“Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” Most children learn the notes of the major musical scale along with this piece of advice. It seems obvious enough, but could it be that sometimes the end is more important than the beginning?
When it comes to the moral life of the believer, the end is exactly where we should begin. By end, I don’t mean the cessation of something, such as the end of a book or the end of a conversation. “End” refers to a goal, the purpose that drives us to act in the first place.
As we have already seen, God has revealed that our ultimate end—or ultimate goal—is a share in his own divine life in heaven. This goal is often referred to as “beatitude,” the perfect fulfillment of all desires in the contemplation of God as he truly is. The invitation to beatitude is given through Baptism and requires the life of grace to be accepted and attained. The moral life of the believer, then, must always be understood in light of this ultimate destiny.
When St. Leo the Great in his Christmas homily offers moral advice to his hearers, he reminds them not of a moral precept or a prohibition, but of their high calling: “Christian, acknowledge your dignity…Recollect that you were rescued from the power of darkness and brought out into God’s light and kingdom.” The beginning of the moral life is really found in our end.
This is precisely why sin, if properly understood, is not simply the transgression of a rule or a precept, but a choice against our ultimate destiny. If union with God is our ultimate goal, then everything we do in life should be colored by that reality. The end should be present in every beginning.
Often, however, it must be admitted that we fail to act in accord with our ultimate destiny. Sometimes other “ends” or goals—such as pleasure, comfort, inordinate attachments, among many other things—distract us from our ultimate purpose and lead us to sin. The Catechism defines sin as “an offense against reason, truth, right conscience” and as a “failure in genuine love for God and neighbor” (no. 1849). The church, following the scriptural tradition, has always distinguished between mortal sin, which destroys the life of grace; and venial sin, which wounds and offends the life of grace.
Very few believers would intentionally choose against eternal life with God in heaven, but the question of sin is very rarely phrased in that manner. The reality is that every sin is a choice against God, and as much as we might desire it to be otherwise, man is not made to act for contradictory ends. In other words, we cannot wish to accept God’s invitation to beatitude and yet still hold onto sinful attitudes and habits.
If they are grave enough, and are freely chosen with full knowledge and deliberate consent (mortal sin), then our eternal destiny is completely forfeited and we can only set out on the path to God again with the help of his grace through sacramental absolution. Even if our acts are less severe, or if we lack full knowledge or complete consent (venial sin), we are still hindered from pursuing our final end with clarity of purpose and single-mindedness.
What God expects of us is what is truly good for us, which is why his will for the human person can be discerned through the natural law, written on the hearts of all human beings; and is confirmed through the law he revealed to us in both the Old and New Testaments. God wants us to be capable of recognizing and avoiding sin.
Focusing on the reality of sin and its effects, however, should not lead us to a dour embrace of asceticism; it should make us rejoice in the gift of justification won for us by the Passion of Christ. God does not abandon us to sin, but makes us holy with our cooperation. The natural gift of our conscience—which requires proper formation—and the supernatural gift of grace, if received and properly utilized, will help us remain focused on our ultimate end.
We might think that the beginning of the moral life is a set of rules or commands to be obeyed, but the beginning of the moral life requires gratitude for the invitation to share in God’s own life. St. Thomas Aquinas is right to remind us that the moral life requires the offering of a welcome home to the principle of the New Law of grace, which is not a command, but a divine person, the Holy Spirit.
Father Joseph Upton is the assistant pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Parish and chaplain at The Prout School, both in Wakefield. This column is part of a yearlong biweekly series on the Year of Faith by Father Upton and Father Ryan Connors.