SAUCIER — The tone of atonement


When I was a kid, Lent was the time for talk about sin.

Perhaps it was in their teaching contract, but the good nuns invariably told us, in their own veiled words, about the seven “deadly” sins.

There was greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth. The seventh, and the worst, in their humble opinion, was pride.

Pride — hubris, vanity, arrogance — was the first sin recorded in the Bible and the mother of all others.

Of course, the flip-side message of Lent was penitential, and we were encouraged to take on some sacrificial practice to atone for our sins.

I grew up in a household where we might have candy a couple of times a month, or a soda once or twice. In my young mind, giving up a few of those infrequent treats to escape the just desserts of my anger or lust — whatever that was — seemed like a pretty good deal, and I observed Lent faithfully.

Of course, I no longer believe that refusing an occasional Snickers bar made amends for hitting an obnoxious sibling, but I can also see the merit in what the nuns were preaching.

The “giving up” wasn’t to punish or appease, but to make me more aware of my actions, to change my disposition as well as my behaviors, not to atone but to make me “at one” with myself, with others, and with the God I professed.

If I get what the sisters were saying about pride, then they were right. Pride is the ultimate selfishness, and all sin — from childhood disobedience, through malicious gossip, to aggravated murder — is about putting ourselves, our emotions, and our desires first before all else.

And the practices of Lent are not meant to get God to overlook our foibles and failures. On the contrary, they are meant to get us to look at them, to be conscious of not only what we do, but why we do it.

But if we stop there, with our own spiritual awareness, aren’t we still teetering on the edge of pride and selfishness?

In the Buddhist tradition, the disciple who reaches the ultimate state of nirvana must then go back into the world and practice compassion.

In the Jewish Hasidic strain, the purpose of atonement is to release one from fixation on personal sin so that the penitent is free to pursue his or her call to “tikkun olam” — repair of the world.

Where is your Lenten effort leading you?