Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Counsels of Perfection: Venial Sin


If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death.  1 John 5:  16
The next two chapters of our book study are:
  • Venial Sin:  Its Ugliness
  • Venial Sin:   Its Effects
I feel very awkward talking about venial sin since I am still quite a sinner myself.   In this post I hope to summarize what the book says, share some links to trustworthy further reading, and talk a bit about my own experience.   But this is just a starting point, and some of the things I focus on in my own journey might not be exactly the things you need.    This is probably one reason most spiritual writers recommend finding spiritual direction since it is more likely to be targeted to your own particular case.   But now to proceed!

In an earlier chapter, Msgr Lejeune has already mentioned that his book is intended as a help for the Christian mother who is at least in a state of grace (ie, free of mortal sin) and trying to do more than meet the minimum obligations of the Christian life.   If we think of the rich young man in Matthew 19, who already keeps the commandments and is asking Jesus what more he can do, that is where we presumably are.

However, the book is pointing out that though we may not be breaking any of the Ten Commandments in a big way, there are probably corners in our interior rooms that are still dark and dusty.   The book's intention in these chapters is to encourage us to notice and tackle the areas where we perhaps don't even bother to turn on the light let alone apply the broom and scrubcloth.

Here are a few links to teachings about venial sin as opposed to mortal sin, just in case you don't have the book, or want a refresher course on the basic ideas. 

 Basically, venial sins are something like weeds, that choke out the good seeds of grace or make them less healthy and fruitful than they should be.   Venial sins are the hum of interior demands and desires that compete with the "still, small voice" of God, though they don't drown it out altogether.   Venial sins left unremedied  and tolerated can grow and multiply.

Chari lets me weed her garden when I am visiting her in the summer, since I don't have good soil up where I live and consequently don't have a garden, and I always muse on sin and its stranglehold when I am tugging out weeds of various sizes.  The small weeds are easy to pull, but not as easy to see, and the temptation is to just pass over them since they are presently tiny.   The big ones almost crowd out the vegetables, so you can't miss them, but they are no fun to wrestle with.   Then sometimes there are the weeds that deceptively mimic the plants, or grow very close alongside the good plants, so it takes a careful eye to distinguish and a careful hand to pull them without damaging the good crop.     It's probably good to tackle the big weeds before bothering with the tiny ones, but the tiny ones will most likely grow in due time so it would probably be best just to keep a vigilant eye on the garden from the very start so the weeds don't ever get a foothold.

Spiritual writers distinguish between deliberate and undeliberated venial sin.   Deliberate venial sin is when you consciously choose to disobey God's law but the matter is not grave.   Say you gossip about a neighbor but in a matter that doesn't cause great harm to her reputation.  Or say you cherish a small grudge against a driver whose car cut you off on the road and enjoy muttering about his skill level.

Then there are sins that you do without reflection and immediately repent.   These are hard to avoid altogether even for people very close to God.   "The just man falls seven times a day."      Fortunately they don't put up many obstacles to grace; they are like the tiny weeds which you pull immediately.    Say you voice some criticism of your neighbor that you immediately realize was unjust and try to modify towards charity.    Or you exclaim in anger at the careless driver but immediately try to turn it to a prayer. 

Probably even better would be to continue in a spirit of reparation by praying for that person or striving as a habit to replace critical or angry thoughts with kind ones.

  I will quickly outline the two chapters:

Venial Sin --- Its Ugliness

Why is venial sin ugly?  Why should we detest even these smaller more ordinary sins?

Every sin, ie deliberate transgression against God's will, offends against the majesty of God.  Even a small sin seems to mock our profession of faith since we are letting some desire or impulse drown out our understanding of what God wants.

As Christians, we are tied by love and gratitude and loyalty to Jesus, the Way, Truth and Life.    He has given us the graces to share in His life as friends, not slaves.    We are supposed to align our wills with God in all things just as He did.   So though we aren't bound by the Old Testament Law in the way that the Israelites were, we are supposed to be abiding in Jesus at all times.  Deliberate venial sin is a conscious veering off this path.   You see in fairy tales how the hero can do a bit of this veering and still come out all right in the end, but there are usually consequences that cause many difficulties in the short term. 

