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The mess I’m in


Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

– Ash Wednesday by T.S. Eliot

LENT starts on Wednesday and every year I greet it unwillingly. It’s the self-disgust, facing the filth, that I can’t stand. Ludwig Wittgenstein said: ‘Most men think of themselves as half-decent. The religious man knows he is wretched.’

I am religious. I don’t mean by this that I’m good, for it is my religious sense which convinces me that I’m not good. I think the word I’m looking for is bad.

I confess I have doubted Christ’s Incarnation, his miracles, his Resurrection and Ascension, but there is one Christian doctrine which is impossible to doubt. I mean the doctrine of Original Sin. This is where all the intellectuals and other enlightened folk jump on me and tell me that I shouldn’t believe such a wicked, ancient, primitive, stupid and downright nasty notion as Original Sin, Good God – it might even undermine all that self-esteem we’re supposed to have!

I must say something by way of explanation.

Original Sin has nothing to do with a garden, a first bloke and a first lass, a snake in the grass, an apple and a bit of the other. Original Sin is not an infection we catch, as if it were Covid. The Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles explain, in words that even intellectuals ought to be able to understand, what Original Sin is and what it isn’t: ‘Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam, but it is the fault and corruption of every man’ – Article IX.

What is this fault and corruption exactly? We do not lack for an answer – St Paul tells it straight and again in words of one syllable: ‘The thing I would not, that I do; and what I would, I do not’ (Romans 7:15).

That is my predicament. This is the mess I’m in. I can’t control my own will. I should like to love God, but I don’t. Instead, I arrogantly seek self-sufficiency – which vanishes with the first stab of toothache. I doubt God’s existence five times a day. I look around me and I doubt his goodness. I look at the Christian faith into which I was baptised, confirmed and ordained and wonder if it’s all an elaborate fiction: a vast, moth-eaten, musical brocade created to pretend we never die. Yes, I can be a miseryguts as surly and peevish as Philip Larkin any time.

Then the Christian faith – which I laughably persist in calling my faith – tells me to love my neighbour. That’s another laugh. I don’t love my neighbour. I prefer myself. My first thought is I and what do I want, where do I want to go? I know I should be objective towards myself and subjective towards others. But no, I’m subjective towards myself and objective towards others. I have to try to stop myself regarding others as somehow there for my convenience. I must stop thinking of people as objects. But I don’t.

Put bluntly, I lack charity.

I also lack brotherly love.

I lack patience and perseverance.

I’m slack and indifferent in my prayers. This is particularly self-destructive – because it is prayer that provides a sense of perspective. Without perspective I become unruly, ill-disciplined, subject to every whim that comes along.

I’m lazy. I take short cuts and the easy way out.

But I’m not clever enough not to take pride in my cleverness.

I’m conceited.

I’m self-indulgent with food and drink. So long and so effortlessly have I been self-indulgent in these things that I’m surprised to find I’m still here to tell the tale.

I have lascivious thoughts.

I seek endless diversions and receive the reward of these things: frustration and boredom. So that, as Georges Bernanos said: ‘I’ve worn everything threadbare – even sin.’

And, of course, I’m tempted to think that my faculty for self-awareness proves I’m holier than thou! Or else I use that awareness to wallow in my sinfulness, to glory in my shame, to boast that, if not holier than thou, I’m more sinful than thou. But that’s just one more sickening example of the sin of pride.

I’m a mess.

So what does my Christian faith, which I paddle around in all lukewarm, have to say about this? It makes things worse, for it confirms my own suspicions that I can’t help myself become better. I can’t pull myself up by my own bootstraps. I must apologise, repent then. But here I’m in the same boat as Eliot: I don’t even want to repent.

My Christian faith tells me not to fret. It’s all right. I am saved by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross: ‘But God commendeth his love toward us that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’ – Romans 5:8

It’s a tall story. You can take it or leave it. But there’s nothing else.

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still

Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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