A Word I Never Thought I’d Like to Define: Sin

“People have so many definitions of sin,” I said. “Do you have one?”

He looked surprised but not offended. He fitted the tips of his fingers together and gazed briefly upwards into the newly leafed branches of the old sugar maple. “A falling short from your totality,” he said. “Choosing to live in ways you know interfere with the harmony of that totality.”


“But… how do you know what your totality is?”

“You learn. You unlearn. You pay attention. You feel where things balance for you and where they don’t.”


Gail Godwin, Father Melancholy’s Daughter

picture-108_2You know those books that make you fall in love with fiction and pleasure you into realizing that we do need stories and that novels really can capture and change lives? Gail Godwin’s Father Melancholy’s Daughter was just that sort of novel for me this new year’s week. As I bandy about this new relationship with the Christianity of my childhood, this story of an Anglican rector and his daughter and their frequent conversations about the mystics and the nature of God and the soul was essential reading.

There were so many passages that could have lead to pages of journal entries and much frustration that this was a library book that had to stay safe from my frantic readers’ pen.

This young priest’s description of sin really is an “oh” moment. One of those explanations full of beautifully related words that equal an idea that is at once completely elegant and totally obscure. You just want to sit and unpack it and take as much time as your hectic life allows to really understand what totality and harmony and balance falling short could possibly mean.

I think one reason this exchange seems so foreign and so beautiful is that I never connected “sin,” that foreign word from a long ago recited Act of Contrition, with words that are so universal and abundant.

My thoughts and my meditations used to be nothing but a kaleidoscope of my partial understandings of the religions of the world with healthy doses of an un-mediated worship of Mother Earth thrown in. To realize that aspects of the tradition I once rejected can be described in terms of an individual’s totality and a search for harmony again shows me that all paths lead to a single center, a single Spirit that unites all the Universe.

picture-103I don’t know that I have ever formulated my own definition of sin. Have you? There always seemed to be so many positive things that demanded well thought meaning, that I never thought to have time for the bad stuff. Maybe my search for a personal definition has ended before it even began…

“A falling short from your totality.”

Oh. Yes.

5 thoughts on “A Word I Never Thought I’d Like to Define: Sin

  1. blisschick January 4, 2009 / 11:35 am

    Aquinas says that sin is “misdirected love.” I love that. So short. So easy to remember. And I love how it reminds us, so clearly, that people might seem to be doing bad things, but really, it usually comes from good intentions.

    Until I read that, I also just avoided the word, but now it is a word that contains so much power and possibility and it explains things, you know?

    Read Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh by Fox. You’ll love how he integrates higher thinking about Christianity with Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. A really important work. Now that I think about it, reading that work about five years ago (and mostly outside in the sun) was probably the first crack in my hardened-against-Christianity heart.

  2. cliodhna January 4, 2009 / 3:22 pm

    nice, made me smile…:) thanks.. and happy new year!

  3. Barbara January 4, 2009 / 4:25 pm

    I prefer the word Sin to sins. It’s a kind of global, human problem instead of a laundry list of failures. For me Sin is a rift or an alienation from self, from others, from nature, from God’s dream of us. We always seem to fall short, but I believe it is this moral klutziness that endears us, in a way, to God. And, as Blisschick said above, it is often the misdirected attempt to fill a need for love. Still, that gap between what we do and what we think we should have done is painful.

    • girlwhocriedepiphany January 7, 2009 / 9:41 am

      Dear Bliss, I remember Acquinas’s wisdom, now that I see you say that (that Jesuit education sunk in somewhere!). It helps frame a lot of the ills of the world. What is greed, for example, but misdirecting your love toward money rather than your fellow brothers and sisters who could use that money for basic needs? Is corporate greed based on “good intentions” – not good in any way that we might understand it, but self advancement surely seems good to the Bernard Madoffs of the world.
      I have One River Many Wells by Fox on my shelf. Your recommendation has just been added to my GoodReads account (safer than adding it to my Amazon wish list!).

      Dear MamaPeg, If only there were enough time for all these delicious books, right?

      Dear Cliodhna, What more can I ask for? Happy new year to you!

      Dear Barbara, “From God’s dream of us.” I love that. What a perfect way to frame that, the capital S rather than the plural – it takes away that sweetly nostalgic but less than useful memory of waiting in the confession line with the rest of the second graders in my CCD class for the first time. Racking my brain for a suitably terrible thing to have done and coming up with “being mean to my sister.” Of course, I was pretty awful to her, but at least we can laugh about that now!

      Blessings and gratitude to all,

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