instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, August 08, 2005

What will become of sinners?

In the Legend of Saint Dominic, it is recorded of him that,
So wonderfully tender-hearted was he touching the sins and miseries of men, that when he came near any city or town from where he could overlook it, he would burst into tears at the thought of the miseries of mankind, of the sins committed therein, and of the numbers who were going down into hell.
That's a wonderful mark of piety -- for a saint dead nearly eight centuries. How, though, if it were your Pentecostal neighbor, distracting your backyard nap with loud rooftop cries of, "O Lord, what will become of sinners?"

It's a paradox: holier-than-thou people who are, in fact, holier than thou. Is it possible we like them even less than holier-than-thou people who aren't?

Of course, St. Dominic himself wasn't holier-than-thou in the sense we usually mean. He did his crying and his sighing out of earshot of the sinners over whom he cried and sighed, while still on the road or at night while the other brothers were (usually) asleep.

But our Christian faith enables the fast-knit friend of Christ to worry over the fate of sinners without denying that he himself is a sinner. First, there is genuine cause to worry over their fate; damnation is a real possibility. But also, the more one turns to God, the more one is aware of how far short of human perfection one is; a true friend of Christ necessarily knows he is a sinner. On top of that, though, a true friend of Christ has a sure and certain hope of his own salvation, a hope that rests not in his own actions (that would be presumption) but on Christ's promise of eternal life. And this promise is given to everyone who comes to faith in Christ, which in principle -- and purely through the grace of God -- can be everyone to whom Christ is preached.

St. Dominic's prayer for those sinners, the ones he sees from afar, comes only after his prayer for the sinner he sees in the mirror. And the answer to his prayer for the sinner in the mirror is what both compels him to pray for the sinners far off and gives him hope that what will become of them is what will become of him, that they too will become friends of Christ and children of the Father.