Weakness, guilt and redemption: a quick glimpse into Western culture
Impotence and vulnerability to the guilt and fate that it carries.
Author: Mario Rodriguez, L. C | Source: http://www.regnumchristi.org/Magazine In-form No. 55
Weakness, guilt, and redemption: a quick glimpse into Western culture
Impotence and vulnerability to the guilt and fate that it carries. This way we could summarize the feeling of Greek spirit that the tragedies leave us.
By: Mario Rodriguez, L. C | Source: http://www.regnumchristi.org/Magazine In-form No. 55
He who was called the best of mortals (Sophocles, Edipo King 46) by the Theban priest suddenly pours himself into a wretched, unworthy contemplation (Ib. 1302-1306).
In some passage of his autobiography, the Trappist Thomas Merton made a crude impression of the feeling he had when he realized his guilt:
I have experienced enough things, acts and appetites that would justify and drop the tons of bombs on the world that would one day fall to millions. Did you know that my sins were enough to destroy England and Germany whole? No one has invented a bomb that is at least half as powerful as a deadly sin – and yet there is no positive power in sin, only negation, only annihilation maybe that's why it's so destructive, it's nothing and where it's present, there's nothing left – just a moral empty. (The Seven Storey Mountain, I, IV).
In one way or another, this feeling of oppression in the face of the giant of guilt and personal sin harasses every man during his life. It may not collect the tragic dyes of the Trappist, but the legacy of universal literature coincides with it. In the face of guilt, man is helpless; he needs help, he needs to transcend and find forgiveness and redemption.
A glimpse into the classic Greek world: the tragedies
Nothing like classical Greek tragedies reflect so clearly this trifle of man in the face of guilt being this personal or inherited. We see an Oedipus who by chance of fate commits great crimes: he takes away the life to whom he gave his life, Layo former king of Thebes; he outraged the body of the woman who carried him in the womb, his mother Yocasta.
Desperate and in prey to a deep anguish Edipus is deprived of the sight permanently, as to not contemplate the misfortune of his crimes. From the bottom of his spirit he exclaims:
...take me out, by the gods, and hide me or kill me or throw me to the sea, where you will not see me again. Approach, deign to touch a wretched man; lend me hear, fear not, for my misfortunes none of the men, except me, may suffer them (Sophocles, Oedipus King 1410-1415).
Impotence and vulnerability to the guilt and fate that it carries, this way we could summarize the feeling of the Greek spirit that reflects our tragedies. Similar realities we perceive in Ayax, when out of himself and forsaken of all let his weight fall on the edge of his sword, he could not bear the reproach of having sacrificed animals using the sword that Hector gave him.
In the same way, Agamemnon's story seems only an avalanche of misfortunes and irredent guilts. This king was willing to depart and fight the Trojans, but the wind did not favor him. Being the fleet anchored in Áulide, Agamemnon offers in sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. Clytemnestra assassinates Agamemnon with the help of his mistress Egisthus. This crime is not unpunished, but Orestes with the complicity of Electra performs the revenge of his father killing his mother. This one has nothing left but a fleeing persecuted by the Furies. In the face of this chain of guilt, offenses, and grievances it seems that there is no solution. Is it possible to expect redemption and not revenge?
It seems that the blood of the mortals that irrigates the soil is the only way to remiss the guilt. But there is a concern for hope at the bottom of the tragedy. Ovid leaves us this glimmer of hope before the death of Ayax, the germination of a flower:
She expelled her cruor and reddened the ground with blood
purple engendered from the green grass a flower,
the one that was before the wound of the Ebalio born.
a common letter in the middle, the boy and this male,
inscribed this one of its leaves, this one of its name, that of its complaint
(Ovid, Metamorphosis, XIII 394-8)
In Ovid's version of the myth of Orestes, the latter is forgiven by Athena's divine vote. We are touching the frontiers of classical thought. A cry of help to the transcendent is perhaps the most hopeful legacy of Greek culture.
The Bible and the Jewish tradition
Also in the Semitic world, the guilt and human weakness make its appearance; of course it is under various shades that let you glimpse more promising horizons of redemption. Psalms and prophetic books are battered with confessions of own guilt, recognition of sin itself; but above all a request for forgiveness to the Lord, God of Israel.
The passage in which king David in conversation with the prophet Nathan recognizes his guilt and his sin is enlightening. It narrates the second book of Samuel that "when the kings used to go out in campaign" David remained in the security of the royal palace. Here begins the chain starting with weakness, which will lead to perpetrating crimes and red guilt as the crimson (Is 1, 18).
This weakness places David in a vulnerable position in the face of temptations, in the face of the risk of guilt that is carried out immediately. He takes this woman married to Uriah to his bed and this relationship begets a son. To cover up his crime, the king commands to bring Uriah to sleep with his wife. The psychological penetration of the passage is outstanding. David thinks he can lessen his guilt, thinks he's capable of decreasing it by his strength. And he is wrong.
