Saint Nikodimos the Athonite
Let’s consider those sins which are often called ‘venial’ because they aren’t mortal but which nevertheless involve a share of responsibility. We sometimes fall into them from inattention or ignorance, but at other times it may be from feebleness or weakness of will. We might also do so consciously, in full knowledge and cognizance. In the last case, there’s a greater weight of responsibility.
A sin is considered to be light when it’s compared to mortal sin. But it isn’t minor when we see it for what it is, in isolation. For example, a lake might be called small if it’s compared to a large sea. But in itself it isn’t so small, because it holds a great deal of water. So it’s only when held against a mortal sin that a venial sin can be considered minor.
But even in itself, it’s still a great evil. This is because a major and a minor sin are both, equally, a breach of divine law, as Saint John the Evangelist tells us: ‘Everyone who commits a sin breaks the law; for sin is a breach of the law’ (1 Jn. 3, 4). And as Saint James, the Brother of the Lord, says: ‘For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it’ (2, 10).
So, my beloved friends, how can we can we count as ‘minor’ our common sins, such as white lies, anger, lack of seriousness in church, sadness and jealousy over our neighbor’s good fortune, idle talk, excessive joking, teasing and laughing, satisfying the stomach, adorning the body and so much else? How can we reckon them to be minor transgressions, when we’d be horrified if we knew their real gravity. Don’t let’s pretend that, by committing them, we aren’t going against the will of God and that we’re not losing the divine glory of the kingdom of heaven.
We’re fooling ourselves if, for example, we believe that idle talk is an excusable sin which doesn’t displease God, when we have his clear message: ‘But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned’ (Matth. 12, 36-37).
Or how can we say we’re not opposing God’s will with our immoderate laughter when the Lord warns us: ‘Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep’? Basil the Great ordered that if a monk or nun ‘either speaks jokingly or laughs improperly, let them be excluded from communion for a week’?
How can we say that lies and gluttony aren’t contrary to God’s will when the Lord himself says: ‘you will destroy all those who speak lies’ (Ps. 5, 7); and ‘woe to you who are satisfied now, for you will go hungry’ (Luke 6, 25)?
And how can we speak generally, how can we say that minor sins don’t deprive us of virtue and of God’s grace, when the Holy Spirit says allegorically through the mouth of Ecclesiastes: ‘dead flies give perfume a bad smell’ (10, 1). The Fathers interpret this in the following way: when flies fly over a perfumed ointment, without touching the surface, they don’t alter it. But if they land, sink and die, they make it stink and it loses its perfume. In the same way, if minor sins don’t dwell within a devout and virtuous soul, they don’t cause much by way of harm. But if they remain there, the soul begins to allow its will to be bent to theirs, in which case they deprive it of the purity of virtue and the perfume of divine grace, thus preventing it from reaching perfection. These sins make the soul abominable to God. Because if ‘an unrighteous thought is an abomination to the Lord’ (Prov. 15, 26), and if ‘deceitful thoughts separate us from God’ (Wisdom, 1, 3) how much further separated from the love of God is the wretched soul which sins?
So we should avoid sins which we consider minor. Because if, on the one hand, we wish to please God, but fall into venial sins which are so loathed by God, it’s as if we’re trying to unite heaven and hell, light and darkness, water and fire, and sanctity with wickedness. No matter how small such sins may seem, they are particularly grave, since they’re an affront to our holy God. Because the worst wickedness that has to do with created things is incomparably smaller than that which has to do with the Creator.
So let’s be ashamed, then, if we’ve supinely accepted into our hearts that which we know is not what God wants. Let’s turn the heedlessness that we’ve shown so far into a thousand-fold greater vigilance in the observance of his commandments. Let’s take the decision not merely to avoid such minor transgressions, but to root out from our heart even the proclivity towards entertaining them. And if, by the weakness of our nature or our will, we do, in fact, fall, let’s not allow our heart to feel any attraction to them. Instead, we should quickly hate them, repent, confess and entreat God to strengthen us with his grace so that we don’t fall again.
Let’s consider now the multitude of woes which these ‘minor’ sins visit upon our soul. In the same way that an illness which may not be very serious can still weaken the body, so these venial sins damage the soul and deprive it of its good intentions. Every sin, no matter how small, separates us from Christ, as the prophet says: ‘Your iniquities separate you from God’ (Is. 59, 2). Even a small, excusable sin cools our ardor, numbs our fervor, stifles our contrition, dries up our tears, stunts our repentance and hinders God’s grace from visiting us. But what’s worst in all this is that, from these minor sins, we may quickly progress to greater, deadly ones which can destroy people utterly. In the first place because they weaken the good habits of the soul; secondly because they prevent God from fortifying and strengthening us; and thirdly because they accustom our will to lean towards wickedness.
Let’s now see how these minor sins lead to greater ones.
It might seem of little significance to us, for example, if we admire a comely face. But let’s consider the sins that may be engendered by this. Taking notice of a beautiful face may be a stimulus; the stimulus may beget thoughts of pleasure; these thoughts may lead to consent; consent to a fall; a fall to repetition; repetition to habit; habit to need; need to despair; and despair to punishment. Do you see, from this one, small example, what a long chain of sins is engendered by something you called minor? If you disregard the minor sins, you’ll fall into greater ones, as the Holy Spirit says in the Wisdom of Sirach: ‘those who despise small things, will fall little by little’.
(Excerpts from Spiritual Exercises)