I have been reading Francis Spufford’s Unapololgetic. His discussion of sin is particularly illuminating:
One of the major obstacles to communicating what belief feels like is that I’m not working with a blank slate. The vocabulary that used to describe religious emotions hasn’t gone away, or sunk into an obscurity from which you could carefully reintroduce it, giving a little explanation as each unfamiliar new/old term emerged. Instead, it’s still in circulation, but repurposed, with new meaning generated by new usages; meanings that make people think that they know what believers are talking about when they really don’t. Case in point: the word “sin,” that well-known contemporary brand name for ice cream. And high-end chocolate truffles. And lingerie in which the color red predominates. And sex toys and cocktails. There’s a brand-management agency in Australia called “Sin.” There’s a fish restaurant in Lima, Peru, called Los Pescadores Capitales, which is a Spanish-language pun on the similarity between the words for sinning and for fishing. (An English equivalent would be calling it The Seven Deadly Fins.) Taxes on cigarettes and booze are “sin taxes.” . . .
“Sin,” you can see, always refers to the pleasurable consumption of something. Also, it always preserves some connection to sex, which is why it would seem creepy for it ever to appear in the branding of a product aimed at children. Sometimes the sex is literal, but usually it’s been disembodied, reduced to a mere tinge of the atmosphere of desire and transferred from sex itself to another bodily satisfaction to eating or drinking or smoking or greedy looking (all of which are easier to put on sale in bulk quantities than sex itself). The other universal is that “sin” always encodes a memory of ancient condemnation: but a distant memory, a very faint and inexplicable memory, just enough of a memory to add a zing of conscious naughtiness to whatever the pleasure in question is. . . . The pleasure comes from committing an offence (against good nutrition or boring old good taste) which is too silly to worry about.
Everybody knows, then, that “sin” basically means “indulgence” or “enjoyable naughtiness.” If you were worried, you’d use a different word or phrase. You’d talk about “eating disorders” or “addictions”; you’d go to another vocabulary cloud altogether. The result is that when you come across someone trying to use “sin” in its old sense, you may know perfectly well in theory that they must mean something which isn’t principally chocolatey, and yet the modern mood music of the word is so insistent that it’s hard to hear anything except an invocation of a trivially naughty pleasure. And if someone talks, gravely and earnestly, about what a sorrowful burden one of those is, the result will be to be to make that speaker seem swiftly much, much more alarming than the thing they’re getting worked up about. For which would seem to you to be the bigger problem, the bigger threat to human happiness: a plate of pralines, or a killjoy religious fanatic denouncing them? . . .
Go here to read the rest of the passage. Excellent, as is much else in the book.
R. R. Reno
I’ve been reading The Labor of Longing, by Yale Spanish Professor Noel Vallis. This novella is a haunting story of an unfulfilled longing for love, told in a style akin to magical realism, but in a much more laconic key.
Every few days I pick up Emily Dickinson’s poems and sample three or four lyrics. I would call them a calming reprieve from the bustle of the day, but that epithet doesn’t quite fit the verse. It’s more like an arresting spotlight on existence. Take poem #258, which describes a “certain slant of light” that hits Western Massachusetts on winter afternoons. People who live in the northeast can visualize itthe whitish-grey sky, bare trees, and the sun a pale light bulb giving no warmth. Dickinson terms it a “Heavenly Hurt,” “an imperial affliction / Sent us of the air.” And here is the chilling final stanza: “When it comes, the Landscape listens Shadows hold their breath When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance On the look of Death ”
I’ve been reading Pope Benedict’s Heart of the Christian Life: Thoughts on Holy Mass. This accessible little volume is a collection of addresses and homilies in which we see, in the words of Thomas Howard, author of If Your Mind Wanders at Mass, “that amazing concord which [Benedict] always achieves by bringing effortlessly together sound biblical scholarship, deep love for the Eucharist, and an unflagging pastoral tone.” The contents includes sections such as, “Without Sunday We Cannot Live,” “The Church as a Eucharistic Community,” “God is Not Far From Us,” and “Mary, the Eucharistic Woman.” It is a contemplation of the sacrament from many sides. Here is one excerpt:
Here the usual contraposition between worship and ethics simply falls apart. “Worship” itself, Eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn. Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented. Conversely, as we shall have to consider in greater detail below, the “commandment” of love is only possible because it is more than a requirement. Love can be “commanded” because it has first been given.