Then David called Uriah to show himself to him. Uriah ate and drank with David until David got him drunk. But Uriah still did not go home, but that night he stayed again where the king's servants slept (2 Sam 11, 13).
In the face of Uriah's reluctance, David believed he would come out of the crossroads in which he had entered, sending him to the battlefront, where the fight was harder. His designs are fulfilled and Uriah dies in combat. So far in the eyes of the Israelite king, the problem has been solved. He has buried his guilt in the depths of consciousness and is set to continue his life as if nothing had happened. But God came to meet him.
This is perhaps the characteristic note of the chosen people: the Divine Initiative even also in moments of sin. Was it not God himself who, after the fall of our first parents, promised us a Savior? (cf. Gn 1, 13-24)
The rest of the story is known to us. David's repentance has bequeathed us one of the most beautiful penitential hymns in the history of the world: the Miserere (Ps 50). At the same time that there is recognition of one's guilt "I have my sin always present" there is a conscience of having offended God "against you I sinned" and above all a request for help: "Deliver me of the blood", "reconstruct the walls of Jerusalem".
The hope that loomed barely in the Greek world and that gave its first lights in the Israel of the Old Testament reaches its fullness with Christianity.
The irruption of Christianity
The gospels that tell us the events of Christ's life could be analyzed in the key to the events of the life of God made man with the people of his time. Thus to the guilt of the Samaritan woman who has had five husbands and coexisted with another man (in total 6, biblical number of the imperfection), Jesus promises her the living water, quieting her thirst for understanding and love. The adulteress woman dismisses her by asking her not to sin anymore, for it is the source of all evil personal, community and cosmic.
Two of his disciples will be charged with guilt in betraying the master. One lets himself be questioned by his gaze and begins in tears the long way of conversion; the other will despair at the immensity of his sin, without heeding the still greater divine compassion of his master.
Also the physical weakness, the social vulnerability are redeemed by Jesus Christ: the stories of the paralytic, of Zacchaeus, of the blind Bartimaeus, of the man of the crippled hand; they all reveal the binomial weakness/necessity of deep redemption, because not only he freed them from the physical miseries, but generally dismissed them with the then scandalous formula "Your sins are forgiven."
The same experience acquires throughout his run the apostle of the people: "my strength is manifested in weakness" (2 Cor 12.9); "when I am weak then I am strong" (2 Cor 12.10); "where sin abounded grace overflowed" (Rom 5.20). These are but some of the best-known expressions of this sinful man who experienced forgiveness and redemption (cf. Gal 1, 13-24).
Another St. Augustine will manifest in the midst of a tradition that precedes him and remains today. That illustrious Sero te amavi, in which it surrenders the human weakness (blindness, deafness, thirst) before the strength of the grace remains as the structural frame of his Confessions:
[...] and deformed as it was, I threw myself to the beauties of your creatures. You were with me, but I wasn't with you. I was kept away from you those realities that, if they were not in you, would not be. You called and cried, and you broke my deafness; you shone and shined, and you chased away my blindness; you exhaled your fragrance and I breathe, and I sigh for you; I liked you, and I feel hungry and thirsty; you touched me, and I hugged in your peace (S. Augustine, Confessions, X, 27).
Not otherwise a contemporary of his, who tore the boundaries of the ecumene, will write in his Confession: St. Patrick. A young man of rank who kidnapped by pirates is driven to Ireland, where he lives in slavery for several years, there he knows human weakness, but at the same time the ignored presence of God in his life. Freed from the yoke of servitude and sin, he returns for the sake of freedom to that island to transmit the gospel, once ordained a priest. This is not without the deep repentance of his guilt and divine forgiveness. Treasures that have come to us in the rustic Latin of the Confession of St. Patrick: Ego Patricius peccator.
This awareness of one's weakness and above all of his sin before the creator remains very alive in the Western cultural tradition during the Middle Age. It suffices to bring up the increasing number of pilgrimages carried out with the advance of the Middle Ages: Compostela, Jerusalem, and the sacred places and the Eternal City. This spirit reaches fullness in the Jubilee of the year 1300. This was recorded in the consciousness of Christianity, as the historian Luis Suárez conveys to us:
A few years later, in 1300, Pope Boniface VIII, summing up the spirit that accompanied the pilgrimages, made another important decision: he ordered that henceforth it be considered the Holy Year that which marks the end of each century and its transit to the other. The Hebrew memory also came into play. The general forgiveness, the radical polishing of the soul, formerly reserved exclusively for the three major pilgrimages, was now assigned to an event: all men would now have the opportunity to straighten out the route — it was soon seen that a Holy Year was not enough every century as it should be made accessible to every human existence — to remove the relics of their sins (the reato of grief that leaves the guilt after confessed) and to become, that is, to return to the path as if it was only then initiated. The remarkable thing about the episode, a demonstration of how close the roots of Europeanism were, was the success achieved: true armies of pilgrims embarked on the journey to the Eternal City. The offerings were accumulated, day and night, on the tomb of St. Peter (L. Suárez, the construction of European Christendom 36).
