In the chapter entitled “Forgiveness of Sins,” Romano Guardini reflects on the story of the healing of the paralytic (Mark 2:3-5) and asks “what must take place if forgiveness is to be experienced?”:
Man must admit the general profundity of sin, must overcome his attitude of superficiality and cowardice, and earnestly attempt to face sin in whatever form he may encounter it. He must not make it a mere matter of judgment or of will, but must feel, and deeply, for its core. He must not stubbornly insist upon the justice of a mere judge, but must consent and accept–with all his moral dignity, his freedom and responsibility–a Father’s love (and how many refuse precisely this!)…Instead he must learn the humility that seeks grace. This is the summons in Jesus’ first words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:14-15). Before all else, men must learn that they are sinners; they must take stock of what they have become through sin, and de profundis call to God that they may be forgiven.
One of the things that I like about this passage is that Guardini grasps that sin is not primarily a failure to abide by an abstract moral norm, but is rather the betrayal of a relationship. It is one thing to lie. It is another, for example, to lie to one’s spouse about a matter of deep importance. It is in the latter act one begins to grasp the betrayal that lies at the heart of sin.
Guardini’s suggestion that we must “learn” that we are sinners seems deeply true to me. A person can have a “natural” sense of right and wrong–and even sense that these categories have a transcendent origin–without truly understanding the nature of sin. Perhaps one of the reasons the greatest saints were so conscious of themselves as great sinners is the closeness of their relationship with God. The closer one draws to the source of all life and love, the more one’s radical dependence on that source becomes clear, and the more that one’s failure to respond in kind becomes a painful truth that must be confronted with honesty.