The Death of Life, by Venerable Fulton Sheen, 5 March 1933

1952 photograph of Venerable Fulton John Sheen produced as promotional material for the television show 'Life is Worth Living'The gravest danger facing modern society, one which has brought the ruin of older civilizations and is destined to effect the collapse of our own unless we prevent it is the loss of the sense of sin. Remorse is almost an unknown passion and penitent shame is but rarely felt. The burden of guilt does not rest on even a criminal’s heart and even good men look on deeds of infamy and acts of gross in- justice and are not shocked. This is not because they are innocent, but because no sense of sin possesses their souls. There is a general denial that anything is wrong or that anything is right, and a general affimation that what the older theological generation called “sin” is only a psychic evil or a fall in the evolutionary process. Two principles inspire much of the personal and social dealings of many a citizen in our land, namely, “What can I get out of it?” and “Can I get away with it?” Evil is confused with good, and good is confused with evil. Revolting books against virtue are termed “courageous”; and those against God are called “progressive and epoch-making.” It has always been the characteristic of a generation in decay to paint the gates of hell with the gold of paradise. In a word, much of the so-called wisdom of our day is made up of that which once nailed Our Blessed Lord to the Cross.

It would be well for our generation to remember that the fires of Sinai still burn in the history of men and nations, that its dread thunders still roll across the centuries, and that the Cross which once was raised in defiance of sin will not be taken down until sin is vanquished and the Gross itself becomes the badge of eternal glory and triumph. And in order that our day may know that sin is not just an arbitrary tag tacked onto human actions by the Church, or that it is not a mere fall in the evolutionary process it might be profitable to inquire into the nature of sin by asking what nature thinks of sin, what conscience thinks of sin, and what God thinks of sin. Nature tells us that sin is death; conscience tells us that sin is guilt; and God tells us that sin is an offence against His Divine Love.

Nature says that sin is death, a definition which Sacred Scripture confirms: “The wages of sin is death.” Death in the natural order is the domination of a lower order over a higher order, for the universe is made up of various levels or hierarchies one subordinated to the other, such as the chemical, the vegetative, the animal, the human and the Divine. If, for example, a rose is placed in a room filled with poisonous gas, it will die just as soon as the lower order, namely the chemical, gains mastery over the higher order, which is that of life. The human body often dies through a slow wearing away and oxidation of its organism. At that precise point where there is a balance of forces in favor of the chemical process of oxidation as against the vital process death ensues. Now man has not only a body but also a soul. As the life of the body is the soul, so the life of the soul is God. Wheuy therefore, the body dominates the soul, the laws of the world dominate the laws of Christ, the flesh dominates the spirit, and the things of time dominate the things of eternity, there is a domination of a lower order over a higher order, and that domination or death we call sin. Sin then is a death in the strict sense of the term, namely the death of the life of God in the soul. In this sense it is the crucifixion over again, for as often as we sin we crucify Christ again in our hearts. Every soul is therefore a potential Calvary and every sin an actual cross.

“I saw the Son of God go by
Crowned with a crown of thorns.
‘Was it not finished Lord’ said I.
‘And all the anguish borne’?

“He turned on me His awful eyes,
‘Hast thou not understood?
Lo, every soul is a Calvary
And every sin a rood!’ ”

Nature tells us that sin is death, but conscience tells us that it is guilt, and that as such it is totally different from anything in the animal order and therefore something which is not a mere episode in the passage of nature and a thing which can be left behind, dead and done for. Nothingi is more typical of the sense of human guilt than its power of asserting itself with unbated poignancy in spite of the lapse of time. Society may forgive the transgressor but he does not forgive himself; his friends may cease to blame him, but he does not cease to blame himself; others may forget it, but he does not forget. He knows he cannot forgive himself, but that he must be forgiven; and his horror crammed memory cries out:

“Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow.
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weights upon the heart?”

How explain this sense of guilt and this indellible remorse except in reference to a Person Who has claims of love upon us? How explain this pain of the soul except as a deordination against the God of Justice and Love? If a magnetic needle were endowed with feeling and it pointed south instead of north, it would be in “pain” because not pointing in the direction of its true nature. If a bone becomes dislocated the whole body suffers, because the bone is not where it ought to be. In like manner if the heart and mind and soul of man, by a free act of choice turns not to the God of Love and Mercy, but away from Him to the things of self, he too suffers pain and remorse because he is not where he ought to be – in the arms of God.