The erosion of guilt in the modern age
The sense of weakness and guilt is heavily eroded during the modern age, with its pretensions of autonomy of reason, of absolute freedom and tacit inmanement. In the summit, the modern age presents intramundane solutions to transcendent problems and thus leads to despise such problematic replace with questions of ground order (Schall, The Modern age 129).
Take for example Rousseau, who with the myth of the good savage blames the society for corrupting man with its vices and customs. The phenomenon that happens here is of capital importance: if previously the cause of the evil in the people was internal to themselves (I. e: Their ill-will, their sinfulness, etc), now the cause of the evil is extrinsic to the person: the society, the fashions, the habits, and the customs. Man is not more guilty, but society, the external. The consequences of this turnaround in thought are to be expected: if the cause of evil is not personal, then it does not matter what the individual does, because it is not imputable.
So is not the same truth, I thought, and what for me is true, can be a lie to another? If it is oneself the method of which follows the straight path and of which it is lost, what merit or what guilt has more one than another? Being their choice an effect of chance, it is an iniquity to impute it, it is rewarding or punishing for being born in this or that country. Daring to say that God judges us in this way is to misjudge his righteousness (Rousseau, Emilio 284).
From here you can reach dire conclusions, as has been demonstrated in past centuries and is now manifest: totalitarianism and individualistic relativism (these are moral, intellectual, social) are the two sides of the same coin:
The man of nature is everything to himself; he is the numerical unit, the absolute integer, who has no relationship with himself or his fellow man. Civilized man is a fractional unit that determines the denominator and whose value expresses his relation to the whole, which is the social body (Rousseau, Emilio 8).
However, by losing the sense of guilt itself, fortunately for a strange vengeance, one loses the feeling of weakness, the sense of sin, which ultimately reminds the man that is limited and needs an external and superior aid. There is no forgiveness, where there is nothing to forgive.
The perennial need for redemption, the contemporary
Desire and lust for redemption are proportional to the conscience of one's guilt. Despite the Freudian attempts to banish the feeling of guilt to a psychic phenomenon merely caused by the misalignment of life drives, the signs of this perennial need are increasing in the contemporary. Perennial because human.
Mitch Albom captured it masterfully in his novel "One more day", in which the main character in an attempt of suicide dribbling wakes up having one more day in the company of his most loved being: his mother. It shows that a mother's love is not conditional; it does not depend on how good one is. So this sports reporter goes on to forgive himself through the forgiveness his already deceased mother gives him. The outcome of the work is exceptional in this sense: not only guilt generates more crime, but forgiveness also begets fruits of mercy and compassion. Other sample buttons of this need for contemporary man redemption are shown on the screen with Wild or Birdman, large examples of forgiveness with Unbroken.
Conclusion: The Prophecy of Dostoyevskij
It can be said in a nutshell that guilt and weakness are the heritage of man's lapse nature. And without ambages, it is also to be said that not everything remains there. Does not the jubilant church proclaims in its most solemn mass "O felix culpa"? This reality of redemption was captured by Fiodor Dostoyevskij in a unique and personal way.
While Raskolnikov fulfills his conviction for murder in Siberia accompanied by innocent Sonia.
They wanted to talk, but they couldn't utter a single word. Tears shone in his eyes. The two were thin and pale, but in those withered faces shone the dawn of a new life, the dawn of resurrection. Love resurrected them.
The conclusion of the novel Crime and Punishment seems, in the words of Henri de Lubac, a true prophecy (cf. De Lubac, Le drame de l humanisme athée IV).
Raskolnikov was ignorant that he could not obtain this new life, without giving anything on his part, but would have to acquire it at the price of long and heroic efforts...
But here another story begins, that of the slow renewal of a man, that of his progressive regeneration, his gradual passage from one world to another and his staggering knowledge of an ignored reality (end of Crime and Punishment).
We know that only love is worthy of faith, to say it to one with Von Balthasar, only Love can fully redeem man, to take him out of his guilt and to resurrect him. This love has been manifested to us in one person: Jesus Christ. Are these not circumstances and times that need a renewed effort to transmit God's redeeming love?
Sofocles, Edipus King, translation of Francisco Adraos. Classic Editions, 1992.
Ovid, Metamorphoses, Gredos, 2012.
St. Augustine, Confessions, Word, 2011.
St. Patrick, Confession, Aziloth. 2012.
Suarez, Luis, The construction of european christendom, Homo Legens, 2008.
Schall, James, The Modern Age, St, Augustines Press, 2011.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Emilio, EDAF, 1982.
De Lubac, Henri, Le drame de l humanisme Athee, Cerf, 1999.