Monday, March 30, 2009

Sin and Prayer in the Catechism

The final year of the Why Catholic program covers Part Four of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Christian Prayer. The part on prayer is the smallest of the four parts of the Catechism, so the number of paragraphs covered by each of the 12 sessions is smaller than in any of the previous three years. I've read the covered paragraphs as we've worked our way through, so in just two weeks, I will have completed reading the Catechism cover to cover for the second time (plus going to it for reference).

Every now and then, I read something that I don't understand. Such is the case in paragraph 2744, which quotes St. John Chrysostom's Sermon on Anna:

Nothing is equal to prayer; for what is impossible it makes possible, what is difficult, easy. . . . For it is impossible, utterly impossible, for the man who prays eagerly and invokes God ceaselessly ever to sin.

When I first read this, I though, "Whoa, that's way over the top! We're all sinners! I pray, and I sin. For this to be true, either my prayers aren't prayers, or my sins aren't sins!" I freely admit that I was conflicted. I thought that the quoted passage couldn't possibly mean what it literally said, and so I assumed that the original context of the quote would provide the true meaning. Perhaps when he says sin, he's specifically talking only about mortal sin. But, I can't find the Sermon anywhere on line, and I don't have any compilations of St. John's writings anywhere at hand. I have no idea what the context is.

I tried to convince myself that the passages in the Catechism that are in the smaller font are ancillary. They are there to add flavor, if you will. What's more, a quoted passage is no more infallible by virtue of being included in the Catechism than it was in its original context. Saints, while holy and virtuous, are not necessarily infallible with respect to the doctrine of their writings.

Now, as I sit pondering the passage, I suppose that the whole thing pivots upon those two words, "eagerly" and "ceaselessly." If one is in constant communion with God in prayer, then there would be no sin. It is only when we break that communion, or flag in our devotion, that we fall from grace.

I have apparently come around on the quote by St. John Chrysostom, at least to the extent that praying eagerly and ceaselessly is as hard as living completely free from sin, and the attempt is necessary for any who wishes to lead a holy life.

For the second saint quoted in paragraph 2744, St. Alphonsus Liguori, I'm going to have to give that more thought on a different day.

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