For my first post for our year with Francis de Sales, I was drawn to a section at the beginning of Introduction to the Devout Life. Addressing the reader as Philothea, which refers to “a soul in love with God,” he discusses venial, i.e. “small” sins.
We don’t need to freak out about relatively minor sins; if you snicker at an inappropriate joke on television, it’s not the end of the world. However. Francis points out that there is a danger in getting attached to these small sins. If we adopt an attitude of “Aw, that’s not a big deal — in fact, it’s kina fun!” and indulge this kind of behavior repeatedly, the results can be dire. He points out that all sin hurts God, and therefore affection we have for venial sin is therefore an affection for hurting God. Which is not a good thing. He writes:
Venial sins that enter into a devout soul but do not stay there long do it no great damage, but if those same sins remain in the soul because of some affection it has for them, they undoubtedly cause it to lose “the sweetness of its ointment,” that is, holy devotion.
He goes on to use a great analogy. Borrowing from the 16th-century folk wisdom (which may not be scientifically accurate) about the effects of spiders on honey, he says:
Spiders do not kill bees but spoil and corrupt their honey and tangle the honeycombs with their webs so that the bees cannot do their work. This must be understood of times when the spiders stay among them. In like manner, venial sins do not kill the soul but spoil its devotion and so entangle its powers in bad habits. […]
Philothea, it is not a matter of any great moment to tell a little lie or to fall into some slight irregularity in words, actions, looks, dress, jokes, games, or dances, provided that as soon as these spiritual spiders have entered our conscience we chase them away and banish them, as flies do real spiders. If we let them remain in our hearts, if we permit our desires to retain and multiply them, we shall soon find our honey ruined and the hive that is our conscience corrupted and ruined.
Here’s what I thought was interesting about this: When I’m struggling with a serious sin, I tend to focus on it and nothing else. My other, smaller, sins seem unimportant in comparison, so I basically ignore them. But a lightbulb that went off for me after reading this excerpt. I realized that I’d instituted a vicious cycle that was dragging me down spiritually: by ignoring the small sins in the name of focusing on the bigger ones, I was letting spiders into my honeycomb, so to speak. Though they weren’t bad enough to kill my soul, they were making a huge mess of it, just as I was trying to get spiritually healthy. They were fueling the negative desires that were behind the bigger sins.
As with all of Francis’ advice, it’s aimed at loving God with all your heart. As he pointed out in the first excerpt, to snicker at any sin is to snicker at an insult to God. So when I catch myself giving myself a pass — or even smiling in tacit approval — at some “little” sin, I often think of Francis’ words. If I want to conquer big sins, or even just live the full, rich life that God designed me to live, I’m not going to be able to do it until I banish the “spiders” of my soul.