by Fr. Jonathan Atchley
Recently, I wrote a jingle to entertain a friend, but it got me thinking: why indeed are we often like porcupines when it comes to living charitably with one another? Why do so many marriages end in divorce and why do so many family members or disillusioned friends stop talking to one another over the years? If you cannot personally relate to what I’m saying, you are blessed.
Mr. And Mrs. Porcupine
Are presently having a rough time.
For when affection draws them near,
Unwitting, each quills the other’s rear!
She’s now impatient with her mate
Who can’t figure out the right way to date.
And he, now smarting from her pride,
No longer feels so close to his bride.
So, do you think we should pool together,
And buy them suits of hardened leather?
Or rub down their sharpened quills,
To reduce such relational ills?
But then they’d not be the same--
Mr. and Mrs. What’s Their Name.
Why are we like this? The truth goes all the way back to two separate but related Catholic dogmas: Free Will and Original Sin. Because of the former we have the latter. Free will is nothing other than the natural capacity of humans to choose good or evil. On free will, Augustine wrote “we assert both that God knows all things before they come to pass, and that we do by our free will whatsoever we know and feel to be done by us only because we will it." For Aquinas, free will is the rational capacity to choose, though it is tempered by our passionate nature, which mixes truth with feelings, emotions and moods. To be sure, we’re a curious lot as rational animals—part soul made in God’s image, part body made from the clay of earth.
Sometimes we will confuse the greater needs of others for our subjective truth, which happens to be what we want and insist on at the moment. Hence Original Sin: Adam and Eve had the capacity to accept or reject God’s will. Choosing their own over the greater good that God commanded brought about the fall of our nature, which the Lord Jesus later took on to rectify and redeem. Our pitiable condition is that in this life, we continue to strive against even ourselves (Romans 7:15-20):
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”
If only we would embrace God’s will as our own, living in accord with his expectations and ordinances rather than indulge our personal, passing whims, we’d be so much better off—though Scriptures attests that even this can be too much for our passional, fallen natures. When I hear how family members no longer talk to one another, how easily married couples become estranged, how former friends become mortal enemies, I realize is it sin living in us, that is, the effects of Original Sin which brings about our darkened intellects, weakened wills and disordered passions. To live for oneself isn’t necessarily a bad thing because without self-interests one would not engage survival instincts. But it is incontestable that people tend to live more for themselves rather than their loved ones, more so it seems, with those to whom we have been closest. Would that where sin abounds grace would more abound! (Romans 5:20).
Our Lord gave us the example of what salvation from this miserable condition consists: “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). Yes, it takes herculean efforts to quell the clamoring of one’s psyche which constantly strives to be number one, but with God all things are possible. That one would even want to make Christian charity a rule rather than self-indulgence is rare, and we see the opposite, deleterious effects when society embraces half truths, ready lies and political graft--even the innocent will be punished for doing good. But Jesus promised that if we seek first God’s kingdom, that is, his will, all other goods would fall into place--a lesson for us Porcupines of the world to live humble lives of self-abnegation in Christian charity, looking to the needs, rather than the needles, of one another.