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Sin has gotten awfully complicated: cataloging bad acts is easier than acknowledging patterns of failure.

In one of my earliest confessions, I recited a short list of unkindnesses and undone chores. "Is that all?" asked the voice in the darkness. Terrified, I thought a minute, then said, "Yes, Father."

"Have you lied?" came the voice, lingering in a menacing way on the beginning of the word "lied" before lifting it into a question.

"No, Father," I said immediately, righteous indignation cutting the fear in half.

"ARE YOU LYING NOW?" he thundered (at least it seemed like thunder to me, although in retrospect I think his voice probably remained within the short decibel range appropriate to the old-style curtained confessional).

"No, Father!" I exclaimed, hurt to the quick. He was the first adult to mistrust my word, this man of God behind the curtain, and it stung.

I grew up. My mental checklist of sins changed, their drama fluctuating with each age. But in recent years, the examination of conscience has become a dull exercise. I'm happily married, so the really interesting sins don't tempt me. Greed doesn't seem unusual. The guilt of capitalism and material striving is as familiar as an achy old tooth one refuses to have pulled.

If I am honest with myself ("ARE YOU LYING NOW?"), I admit that my worldview has also shifted. I've moved from the relatively clear-cut cataloging of sin and repentance to a more intricate, subjective world in which one strives to be connected to God and the world and God in the world. The point is to treat creation, other people, the sacred and oneself with reverence. Such a broad and fuzzy goal opens a million opportunities a day for failure--ruptured relationships, cavalier disregard for others' dignity, letting fear crowd out trust.

Such sins are hard to summarize.

And in all honesty, the imperative I feel is not to recite them, repent of them and get them erased. The imperative is to repair the rupture or damage as quickly as possible. And my biggest obstacle is not Satanic temptation; it's not having enough compassion, imagination, energy and mindfulness to notice the failures in the first place.

This is not to trivialize the old sins--the seven deadlies, missed commandments and false idols. If you look closely, such sins also stem from irreverence; they ignore or demean human nature; they break or dishonor connections.

But in the old way of thinking about them, the ego stays at the center: Mea culpa, mea culpa, one beats one's breast and repents one's badness and begs God's forgiveness. When relationship and reverence are the goals, the ego has already taken a back seat. It is the bond that matters.

Vatican II raised our consciousness, shifting the sacrament of Reconciliation so that it was a restoration of relationship. But while I loved and appreciated the new way of thinking about sin, I realize now that I didn't integrate it with the old model. It was easier to use the new rhetoric but keep the old framework, looking for specific bad acts I could voice and feel better. For years, I coasted, sometimes smug, sometimes wary, remorseful, vaguely uneasy, I still didn't have the right words to express, even to myself, patterns of diffidence or hardheartedness that showed up--not in isolated bad acts, but in attitudes of indifference, scorn or disregard that sometimes took me years to acknowledge.

Sin's gotten awfully complicated. And that mean old priest has gotten the last laugh. Because if he asked me today, "Are you lying?" I would have to say, "Maybe. To myself."

Jeannette Cooperman is a freelance writer living in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is
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Title Annotation:Mea culpa
Author:Cooperman, Jeannette
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 12, 2004
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