The Greatest of Sinners

What you describe is not uncommon. The spiritual life entails a process of purgation, and it is in the nature of things that the ego, sensing its own eventual death, will react against this. From the ego’s point of view, as a spiritual master once told me, “It is as if there were a corpse in the next room.”

In any case, your response to these problems should be twofold: on the one hand, it is important to apologize and make amends for your actions as soon as you can after committing such an offense, thus restoring equilibrium on the horizontal plane between you and your neighbor; at the same time you should inwardly—perhaps I could say “vertically”—take stock of what has happened without becoming anxious or blaming yourself. You understand, I trust, that I’m not recommending complacency. I don’t mean to make light of your actions, which were certainly “unskillful”, as the Buddhists would say. But you need not, and should not, identify yourself with them or attach yourself to them, with the result of supposing that “I” am “bad”.

I fully realize that the formula for corporate confession in the Orthodox Liturgy includes the statement: “I am the greatest of sinners.” But it seems to me that the “I” of this phrase must be in reference to the ego as such, and not some particular ego—certainly not to the ego of the person who sincerely endeavors to make these words his own and who in doing so shows himself to be less a sinner, at least in this respect, than he might otherwise have been. It’s a curious formulation, to be sure, and it grows ever more curious the more one ponders its implications. It’s a bit like “This sentence is false”, don’t you think?

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