We all know the story: Adam and Eve, the perfected human beings who are the parents of our entire race, were placed into the lush, fruited environs of the Garden of Eden and given dominion over it. Robed only in their innocent, unblemished flesh, they were called to fecundity, temporal bliss and communion with their Maker, if only they would follow a simple command:
“Of every tree of paradise thou shalt eat: But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat. For in what day soever thou shalt eat of it, thou shalt die the death.”
But that damned fruit looked so…tempting.
I believe that every child has at some point contemplated the seeming unfairness of inheriting world’s most famous sin and felt aggrieved. “Great,” we have at some point in our lives exclaimed, “they committed the sin that ruined everything, and I get to pay for it! I didn’t do anything! If I lived in the Garden of Eden, I wouldn’t have done anything to screw that up!”
Adam and Eve were tempted by the knowledge of good and evil. Since we have been born into a fallen state of which this knowledge is an integral part, it doesn’t seem remotely worth trading for that lost paradise. If we therefore find ourselves pondering how our first parents could have done something so unfathomably childish and stupid — passing on to us a very raw deal in the process — a bit of reflection may be in order.
The knowledge for which Adam and Eve gave up their first-class, clothing-optional accommodations was, as we know, the gateway to every other sin. At the moment the fruit touched their perfect lips, the tree itself may as well have exploded, splintering into fragments from which grew a countless multitude of other trees, each representing the many sins into which the children of our first parents are subsequently tempted. Each of us has our own garden to tend, given to us at baptism in the form of a soul cleansed of sin and branded with the indelible character imprinted by that august sacrament of initiation into the Christian life. And our spiritual garden, like any temporal one, has its share of pests. The serpent is ever at our ear, whispering seductively that this fruit or that fruit can’t really be so bad; that God is simply being petty by forbidding us a taste.
Part of the mystery of the Christian life is this inescapable dance with the Devil. Sometimes we refuse the fruit, sometimes we take just a nibble, and other times we feast at our own particular trees, lustfully tearing at the flesh of the forbidden until its juices run bittersweet and sticky down our chins, our hands stained scarlet not only with our own guilt, but the only blood that can wash us clean.
Why God allows this drama to go on is beyond our comprehension. We fall, we rise, and we fall again. Why the paradigms of His creation – the first man and woman and even the highest of the angels – were also the first and hardest to fall is yet another perplexing piece in the puzzle of free will. It would seem that God’s most perfect creatures would be the most resistant to sin, not the most prone to stumble into it. Is our freedom so radical that the closer to the ideal we find ourselves, the more danger we are in of losing it all?
Further deepening the mystery is the way in which our Heavenly Father used our proclivity to evil to draw us even closer to Himself. We see this in that famous exclamation from the Exsultet: “O happy fault, that merited such and so great a Redeemer!” Because of Adam’s sin, God becomes Man in the person of Christ, and so offers our humanity a share in His Divinity. And it’s a good thing, too, because we would otherwise be confounded by the utter hopelessness of our human predicament.
It might seem cynical, but a part of me wonders if God in some sense designed us to fail, if only to assure us that despite our freedom to choose not to love Him, we would find ourselves completely dependent upon Him if we wish to live a life with any real happiness. To strive for goodness and virtue with God’s grace seems often enough to be a Sisyphean task; without God’s grace, it is an impossibility.
In a prayer I have come to appreciate deeply, St. Augustine expresses the utter dismay a Christian feels when confronted with his own implacable sinfulness:
Before Thy eyes, O Lord, we bring our offenses, and we compare them with the stripes we have received.
If we consider the evil we have wrought, what we suffer is little, what we deserve is great.
What we have committed is very grave, what we have suffered is very slight.
We feel the punishment of sin, yet withdraw not from the obstinacy of sinning.
Under Thy lash our inconstancy is visited, but our sinfulness is not changed.
Our suffering soul is tormented, but our neck is not bent.
Our life groans under sorrow, yet mends not in deed.
If Thou spare us we correct not our ways: If Thou punish we cannot endure it.
In time of correction we confess our wrong-doing: after Thy visitation we forget that we have wept.
If Thou stretchest forth Thy hand we promise amendment; if Thou withholdest the sword we keep not our promise.
If Thou strikest we cry out for mercy: if Thou sparest we again provoke Thee to strike.
Here we are before Thee, O Lord, shameless criminals: we know that unless Thou pardon we shall deservedly perish.
Grant then, almighty Father, without our deserving it, the pardon we ask for; Thou who madest out of nothing those who ask Thee. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
As a young man, I had always believed that as a man grows, so grew his strength, his wisdom, and his virtue. But I have found the opposite to be true. I am more frail, more foolish, and more prone to viciousness as the years wear on. The youthful zeal which once shielded me from sin and set me ablaze with love for God has tarnished and worn thin under the tedium and trials of life, and temptations assail me against which I seem to have no innate defense. The saving grace in my inescapable weakness is that God has, in His mercy, allowed me to become aware of it.
There is a dangerous pride inherent in the belief that one is living virtuously and with little effort. As a younger man, I would at times look at the Cross and wonder, “Did I really help to put Him there?” I was scrupulous about avoiding sin and committed to the defense of a faith I never questioned. There came a point where I knew this error was preventing me from further progress, and I made it my prayer, “Lord, help me to understand my sinfulness. Help me to see why You had to die for me.”
Anyone who has ever asked God for a hard thing knows the truth of this: we must be careful what we ask for. Some virtues are only won when a soul emerges from a crucible. Growth without pain is a fantasy.
My old professor Dr. Regis Martin was fond of saying, “The real saints are the last people in the neighborhood to know that.” Which is perhaps why he once joked to the class, “When I read Lives of the Saints, I wonder, ‘Does it have to be so difficult?’ Why can’t there be a weekend seminar on how to be a saint, you die on Monday morning and are canonized that afternoon?”
At the time, as a college student, I saw the humor in his observation. As a husband and father trying to claw my way toward heaven, I see the longing in it. To become a saint is harder than I could ever have conceived it would be. The sheer exhaustion from the battle is enough to make many men give up and retreat from the difficult road. I’ve certainly considered it. So much fruit in the garden. So many appetites. Such a long, arduous path through the narrow gate.
But if God made us with deficiencies, there is one that perhaps is more important than any other: we are insatiable. Every pleasure sought after in this life, every glittering sin, leaves us feeling as though we had taken a bite of the most delectable food, only to find we are chewing a mouthful of ash and dust.
Returning again to the famous words of Augustine, we see it stated simply: “Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”
I find that in matters of the soul, the words of the priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins echo my own struggle:
THEE, God, I come from, to thee go,
All day long I like fountain flow
From thy hand out, swayed about
Mote-like in thy mighty glow.
What I know of thee I bless,
As acknowledging thy stress
On my being and as seeing
Something of thy holiness.
Once I turned from thee and hid,
Bound on what thou hadst forbid;
Sow the wind I would; I sinned:
I repent of what I did.
Bad I am, but yet thy child.
Father, be thou reconciled.
Spare thou me, since I see
With thy might that thou art mild.
I have life before me still
And thy purpose to fulfil;
Yea a debt to pay thee yet:
Help me, sir, and so I will.
This article originally appeared at SteveSkojec.com.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.