercise are “on-going,” but that does not always mean I’m doing what I ought; my dietary efforts to reduce cholesterol are “on-going,” but hitting the right numbers will never happen unless I make lasting changes and quit my excuses.

For me, it’s not just about “on-going” renewal, 
I’ve got to aim for deeper conversion.
I must amend my ways.

My conscience shames me, for the love of God, to take more intense measures to overcome tepidity. My recalcitrance is nothing more than a stubborn resistance to change. And that place of resistance is usually the very spot that needs the most scrutiny. The temptation is that, while keeping our souls clean of the mortal sins, we shrug off the venial sins, the ones that really deprive us of sanctifying grace. It’s a kind of a spiritual nobody’s-looking-so-why-worry kind of arrogance. And I’m guilty.

My rebellion may not yet be manifested in deadly sins, but the niggling little ones—some that I have already repeatedly confessed—I have failed to amend despite the grace of the sacraments.

When I get lackadaisical, it helps to recall the danger: “the repetition of sins—even venial ones—engenders vices, among which are the capital sins” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1876).

In the 2006 book, Deep Conversion, Deep Prayer, the late beloved retreat master, Thomas Dubay, SM, quotes St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “There are more people converted from mortal sin to grace, than there are religious converted from good to better.”

I can remember with joy my early conversion to Christ, and years of successive growth. Almost imperceptibly, zeal can slowly erode. Sadly, I have put up a remarkable resistance to taming venial sins.

A willful attachment to venial sins renders my true conversion dubious. Like dirty pebbles kicked through an empty hall, their clatter elicits a hollow alarm. Clean up is needed; it’s time to seek the better rather than settle for good or good enough. Attacking the venial has to be more than just avoiding vice, it must be a strengthening of the virtues.

Just as I relied on grace to save me from the mortal sins, so too, I must ask for God’s grace in eradicating the venial sins, the ones I often choose to ignore or excuse. It’s time to stop pretending that I’ll get around to it, or that I am strong enough to lift myself out of the mud by my bootstraps. Spiritual mediocrity needs a firm amendment to call it out, to actively turn away from my sins by name, and to ask for grace each day. Sometimes, each hour.

St Augustine knew if we stopped living a life patterned on virtue, the light that Christ enkindled in us would die out.

“To live well is nothing other than to love God with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul and with all one’s efforts; from this it comes about that love is kept whole and uncorrupted (through temperance). No misfortune can disturb it (and this is fortitude). It obeys only [God] (and this is justice), and is careful in discerning things, so as not to be surprised by deceit or trickery (and this is prudence).” (Augustine, De moribus eccl. 1, 25, 46:PL 32, 1330-1331)

There really is an art to living above mediocrity. And there really are remedies found in prayer and the sacraments for our movement from bad to good, and from good to better.

More frequent confession, check.
More fasting and prayer, check.
More time at Mass, and before the Eucharist. Check. Check.

Dubay writes, “It is surely no exaggeration to say that if we lived one percent of what we hear and see and read in our splendid Catholic liturgies in a year or month, we would be saints long ago.”
It’s spiritual exercise we need, more than anything else.
Even if it means sweating the small stuff.

Pat Gohn is a writer, speaker, and host of the Among Women podcast and blog. She holds a Masters in Theology, and a Bachelors in Communications. Her passion is working within the sphere adult faith formation both in parish life and in using media for evangelization and catechesis. Find more at PatGohn.com.

[ARTICLE LINK: http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Shrug-Is-Meager-Exercise-Pat-Gohn-02-02-2012.html]


About Paul Wharton

I am a cradle Catholic, a native West Virginian, and a priest since April 24, 1982. Spiritual Direction has made a tremendous difference in my life and I encourage people to try it out. My motto is "Progress not perfection." I am grateful that God has done for me what I could not do for myself.
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2 Responses to A Shrug Is Meager Exercise by Pat Gohn

  1. Pat Gohn says:

    Thanks for re-posting this article, Fr. Paul. May the Lord richly bless your priestly ministry and this blog.

  2. Denise says:

    Well said. Who among us is not convicted by these words. I am guilty, Lord.

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