Walking from my office to the train the other day, I reflected on how wicked and dissolute I have been lately, relatively speaking. Not like a rake or a cheat, I hasten to add, but rather a choirboy; things like moments of sloth, violating my diet rules, staying up too late reading, want of charity toward others, dilatory prayers, stuff like that. Not that those are small things, at all; indeed, they loom very large for me. The reading thing is a real problem; I can’t seem to shake it.
Anyway, I was walking toward the train feeling rather willfully sinful; stiff-necked, and besotted with my worldly involvements. I was positively enjoying them. Mostly I was reeling from the moral challenges at work lately, which are calling for – and often not finding – a great deal of charity on my part. My dander was up: I was irritated, sore and a tad self-righteously angry. And sorry for myself; let’s not overlook that bit.
I reached into my pocket for no particular reason and encountered my little rosary. And so, reminded, I began to pray for people: Lawrence Auster, my friends and relatives who are in trouble, the tenor I once sang with who died in ‘84. The list goes on for about 50 lives these days. It’s really rather horrifying; it seems as though almost everyone I know is in some sort of serious difficulty or danger, however well the rest of their lives might be going. I suppose that goes without saying, and should not surprise me so much, and sadden me. But this habit of intercession as I walk has quickened my wit to the pervasive tragedy of life – to the agony sooner or later entailed by mere existence, much of which naturally ends up, so far as we can see, as a totally useless waste, nothing more than noise or heat attendant to the general and predominantly orderly flow of history; a cost of doing business here on Earth. It’s a sorrowful apprehension; but, also, beautiful.
How can sorrow be beautiful? In the first place, it must derive from a prior appreciation of the beauty of what has been injured, threatened, or destroyed. One can sorrow only for the loss of something good. In the second place, the recognition of the goodness of that for which we sorrow is itself a beautiful benediction. Sorrow springs in the first instance from love, which is the most beautiful motion of the spirit. And to remember beauty is to enact it. When I remember Lawrence, he is here, alive still, active and effective in this world. And this is not just an analogy, but a concrete reality. There is no such thing as an analogy that is “merely” analogous. Analogies, metaphors, synecdoches – signs in general – all have their force, efficacy and usefulness because they signify, indicate and recall similarities that really, concretely obtain. Were it otherwise, we could never notice them, nor would we ever use them, as providing us true conceptual leverage upon the stuff of life. But as it is, things do really echo and include each other, and therefore signify. Of such is the coherence and meaning of the world, or therefore of any truth we utter; of such is the concrete suchness and quiddity of her members, and their substantiality.
So I am sad that Lawrence is dead; and my sadness is an implicit enjoyment of his persistent life.
In this experience of the living actuality of the dead, of their participation in the present moment, is our first intimation of immortality. Lawrence could play no part at all in this present moment if he were not somehow still real.
So his beauty, goodness and charm do still perdure; not just in the afterlife, or in mere memory, but really. Only reals can be remembered.
With every person I remembered in prayer, I told off a bead.
The curious thing was this. The very instant I began to pray for someone else, my interest in sin – my attachment to my sinful affections, which are of course ever mostly for oneself – withered instantly almost to nothing. It was *amazing.* One moment I was suffused with the sick black sweetness of sin’s ichor, and the next it was swept away, washed clean by some more vibrant, sanguine flux. It was like stepping from a darkened, crabbed, dank and dirty little room into the bright sun of clear day’s noon at Easter.
Does wholly disinterested love drive out sin systematically? It sure seems that way.
I wrote to a correspondent about this, a fellow pilgrim, and he replied:
Kristor, I think you may have stumbled upon a good definition of sin: that which cannot coexist with perfect charity.
This hit me like a brick. A defect of righteousness is ipso facto a defect of charity; ergo, righteousness and charity are, not the same thing, simpliciter, but certainly coterminous, and therefore never found apart from each other. They are aspects of an underlying integrity.
The generalization had not even occurred to me. I had been thinking of my experience only as a happenstantial discovery of an odd little ascetical technique, which I would never have been able to dream up if it had not simply happened to me. Yet it rings true.
It’s funny. I’ve been walking around for years thinking to myself, intently, “Because he is simple, God’s mercy and charity are not different from his justice.” The notion is difficult to entertain, because we naturally understand the mercy of a human judge as a suspension or deformation or softening of sheer untrammeled relentless justice. It is not. What we understand as lenience from a jurist must, if he be truly just, be rather his correct application of the law to the concrete situation he has discovered.
