What is negative is positive, when talking about sin

Douglas P. McManaman
Saturday, 1st Week of Lent
Reproduced with Permission

Back in 2003, I was diagnosed with colon cancer, but it took longer than necessary to discover it. The reason is that one of the doctors involved had a very easy going and rather positive attitude about the prospect. My family doctor was vigilant, however. He noticed I had low iron, so he inquired of my diet. He instructed me to eat more red meat for the next month; I was delighted. I immediately went to Costco and bought a Prime Rib, and I had steak a few nights a week. It was wonderful. But when I returned a month later, my iron was lower.

So he sent me to a specialist; for he wanted me to undergo a gastroscopy and a colonoscopy. The specialist, however, insisted that my family doctor was over reacting and that I was too young to have cancer. So he sent me to be tested for celiac disease, and then to go off to enjoy the summer. And that's just what I did; we went to Banff, Alberta and had a great time.

At the end of the summer I saw him again and he informed me that I did not have celiac disease, so he'd do the gastroscopy and colonoscopy. While I was on the table, he actually said: "I still think your doctor is over-reacting. This is not really necessary".

After it was over, we had a meeting, and he wasn't so cool and relaxed then. He looked like he'd seen a ghost. He found the tumor. It was removed two weeks later by another surgeon.

On the day I found out about the tumor, I went to the liquor store and bought my family doctor a bottle of champagne. His "negative" attitude saved my life, while the "positive" and optimistic attitude of the specialist almost killed me.

Many people of the 70s generation were deceived by a false understanding of sin. It was thought that talk of sin was negative. In fact, that's the message I received in "Teachers College", and a whole generation was brought up on that deficient Catechesis, one that left sin almost entirely out of the picture.

When I started teaching, however, I discovered that teenagers had a very different attitude. They loved talking about sin; they wanted to know what was sinful, what wasn't, what the capital sins were, what hell and purgatory are, etc. In fact, it was the criminally minded who, above all, enjoyed these topics.

Just as I was almost killed by the easy going doctor with the positive attitude that made me feel so good that summer, who knows how many souls were lost over the decades because some priests, bishops, and catechists avoided the difficult topics, deemed them negative and offensive.

At the beginning of Mass, in order to prepare for the sacred liturgy, we call to mind our sins and ask God's pardon and strength. Sometimes priests will substitute the word 'sin' with 'frailty' or 'weaknesses'. But that is not quite right. To be human is to be frail, weak and dependent. When the Word became flesh, he became frail, weak, and vulnerable to death. Our Lady was frail; she was flesh and blood. But she had no sin; and Jesus was entirely sinless. Weakness is human, but sin is profoundly inhuman; it is anti-human. It is self-destructive. The result of sin is the crucified God; the cross was not the consequence of human weakness.

The good news in all of this is that we all have what we need, which is a physician, because we are all sick, and it is the sick who need a doctor, not those who are well. Of course, there are no people among us who are well. But the necessary condition for receiving the good news of the kingdom of God is to recognize that sickness, which is our sinfulness. If we do not, we won't seek out that physician; we won't see our need for Christ.

And that's the real sickness. It's like me that summer, having a great time in Banff while cancer was spreading inside me without my awareness, all because some doctor didn't have the character to say: "You might have a tumor growing in you, which might be the reason you have low iron". Instead, making me feel good was more important to him.

We're all sick, we're all sinners, but only some of us are lucky enough to recognize and acknowledge it. That is extraordinarily good news because only then can we experience the mercy of God, and that is the positive experience in all of this. The more we come to realize how rotten sin is, how serious it is - and we really don't understand fully the seriousness of sin, I know I don't - , the more we will allow ourselves to be touched by the mercy of God. That is why the saints, who always had an acute sense of their own sinfulness, also had the deepest interior joy. If we refuse to look at our own sinfulness, we'll never know the mercy of God, at least not from the depths of the heart.