Since past guilt endures in us as living past, and not as a dead past like the facts of history, it must be something over which we have the power to make or unmake. The real reason why the guilt endures is not that it may crush us beneath its weight, but that we might carry it up the hill of Calvary to the foot of the Cross, there to ask the loving Saviour to detach His arm from the Cross and lift it over our souls in forgiving pardon and absolution. And so it is that from Genesis to the Apocalypse there is heard, like the wail of the wind and the sob of the sea, a cry on the air of stricken humanity, confessing to its God Whose property is always to have mercy and to spare: “I have sinned before my Father Who is in Heaven.”

And that brings us to what God thinks of sin. In a great city of the East, famous for its history and its splendors – it is evening. Sleep has come to the eyes of men, except for a small group of the wicked which, with a white-faced traitor in its midst, is plotting against the Innocent. Outside the city runs a brook called the Kedron, and beyond, on a sloping hill, is a wood of small, stunted bushy trees, known as the Garden of Gethsemane.

The figures of four men cross this brook, and without a word, they sink into the enveloping darkness. Just as soon as the familiar olive trees present themselves to their gaze. One of the four sees what the other three cannot see. Our Blessed Lord, that One, sees there in the dark garden, the mighty array, the tremendous array, of all the sins that ever were committed, or that would be committed down to the end of time – for His Father in Heaven was about to lay upon Him the iniquities of us all. No wonder, then, that He turns to His companions saying: “Stay you here and watch with Me. . . . My soul is sorrowful, even unto death.'”

Leaving them. He enters the gloomy place, summoning all the courage of God, all the infinite resources of His love, the great thought that if He were about to be destroyed, humanity was about to be saved. Fearlessly He moves into the depths of Gethsemane. About as far from His companions as a man could throw a stone, in the murky recesses of that forest. He throws Himself upon the ground and prays: “Oh, Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from Me”; but immediately He adds, “Yet, not My will but Thine be done.” Turning, for the Father’s will is indicated in a voice from heaven. He bares His innocent breast. He puts out His sinless hands, and allows an ocean wave of sin to flow in upon Him and overwhelm Him. Then that mighty Soul lifts up Its hands, as if with more than Samson’s strength It were to pull down the heavens upon Him, draws down the storm of God’s eternal justice, and lies crushed beneath it – a plaintive, human life, almost extinguished – but not extinguished because it was Divine Life as well as human. The fountains of His heart are moved and drop by drop, through the burning pores of His skin, beads of blood fall to the ground as a red rosary of redemption – and one single drop would have been enough to have redeemed ten thousand worlds!

From the north and the south, from the east and the west, the gathering storm of sin rolls up, discharging itself as a torrent upon Our Blessed Lord. “Hopes blighted, vows broken, opportunities lost, innocence betrayed, penitence relapsing, the aged failing; the sophistry of misbelief, the wilfulness of doubt, the tyranny of passion, the canker of remorse, the wasting force of care, the anguish of shame, the agony of disappointment, the sickness of despair. . . ”

Never was a curse or imprecation uttered, never was a word impure or venomous spoken, never was a blasphemous oath hurled against heaven, that does not seem to stain His lips, for the sins of the world are upon Him; never was an open act of evil nor a secret deed of shame that does not seem to be thrust into His hands, that He, as if the guilty One, might bear its load of corruption, for the sins of the world are upon Him; never was an inmost thought of evil, a cherished foul desire, that does not attempt to creep into His mind and heart, as though its sin and corruption, too, were His – for the sins of the world are upon Him.

The first sin of Adam and Eve down to the last sin that will be committed at the crack of doom is heaped upon Him; Cain is there purple in the sheet of his brother’s blood; there too were the sins of the sons and daughters of Israel rotting the earth with the leprosy of their revolt; the lusts and wickedness of men before the flood; the impurities of Sodom and Gomorrah; the pagan idolatries of the pagan hordes who gathered around the altars of false gods; the world of the future is there with its sins – sins that rent Christ’s Mystic Body – sins of brutish vice; sins of Christian people, whose crimes taught deeper baseness to the heathen and lower coarseness to the pagan; sins deadly in their malice, hideous in their nature; sins that make the heart of Christ sick with sorrow; sins too loathsome to be mentioned; sins too terrible to be named; sins committed in the glare of the noonday sun under the very eyes of God; sins committed in the darkness of night, through which it was hoped the eyes of God could not pierce; sins committed in the country which made nature shudder; sins committed in the city in the city’s atmosphere of sin; sins of the old who should have passed the age of sinning; sins of the young for whom the heart of Christ is tenderly pierced; sins that destroyed paradise; sins that ruined the earth; sins that shut the gates of heaven; sins that broke down the law; sins that trampled love; sins that had brought men to hell; sins that now brought God to earth; sins of those who say there is no God; sins of war; sins of peace; sins of those who say there is no sin . . . Sin . . . SIN!