Msgr Lejeune multiplies quotes from saints and theologians who discuss the awfulness of even a small sin.   This is probably a salutory reminder especially during Lent.   We would not want to get complacent and think we are basically fine when we still have a long way to go.  On the other hand, if such reminders are discouraging it's important to remember all God's promises throughout the Old and New Testament of giving us all the help we need and picking us up after we stumble.    The very reason Jesus died for us was to release us from this slavery that we are utterly unable to deal with on our own.    Habits of sin confessed and repented are much less of a barrier to grace than a proud self-sufficiency, as we recently heard at mass in the story of the woman taken in adultery.

Venial Sin-- Its Effects

"One of the most regrettable effects of venial sin is the estrangement it creates between God and the soul:  that cooling off, let me call it, of the friendship between God and us, which prevents our feeling entirely at ease with Him."  
Msgr Lejeune points out that God wants to be close to us, but He can't when we have shut Him out by choosing to divide our will from His.   Sin darkens our intellect and weakens our will.

A further effect is that many venial sins left unaddressed gradually start us on the slope to mortal sin.   Most people who fall into mortal sin, he points out, have paved their way with a bunch of careless choices in smaller matters.

Here he discusses those who make too much of a distinction between venial and mortal sin -- who let themselves grieve God in smaller matters while priding themselves on not doing things that are gravely wrong.  This would be like an employee who stole pens and office supplies for personal use or used his working hours to surf the internet; just because he doesn't embezzle funds doesn't mean he is an exemplary employee.  Or like a child who did everything he could get away when he thought his parents were not looking, but stopped short of total rebellion; this would not be an exemplary child.

Now that we have reflected on the ugliness and dangerous effects of venial sin, what should we do as a result?

Msgr Lejeune gives us two brief pieces of advice:

Do what you can to augment divine grace in your interior life.  That is, think often on God, His gifts to us, His love for us,  on Jesus's life, death and resurrection.    Make use of the sacraments.  Pray whenever you have fallen or are tempted.

Use prudence.  That is, avoid things that you know are dangerous to you.   He uses the analogy of "guarding your treasure."

I think that the steps to prepare for confession that we teach our Catholic children add up to the basic elements for uprooting the weeds in our spiritual lives.   The Church recommends a nightly examination of conscience and act of sorrow, and also gives us liturgical days (Friday)  and seasons (Advent and Lent) of reflection, repentance and penance.

  • Basically, you pray to know your sins and be sorry for them.   Personally I have a problem with over-dwelling on myself (the Church calls this introspection, which in the spiritual sense is not a good thing because it turns our thoughts away from God and too much towards ourselves).  So I try to dwell more on Jesus, my relationship with Him, and try to fill my existence with good things to push out the bad things.  In that context I feel less discouragement and irritability and more true sorrow.
  • Then you confess your sins to God and try to figure out what you were valuing more than His will when you committed them.
  • Then you resolve to avoid the sins in future, and pray for help in doing so.  
Some of the psychological literature out there on changing habits can be helpful in amending your life.   Francis de Sales advises the same as Charlotte Mason, to change your thoughts when faced with a temptation, rather than try to confront it head on.  Especially if you have a more sensitive temperament, confronting sin directly can cause collateral emotional damage and exhaust you quickly.   St Francis says that repentance and reform should be undertaken intentionally, seriously but with a kind of gentleness and moderation.

Spiritual writers also recommend conscious efforts to detach oneself from the good but unnecessary things of life, which are created good, but because of our disorderly nature can assume too much importance in our lvies.  This is a part of the wisdom behind such things as Friday abstinence from meat and Lenten prayer, fasting and almsgiving.    It's not so much that it is specifically virtuous to, say, have a bread and water meal once in a while, as it is an active recognition of one's weakness and need/desire to bring all legitimate appetites under grace.   The same, I believe, with almsgiving and acts of kindness; it's not that I can eliminate poverty or sorrow by my efforts but that my efforts "incarnate" my responsibility to care sacrificially about my neighbor, and share in Christ's life of service and compassion.    