For example, he could sentence the 18 year old first time offender to the maximum penalty. But while this would be licit, it might not be perfectly just, in that it could be inapposite to the real human situation of the offender and his near society. It is to that real human situation that the jurist must refer in deciding the sentence. And the judge’s comprehension of the real human situation of the offender must take in the condition of humans generally, and in particular of the judge himself in his own concrete situation, if it is to be truly comprehensive. The judge stands for the whole people, acts and speaks for them; so he must understand them as factors of his own existence. Furthermore, as no man is wholly isolate from his fellows, neither is he isolate from his world. Justice toward the criminal must in the limit account for the rains, and the harvest, and the state of the nation’s defenses; and so forth.
The righteous wrath and the compassion of the judge, both, must be properly ordered to things as they really are, if his judgement is to be truly just. Thus the justice of the judgement must begin in and with the just internal constitution of the judge himself. A fundamentally wicked man, unable to see beyond the horizon of the crabbed little room in which he sits and looks out at the world through the windows of his eyes, is going to have a much harder time reaching good verdicts – literally, “statements of truth.”
Perfect justice requires perfect acquaintance with the facts and circumstances, with the concrete situation that really pertains, and that pushes and pulls us all, this way, and that. True justice comprehends all things.
And that perfect acquaintance cannot but engender in the just man a charitable appreciation for the terrific predicaments of those whom he is called to judge. Only in the light of those predicaments may the wickedness of vicious acts be properly evaluated, condemned, or punished. So, you can’t properly hate the sin without loving the sinner. And you can’t properly, truly love the sinner except insofar as you are yourself ordered by a proper apprehension, a true and accurate apprehension, of the nature and wickedness of the sin that afflicts him. And this in turn you cannot do except insofar as you are yourself properly ordered to your own ends, and to your own predicaments.
So we see that, not just for God, who sees all things perfectly, but even for creatures – in their relations to each other and, ergo, in their internal constitutions – perfect justice and righteousness is ipso facto perfect charity. We can abstract our own justice from our mercy in thought, but not in deed. He cannot be charitable who is not just, or vice versa; and who is just, is charitable. He loves even that miscreant whom he must, mutatis mutandis, condemn to death.
The Hebrew word for righteousness is צדק, tsedeq. The righteous man, the just man, is a Tzaddik.
The Hebrew word for charity is חסד, chesed. The compassionate man, the merciful man, is a Hasid.
Tzaddiks are all Hasids, and vice versa. To be one is to be the other.
The Father is a Tzaddik. The Son is a Hasid. In virtue of their circumincession, each is therefore both.
Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
— Ps. 85:11
Both charity and justice, then, supervene upon the ontological coinherence of things.
So: do you tire of your wickednesses? Would you be free of your sins? Pray to God that he would save and salve those whom you know, and love; intend their benefit with all your heart, or indeed even with such little bits of it as you can muster. You’ll be amazed. It’s a great thing to get out of that dark little room, wherein it’s all, always, about you, and into the free air and sunshine.
One thing: it won’t work to intercede *so that* you can get relief for yourself. In the first place, that’s just Pelagianism. You can’t muscle your way into heaven. In the second, it’s just a way of praying for yourself. Nothing wrong with praying for yourself (although there is indeed something wrong with pretending to pray for others), but you can’t get the same effect that way. No; to get outside the cage of your own peccadilloes, you must focus your attention elsewhere than on yourself and your defects; and you must really mean it.
Once you’ve been practicing this for a while, try praying for those you know and do not love. This move has amazingly good effects on one’s overall mood.
Once you’ve got really practiced at that, so that you can love your enemies in prayer and apprehend their beauty even as you recognize their enmity toward you (and, mayhap, plan their destruction, should justice demand it), then you will begin to be able to pray really effectively for the person you know best of all, and do not love: yourself. But by that time, the substance of your intercession will be, “not my will, O Lord, but thine.” And you’ll begin really to mean it.
Not that I’ve managed any of this very well myself. How I wish I had! No; I speak not from much experience, alas. There have been glimmers now and then, such as I enjoyed as I walked to the train, but no more. Nevertheless, those glimmers seem to me dispositive, for assuming their verisimilitude, the logic of our situation is, so far as I can see (thanks to my interlocutor), quite simple, and follows inexorably. There is no escaping it.