Michael Whelan, "All My Sins Remembered"


You are in prison and I am in prison. I know, Lord, that you are in your prison for my sake and that you remain in yours only because I remain in mine. Both of them belong together; both are one and the same dungeon. If you could succeed in freeing me from my confinement, you too would be free. The dividing wall between us would topple and we would both enjoy the same freedom. I, too, could perhaps free you by freeing myself, and in this case as well we would both be freed. But that’s just it! This is precisely what you can’t do and what I myself can’t do.

I know your secret; you want to share my destiny. But I am deeply buried within myself and I cannot burst open the gates to this hell. You thought it would be easier for two, and you offered to help me. You buried yourself in my cave. But, because my solitude is lonely, yours also became lonely. And now we wait one for the other, separated by this wall. I well know that the fault lies with me, and not at all with you. You have done everything that was possible. You have suffered, made atonement in my place, paid for everything in advance down to the last drop. But there is one thing you can’t do, and this is something I can’t do either. I should…but I cannot. I should want to, but I don’t. I wish I could want to, but I don’t want to want to. How do things stand then? How can this be? I don’t understand it. They say you blotted out sin and made atonement for it. They say you effaced sin, not just covered it over, and that henceforth it no longer exists in the eyes of God. And yet sin is precisely this: that I do not want what God wants. And I can’t see how this opposition on my part could be broken. I can’t see how this prison wall which holds me captive could be pierced through.

Do you know what I mean, Lord? It isn’t easy to explain this to you. For I myself don’t know exactly how it occurs, how all of this fits together. When I reflect upon it, it’s like knotted briars and my soul gets trapped in them. My soul is like the young lamb that wandered off among the thorns. I’ll try to tell you how it happened.

At first everything is simple. I see that I cannot do what I would like to do. Too, I know precisely what I ought to do. You’ve often told me yourself, the priest has often told me, I have told myself. This, then, is not what’s lacking. The will is lacking: the being able to want. There is a will in me that wants, and there is another will in me (the same one!) that does not want. “What I do is incomprehensible to me, for I do not do what I want—the good—but I accomplish what I abhor—the evil. Willing good matters to me, but not accomplishing it. Precisely what I want, I do not do—the good—but I do what I do not want—the evil. The interior man indeed takes joy in God’s law, but I am aware of another law in my members that wars against the law of my spirit and hold me imprisoned under the law of sin which reigns in my members. Unhappy man that I am! Who will redeem me from this death-bearing body?” Thus it is that I am rent apart in my innermost will, and the same thing in me that wants is precisely what does not want. And this is why I cry out to you from the depths of my Prison of Unwilling: Make me want!

But ought one to pray thus? To be sure, you can give everything: every relief, every grace. But I myself must want and take the decisive step. I lie upon my bed of pleasure and this pleasure disgusts me, and I would like to break loose and stand up. And the only thing lacking is the decision, the action that really effects it. Can I say to the friend who stands near me and wants to help me: “Give me the decision”? He can point out reasons; give me food to strengthen me, reach out his hand. But how should he be able to provide me with the indivisible atom of freedom, that flash of real willing? From nowhere except myself can this deed come to birth. But I do not want to. For I love my pleasure; this bitterness is sweet to me, and I cannot make up my mind to renounce it. And if I should force myself to do this externally and put myself in fetters externally, my soul would not for all that have turned away from bitter pleasure-seeking. If I went without sinning for awhile, it was only because my soul lacked convenient opportunities.

Often it seems indecent for me to be incessantly accosting you with requests that are not seriously meant. While one of my folded hands entreats you: “Deliver me from evil!”, the other one is moaning: “Spare me and let me yet have the evil I love!” Request on request ascends to you and none of them is solid and true. While I speak, another voice speaks right along, like a demonic echo: “Your Kingdom come—my kingdom come.” Your will be done—my will be done.” “Give me your daily bread—let me have my daily bread.” If I were a saint, then my voice would perhaps grow silent and I could love you with my whole heart and fulfill your law with a perfect will. But I am one of the half-and-halves, and just as my will is only one-half, so too my prayer. Therefore, I greatly fear you cannot fulfill it, and that you will turn away from me just as you spew out the lukewarm.