Getting back to the main theme of a Rule of Life, a Rule can help systematize your attempts at amendment and habit reformation and bring it consciously under the operations of grace.    I notice that Elisabeth Leseur  chose a few general resolutions (Silence, Giving Myself, Personal Austerity) which I think were specifically geared to her own circumstances and temperament.     She chose "personal austerity", for example, because her state of life was a wealthy one and her husband had no sympathy with Christian simplicity, so she made her simplicity one of choosing the less appealing option whenever she had an option.    She probably feared getting too comfortable in the luxury required for her circumstances.  St Thomas More, I believe, wore a hair shirt under his courtly garments for much the same reason.


  • Can you make examination of conscience and contrition a more regular part of your life?  
  • Can you arrange your Rule in such a way that it addresses one or more of your key areas of weakness?

 Please share any thoughts or reflections in the comment box! 


  1. Willa, I find too much self-analysis harmful, too. When it's done in the context of removing obstacles to a closer intimacy with Jesus, then it works for me - but, still, I need to transform the musings into Jesus-focused thoughts and away from myself. Maybe, it's a case of vain intentions. If I dwell on myself because I'm dissatisfied with myself and think I should do better then I'm being proud and self-sufficient. Whereas, if I accept that I'm dust and try to prune my soul in small ways, then I open the door to new graces and a greater intimacy with God. So many thoughts tumbling over this - all disjointed, of course!

    I like the suggestion not to confront temptations head on but to change thoughts. I've found that to confront them causes discouragement that leads to pride. I begin to think I should be better than I am, instead of accepting my sinfulness and praising God's mercy. When I deliberately turn away from the temptation, I feel that I'm turning away from Satan and placing my trust in Jesus. My eyes are kept on Jesus, instead of myself and I'm acknowledging my own littleness.

    After last week's reflection, I can see that kneeling for morning and evening prayers is going to make quite a difference, Willa. I'm also trying to be more disciplined about regular morning and bedtime hours. This is more challenging because of minor sicknesses but I feel uplifted and encouraged by the thought of improvement.

    Evening examination of conscience and an act of sorrow are things I need to work on with myself and the children. I go to weekly confession but I really think this could be more fruitful if I was more disciplined with my evening prayers. Don't you find the examination of conscience so different from indulgent self-analysis? It leads me to God and away from self - probably because I focus on what's pleasing to God, rather than my own ambitions for perfection.

    Addressing my key areas of weakness in a proactive way is something I'll think about this week. Often, I concentrate on avoiding a critical thought or an omission and I try to turn it into a charitable act of kindness as the temptation arises, but I could do much better with spontaneous acts of kindness and a perpetual attitude of generosity.

    Thank you do much for this program, Willa. It's helping me hugely:-) Have you ever written a book? As I read your post today, I thought that your wisdom and insight - the light that you have - should be shared and spread more. It's a real gift.

    God bless, Willa:-)

    1. Vicki, I enjoyed reading your thoughts. Thanks for much to always be working on.....sigh.

  2. I "let" you weed my garden. are so funny.

    I am just now on this chapter.....behind, but oh, so enjoying the chance to read this book and then see what Willa thinks about it.....without even having to pick up the phone. :)

  3. """Then there are sins that you do without reflection and immediately repent. These are hard to avoid altogether even for people very close to God. "The just man falls seven times a day." Fortunately they don't put up many obstacles to grace; they are like the tiny weeds which you pull immediately. Say you voice some criticism of your neighbor that you immediately realize was unjust and try to modify towards charity. Or you exclaim in anger at the careless driver but immediately try to turn it to a prayer. """

    This is me.......deliberately doing a venial sin is never my style. What a horried thought.

    But.....the sins I do "without reflection and immediately repent" that is another story. :/

    And it is always the same ones, over and over. I want to consciously try to avoid losing my temper......because "my temperment is the cause of it", as Lejeune states at the end of the chapter......because I struggle with injustice.

    I have to figure out a way to let that go.....

    so, I will need to say over and over as Lejeune recommends at the end of that chapter: "....tell Jesus of your weakness. Tell him the principal evil from which you suffer, and of which you desire to cure yourselves, with the help of His grace."

    Now, to remember to pray for those graces frequently. I hate how forgetful we are.....

  4. Willa! You found MY CATHOLIC FAITH online! I am so thrilled about that!! Thank you!


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