He had been involved in a relationship that was tantamount to adultery, a quasi-friendship with a woman who was not his wife, conducted mostly via email over the internet. There was much good in this woman and much good in the relationship, though it was not a friendship - sometimes it was too emotionally intimate and at other times it was astonishingly cold and dead. He was close with this "other woman" without any mention of sex or any intention of sex - though there was a basic mutual attraction that fueled the thing. He felt on the one hand guilty and on the other hand blessed - for it was a good and a bad thing mixed. There was a kind of love involved, but not really, as there was a great Unreality or contrived character to what was going on, and whenever life got real, this "virtual affair" would simply fade; she wanted no part of reality when it came to him. And it could never really lead anywhere - there was no payoff, no natural fulfillment toward which to work; he was trying to be a good Christian and so even building to a sexual climax was out of the question - even one borne out of fantasy; there was no family life to be had with this lady, as they both had their own real families elsewhere; and consequently there was no fruit to be borne from what they were doing - other an ongoing and rather painful struggle to be "friends" when they weren't really friends, and ....
And so on.
He bore this burden for a long time. I don't know how the woman endured it, or if it even seemed burdensome to her, as I did not know her as well.
I do know that there was a sudden and dramatic turning point.
"It's simply a sin," he said one day to me. "I've got to walk away - even though there's good and bad mixed. It's simply a sin and it's killing me." He stopped trying to rationalize it. He stopped trying to excuse himself. He stopped pointing out the obvious, that neither of them had intended any harm. He simply put an end to it.
He freely admitted that they had both had the best intentions. They really had never intended to lead each other astray or to be untrue to their states in life. And they were both good people. Good people doing a bad thing. Not so bad that he left his wife or had sex with this girl ("Although," he told me, "If there had been sex involved, it would have been more clear what we were doing."), but bad enough that the energy and the Eros that should have gone to his family or his career or his spiritual life, was going down a kind of black hole. It was going down the drain.
Masturbation is like this. Pornography is like this. All sin is like this.
All sin is an assertion of our own Unreality in the face of and in spite of God's Reality, which we reject because it's too intensely painful and too intensely joyful; we'd rather game the system and play with our little toy theaters and our doll houses instead of walking on the stage of real life and playing the parts assigned us. For the latter is beyond our control, while the artificial is our own script to manage. You see, God is Reality, and He is frightening no matter how we placate Him.
But sin is also like this in one other very important way that I've never heard mentioned.
Sin's most taxing burden is our constant effort to rationalize it.
The psychic energy that goes into an adulterous one night stand is minimal - there's a quick thrill, a quick regret and a quick return to God (in the best case scenario). The psychic energy that goes into something that we're telling ourselves is not-a-sin has no limit.
We've seen this with liberal Catholics tying themselves in knots to justify contraception and abortion; we've seen it with "conservative" Catholics tying themselves in knots to justify torture and lying. And we've seen it in spades this past week with "conservative" Catholics trying to justify pornography.
Yes, it's ludicrous on the one hand. A commenter on Fr. Angelo Mary Geiger's blog simply says
Do these folks actually realize what they are doing? That as Catholics, they are now at the point of defending pornography? ... God help us!
But that's because we're not honest enough to call a spade a spade and say, "Yes, I enjoy pornography and I'm ashamed of that, and it's a very difficult habit to break and if there were some way I could calm my conscience, I'd be happier because I really don't want to stop, and even when I do, I can't."
No, we'd rather work on that "calming our conscience" bit and lie to ourselves. We'd rather call our lust for porn a "thought experiment" - as Matt McGuiness does in his abysmal article published by CNA (as if that changes anything about the point he's making). We'd rather deny the value of virtue and penance and mortification and confession - as McGuiness does. We'd rather call those things "scrupulous" - as McGuiness does. We'd rather focus on the desire for base pleasure in the heart of the porn addict, call that a desire for God, and thereby rationalize a grave sin, while claiming we're doing nothing of the kind - as McGuiness does. We'd rather wash our hands of the sin while we're in the very act of committing the sin - as Pontius Pilate does and as we've all been doing since.
Yes, there is mixed in to all of this the bizarre "conservative" Catholic tendency to go nuts over Rock Stars like Christopher West. There's also the vacuum created by bishops who are asleep at the wheel, a vacuum being filled by lay and clerical speakers and preachers who are sometimes no more than snake oil salesmen (some are even claiming that West has the stamp of approval of the Episcopacy - a claim that can only be made because the bishops are not doing their job and vetting this man and his teaching). And there's the weird desire for Catholics to live like everybody else, and therefore to find a way to justify the sins they see around them that they are so drawn to and eager to embrace.
But above all, it's the burden of the False Cross.
It's the burden of rationalizing sin. It saps us of our energies and it guarantees that not only will our sin be Unreal and sterile (for we live in an Unreal world, and often in an Unreal church, surrounded by a Culture of Sterility and Death), but it also guarantees that the rest of our lives will likewise be Unreal and sterile, even the good and virtuous parts of our lives. For the attention and love we should be giving our wives and our children and our work and our recreation and our path toward Christ in holiness is being flushed down the toilet of sin, and lost in the sewage treatment plant of Making Excuses for Sin, which is a much bigger pond of waste and a much greater drain on the gifts God has given us.
"Take up your cross and follow Me." But first put down your false cross and stop following yourself.