The loss of the ability to see one’s guilt, the falling silent of conscience in so many areas, is a more dangerous illness of the soul than guilt which is recognized as guilt.
Values in a Time of Upheaval, 81
Reflection – “‘He claims to be able to cure all physical ailments,’ said Flambeau.‘Can he heal the one spiritual ailment?’ asked the priest with interest.
‘And what is that?’
‘Oh, thinking oneself quite well.’
This passage from Chesterton’s Father Brown story The Eye of Apollo (quoted from memory) has always stuck in my mind. ‘To think oneself quite well’ – this is the one sickness of the soul that truly is without remedy. All the other sins and vices, serious and destructive as they are, if they are known to be sins and vices, at least lead the soul who grapples with them to cry out to God, to ‘get help’ as the saying goes, to admit to being weak and needy and in need of mercy.
But to say “I’m all right, Jack – what’s your problem?” – this puts us in grave mortal peril. The above passage from Ratzinger is from a discussion of Nazi Germany and the apparent sincere belief of the SS and Gestapo that they were, in fact, ‘all right, Jack (or, perhaps, Hans).’ Some moral philosophers and theologians actually have argued that since these men were seemingly doing what in conscience they believed to be morally right, they could well be in heaven, since after all, we all have to follow our consciences.
Ratzinger (while of course making no pronouncement on the fate of anyone’s immortal soul) counters this line of argument. To become so morally blind and deaf, so depraved in one’s conscience that one no longer can see anything wrong whatsoever in one’s conduct is actually the most spiritually perilous state to be in. Every human being has implanted in them from God some original knowledge of good and evil, some basic sense of the moral law. To have killed that basic sense is deeply dangerous.
We are not Nazis. But more and more in the world today the attitude of ‘I’m all right, Jack – what’s your problem?’ crops up. It’s a familiar strain to us: I’m not doing anything wrong – it’s those people, the ones over there. They’re the bad guys! It’s those liberals, or conservatives, or gays, or fundies. It’s the Sanduskys or Corapis or Cains. It’s Obama. It’s Palin. It’s BushCheney. It’s Wall Street. It’s big government. It’s… fill in the blank here.
But what am I doing? Am I really so perfect, that I can shake my fist and point my finger and call people names, posture like I’m some kind of paragon? Yes, people do wrong things – of course! And I never do anything wrong? Really? Who am I, and where am I, that I can sit in judgment over the world?
When the London Daily News was hosting an essay contest entitled “What’s Wrong With the World?” Chesterton submitted his entry. It consisted of two words. It read, “I am.”
We really have to get there, folks. The problem is not him, or them, or you, or her. It’s not the Chinese, the Russians, the Iranians, or the North Koreans, the Republicans, the Democrats, or whatever political party you dislike wherever you live.
The problem is me—so long as I am not loving without counting the cost and living and dying every day with Jesus. The problem is me—until I become the saint God made me to be. The problem is me, not you, not them, not him, not her. Period. End of story.
Update: Flambeau, not Flaubert (HA!). Chesterton used to quote from memory, too, and consequently his books are full of mistakes...