I am the worst of sinners

Indeed, I am.

When I first learned that this admission of the apostle Paul was also a regular prayer of Orthodox believers, I was puzzled – for we do not say this about ourselves in the western Church.

Perhaps we should.

However, my initial reaction was, “How can everyone in the congregation say this and truly mean it?”

First of all, it is not possible that each of them can be the worst. Only one of a group can be the worst (or the best) with anything, if the grammar of the superlative is kept true.

But furthermore, it would seem unlikely, looking upon the grievous sins committed in the world, that the very worst of sinners would be in attendance at a particular church. If I were Orthodox, I thought at the time of this first encounter, I could not say this prayer. I am a sinner without a doubt, but I could not honestly claim to be the worst of sinners.

However, now, though I remain a Catholic, I can say it quite truly. I am the worst of sinners.

It is hard to explain how I know this and I admit quite honestly that much of the time I do not feel it is true. Much of the time I think that I am not so bad or even better than most. But that is what the enemy wants me to believe. When I am thinking this way, he has the upper hand.

Some time ago, I cannot remember when, God pulled aside a curtain for me – just for a moment. I recall that I was in church during the celebration of the Eucharist. Just for a moment, I was given a glimpse of what was behind the curtain of my soul – behind my delusion of “good person”.

In a word, I was horrified.

Such a glimpse can never be adequately described in words, but it was as though I saw the tremendous goodness of God in all that He had given and done for me – and simultaneously, how I had twisted it all for self-gratification and self-glorification. I could see in that moment how even my seeming “good” deeds were mockeries of His goodness.

Although it was a relief when the curtain was let back down, I have sometimes wished to have another glimpse. It is too easy for me to forget how deep is the disease that afflicts my soul and how good is the God who has come to save me.

While there are many other people who have done bad deeds, their sins are of no consequence to me in light of this vision. I cannot see what they have been given or know what their choices were.

There is only one sinner in my world and it is me.

I am the worst of sinners. Please forgive me, my brothers and sisters.

May God have mercy on me.

4 thoughts on “I am the worst of sinners

  1. albert

    The whole reflection was helpful, Mary, and this puts it all together: “I cannot see what they have been given or know what their choices were.There is only one sinner in my world and it is me.”

    I still have trouble, however, hearing others announce their general “worst of all” condition and asking forgiveness. It doesn’t sound right because the extent of separation from God is not visible. The first few times I saw it in print (not St.Paul’s letter; I assumed that he was talking about his “pre-Christian days), it sounded greatly exaggerated, especially since the context didn’t include or even suggest that topic. I was tempted –and fell–into unwarranted judgments about their motivation. Sins; mine, not others’. But even here, since they didn’t know about my thoughts, I couldn’t see the point of asking forgiveness either from them, or from anyone else–except of course God.

    I understand that there is a spiritual connection, even a mutual responsibility, which exists not just within a church community, and not only among all Christians, but with everyone, the whole human “family” (a faith concept, not a sociological one). And so I have hurt all those others by my acts, choices, even thoughts. But unless I am talking with someone like you, or any person at church who seems to comprehend the deeper meaning of sinfulness and forgiveness, it just plain doesn’t sound right.

    My problem, of course. But it helps to tell someone about it. Maybe it’s sort of like asking for forgivenes? (In a detailed, personal way rather than through use of a formula.)

  2. mary Post author

    Thanks, Al, for your thoughtful comment. I have not, of course, had the experience of standing in a whole crowd of people all saying this same thing. This probably makes it easier for me to encounter its truth in my being.

    I wonder if this is one of the problems that arise when a deep, genuine cry of the soul, itself a powerful thing, becomes a spiritual “formula” of sorts. When someone understands something like this in the depths of their own experience, they naturally want others to experience it as well. Hence, it may become incorporated into regular prayer where, unfortunately, it becomes something said as a matter of ritual. It thus sounds false because it probably IS false – i.e. a significant proportion of the people saying it may not have really grappled with it and felt it true.

    I am not saying this to criticize this particular prayer practice or Orthodoxy because all organized religion is replete with examples of this sort of thing. It is not unusual for people to experience major sacraments of the Church simply because they have reached a certain age. Someone who doesn’t feel ready or sure of their belief may actually have to fight to NOT go through the ritual.

    I do not know how to address these dilemmas on the level of Church. Hence, I try to keep my focus on the one sinner whose repentance is my responsibility and leave these issues to people wiser than myself.

  3. mary Post author

    Hi Cam,

    Thanks for visiting my blog. I don’t know if you have visited before, but you are welcome here. You comment is so brief that I cannot decipher the tone of it – whether you are feeling despair over being a sinner – or joy over being forgiven.

    I hope you know that forgiveness is yours for the asking, regardless of your sins. It is hard to ask for forgiveness and often hard to accept it – especially when we feel particularly unworthy. The good news is that we don’t have to be worthy.

    Some time ago a patient of mine was very ill and facing death. She was afraid of what was coming next – especially afraid of hell. She had not had any focused spiritual life and had suffered much on many levels. She didn’t think she could be forgiven.

    When I told her that all she had to do was ask, she replied, “It can’t be that easy.” (Nothing in her life had been.) I indicated that yes, it was that easy. She just needed to ask God sincerely.

    In the time before she died, she occasionally let me know that she was talking to God about things she had done in her life. Of course, I cannot know the disposition of her soul, but she left this life peacefully with those closest to her at her side, telling her they loved her.

    I cannot help but believe that she entered God’s presence, both forgiving and forgiven.

    Blessings to you on your journey.

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