And now I come to what is even worse, and here the tangle becomes impossible. If I can’t do the whole thing at once, I should at least be able to do it little by little. You would like to see me make progress, slowly gaining my strength back and returning to health. The small steps I have made could, in place of a sudden change, bring me gradually closer to the goal. But this is not what’s happening. It seems to me that the opposite is rather the case. When I was young and my body was developing, I believed in progress in the spirit. A dream of Paradise haunted me, and I am not sure whether as a past or a future reality. And image hovered before me, enticing and spell-binding. How I was to reach it I did not know. This was not important to me, for I believed that all my ways led towards it, even the crooked ones, and unexpectedly it could be reached some distant day. It was a mirage in the desert. Gradually the pace of life began to stagnate and become a walking in place. The beautiful image over me faded and blurred. It transformed itself into a star and an ideal whose unreachableness constitutes a part of its beauty—like a sunken city which on calm days ca be seen under the skiff. But slime and algae constantly settle on it like a veil, and son all we’ll be able to make out will be a few dark, shapeless masses. Everything was thriving as luxuriantly as Sleeping Beauty’s castle. I began to look at my ideal as one of those ruses of life which make hopelessness more bearable for the unsavlageably mediocre person. From that time on, despair barely conceded began to descend upon my heart. I understood that I would never reach it. I weighed myself and found myself too light. I measured how deeply sin had struck its roots in me and I saw clearly that I would never succeed in uprooting it. I would have needed a native generosity, energy, and excellence of spirit which I did not possess. Not one of my thoughts or deeds was free of the scurf of my pettiness, of my shopkeeper’s soul. To me nothing was so irrefutable as my essential small-mindedness, which compelled me to set up limits everywhere.

With these limits I stumbled on you, the unconditional one, and here everything now became dreadful. I felt your infiniteness; I knew you could not forbear provoking me to total self-surrender, to the leap into your glorious light. But as your adversary there stood, bright as day, the inadequacy of my nature. The more your grace tried to remove my burden, to carry me in its arms across the river, the heavier and stiffer I made myself. I knew you could not succeed. You could, to be sure, forgive my sin over and over again; for a brief moment you could hold me high in the pure reaches of the sun. But my gravity strained inexorably downwards again. Thus it was that the prison grew up all around me. Externally I put on an appearance of careless mirth and experienced resignation; within, however, in the deep cavern of despair, there swarms a putrid rabble that hates the light; wasted opportunities, rejected graces, invincible dejection—the smell of putrifaction. Things went so far that the merest glimmer of a new challenge from you sufficed to elicit the crass No of my unwilling. Better to call it quits altogether than to continue on this disgraceful blunderer’s course. And if you were to try to burst inside I would resist you with clairvoyant despair. The mask and my face have inter-grown. I was a Christian: I believed it all, did like the others; but I was no longer redeemable. Of, if I still was, then only in the pitiful sense that I was awaiting in the distant beyond the fire which consumes prisons that in this world are definitive and which releases stiff limbs from their armor. I came to regret the fact of ever having met you.

I was entangled in lies. When I said to myself “I can,” “I will,” a hundred experiences had taught me that it was not so. The clay does not suffice for the statue intended to form with me. But when I said to myself “I cannot”, “I will not,” this was a sin, for I gave you the lie. I held two yardsticks in my hand, both of them correct, both of them well-gauged; but they have contradicted each other. And I often thought that pagans have a better time of it than Christians, because they may at least remain naively within themselves and perfect themselves without temptations. As for Christians, however, apart from those few chosen ones whom you simply snatch up with violence and transfer into your world, the rest remain crucified in a pitiful sort of middle state and they are neither earthly nor heavenly.

At last I believed I understood. It cannot be otherwise, for all creatures are finite, they have their measure and their limits. And when this finitude encounters infinite love and its demands, it cannot but turn of itself into a prison. There is in finite beings a fear of being burst asunder by God, and this is why they close themselves off when approached. It is a pious error to think that we long for the infinite and for a liberation from our bonds. Experience contradicts this. Far from accepting from God the measure of infinity, we actually impose on him the measure of our finitude. Step by step we defend our ground with armed violence. We lay down our peace offer: Thus far am I willing to go, this much am I prepared to concede to you. Be satisfied with it and do not trespass my bounds. You would only crush me utterly. You would overwind the spring of the clock. You must complete from the storehouses of your infinity what I lack. Thus far will I go: lure me no further! Know that the measure by which I judge myself is this definite “scale of perfections” which I have devised for myself, drawing on your clearly expressed prohibitions and supplementing these with a definite number of voluntary works of love. And I have set my will on the firm keeping of this principle: intentionally to pretend not to hear your unclear and amorphous call to the undefined which is above and beyond. Since I am only one member of your Church, it is sensible for you to expect only a part from men, and not the whole. It is up to you to build the totality of the City of God, using the many fragments of individuals! All human perfections does, indeed, lie in measure.

