Cobwebs in the heart

John Donne has a wonderful description of peccata minutiora, relatively minor sins, and of their often imperceptible effect upon the heart:

So careful was God in the Law, and the Jews in their practise (for these outward things) to preserve this pureness, this cleanness, even in things which were not fully sins. So also must he that affects this pureness of heart and studies the preserving of it, sweep down every cobweb that hangs about it. Scurrile and obscene language; yea, mis-interpretable words such as may bear an ill sense; pleasurable conversation, and all such little entanglings, which though he think too weak to hold him, yet they foul him. And let him that is subject to these smaller sins, remember that as a spider builds always where he knows there is most access and haunt of flies, so the Devil that hath cast these light cobwebs into thy heart, knows that that heart is made of vanities and levities; and he that gathers into his treasure whatsoever thou wastest out of thine, how negligent soever thou be, he keeps thy reckoning exactly and will produce against thee at last as many lascivious glances as shall make up an Adultery, as many covetous wishes as shall make up a Robbery, as many angry words as shall make up a Murder; and thou shalt have dropped and crumbled away thy soul, with as much irrecoverableness as if thou hadst poured it out all at once, and thy merry sins, thy laughing sins, shall grow to be crying sins, even in the ears of God; and though thou drown they soul here, drop after drop, it shall not burn spark after spark, but have all the fire and all at once and all eternally, in one entire and intense torment. For, as God, for our capacity, is content to be described as one of us and to take our passions upon him, and be called angry and sorry, and the like, so is he in this also like us, that he takes it worse to be slighted, to be neglected, to be left out, than to be actually injured. Our inconsideration, our not thinking of God in our actions, offends him more than our sins. We know that in Nature, and in Art, the strongest bodies are compact of the least particles, because they shut best and lie closest together; so be the strongest habits of sin compact of sins which in themselves are least, because they are least perceived, they grow upon us insensibly, and they cleave unto us inseparably. And I should make no doubt of recovering him sooner that had sinned long against his conscience, though in a great sin, than him that had sinned less sins, without any sense or conscience of those sins; for I should sooner bring the other to a detestation of his sin than bring this man to a knowledge that that that he did was sin. But if thou couldst consider that every sin is a Crucifying of Christ, and every sin is a precipitation of thy self from a Pinnacle, were it a convenient phrase to say, in every little sin, that thou wouldst Crucify Christ a little, or break thy neck a little? (Sermon 3, 195-96)

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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