Finally, you yourself have created me to exist within a prison, the prison of this my ego. In it I live, move and have my being. And I love this ego, “for no one hates his own flesh.” This space is familiar to me: my thought illumines it; my senses crowd it with the world’s concerns; my will expands it widely. In this monad the universe is irretrievably reflected. Only within this interior space can I know the world, or even you: everything must be measured according to its standards. Just as the eye can see only colors and the ear can hear only sounds, so, too, I can know anything whatever only in its relationship to myself. Even love is a law of this ego: love is its fruitfulness, its creative inclination to what is other, the transcendence which is rooted in it. Even when its yearning seems to make the ego rattle the grill around it, even this belongs to its life and it makes the ego’s existence richer and more love-worthy. This self, O God, is the highest and only gift which I received from your hand. And now you want to call it into question again, you even want to take it back from me again! But here I will certainly defend myself. No, I do not long to go outside myself! What would be the good of an ecstasy of “coalescing” with nature of with a loved person, if I could no longer experience them? How could I make you a gift of my love or offer you my ego in love if I no longer have this ego, if I am dispossessed of myself? (And just this appears to be the secret goal of all your goading!) Leave me my ego and then you shall have it! This is my beloved dungeon: I yearn for no freedom! By long association I have grown fond of this prison-house of my sufferings with all its shortcomings and all its heavy burden. When nature demands it, take my body from me (you will, in any case, return it to me in beauty)—just do not rob me of my soul! You cannot exact the impossible feat that I should migrate out of myself, that I should become a stranger to myself and at midnight, like a thief, climb out of my own window—out into a certain death! Do not, my Father, draw out your knife over me! “We do not want to be stripped down, but clothed over, that what is mortal may pass over into life!” If you tear my shells apart, like an oyster’s, I shall be destroyed!

MY SON, between midnight and morning frost, when they dragged me to the second trial, I sojourned in your prison. I sat fettered to a tent-peg—lonely, beaten, disgraced—and I thought of you and of the rising day. I have tasted your prison; nothing of its bittersweet smell of decay was spared me. I have wandered through even the deepest chamber of all the prisons of all those who, in despair, have struggled against God’s freedom. Down below in the lowest part of you, in the lightless disgrace of your impotence and your refusal, there have I chosen my abode. As a small root cracks the heaviest stones apart, so have I softly caused your prison walls to waver. You are still holding out against my love with the strength of your despair; but your arm is already beginning to flinch. Little by little you are yielding to my pressure.

I will not betray to you the secret by virtue of which I overcame your despair. Fatigued from his spiteful tears, the child finally falls asleep. By the following morning he has already forgotten his resistance and his disconsolate anguish. There is great magic in such extinguished memory: a new leaf is turned, a new chapter begins. Whether or not you are able is not the question at the moment. The whole point is that I have been able. When alone and locked up in yourself you brooded over your profound failure, you were strangely at variance within yourself: you were divided within yourself. Your unity—in that melancholy embrace of desire and regret—was mere illusion. Quietly, without your noticing it, I have cleaved you open and thus given you unity.

You no longer think of progress, and this is good. You would only have made progress towards yourself. Your steps would never have gone really ahead. But now leave your brooding aside. Let the dead bury what is dead. Turn your glance away from the misery of your fetters and fix it—a long, lingering glance—upon my misery. You will see what you did not want to believe. Your prison has become my prison and my freedom your freedom. Do not ask how this happened; but rejoice and give thanks. Even a corpse does not rot forever. It decomposes; water and worms carry of its stuff, and when the years have passed, in its place there lies a wholesome and fertile patch of earth. You are finite—that is true—and this is why your resistance is also finite, and finally I will bring you to terms. The tough pods fall to the ground like the protective leaves around blossoms. The armor bursts open and out crawls a butterfly. Blind and unconscious it clings to the edge of a leaf, while blood expands the lobes of its wings. When it feels they have become rigid and lustrous, without reflecting, automatically as it were, it leaves the stalk and begins its flight.

And what you have said about yourself is folly. You would not be my creature if you had not been created open. All love strives to go out of itself into the immeasurable spaces of freedom. It seeks adventure and, in so doing, forgets itself. I do not say that you were able to free yourself, for it was for this that I have come. Nor am I saying that love’s freedom lay contained within yourself, for I have given it to you. The Father has drawn you to me.

You are free. The angel nudged you on the side, the clamps fell from your wrists, the gate flew open on its own, and the two of you floated out past the sleeping guards until you reached freedom. You still think it was a dream. Rub the sleep out of your eyes. You are free to go wherever you please.

But look: many of your brothers are still languishing in prison. Are you going to enjoy your freedom while they suffer? Or do you want to help me loosen their shackles, and together with me to share their prison?