The Lost Sense of Sin: Filling in Catechetical Gaps with the Wisdom of the Saints (II/II)
In Part I, we looked at how gaps in catechetical instruction have led to deficiencies in the way we understand our faith, how we can learn from the Doctors of the Church, specifically what St. Teresa of Avila teaches regarding carelessness about sin. In Part II, we will see what St. Teresa of Avila says about the failure to avoid the near occasions of sin, and the danger of self-reliance.
Not Avoiding the Near Occasions of Sin
One of the most common reasons why people fail to make progress in the spiritual journey–and frequently fall back into the same sins–is their lack of wisdom about avoiding those occasions that usually lead to sin. This was true for Teresa during those many years that she “spun her wheels,” not making progress on the journey.
She alludes to some problems she was vulnerable to when she engaged in conversations with certain persons, and she expresses her frustration about being sorry but not being able to change.
Seeing my lack of amendment, I became extremely vexed about the many tears I was shedding over my faults, for neither were my resolutions nor were the hardships I suffered enough to keep me from placing myself in the occasion and falling again. They seemed fraudulent tears to me… The whole trouble lay in not getting at the root of the occasions and with my confessors who were of little help. For had they told me of the danger I was in and that I had the obligation to avoid those friendships, without a doubt I believe I would have remedied the matter. For in no way would I have endured being in mortal sin even for a day should I have understood that to be the case.
When Teresa is commenting on those who have come to the second dwelling place (mansion two) in the earlier stages of the journey, she points out that people here are still in danger of turning back and giving up because “they don’t avoid the occasions of sin.” Not avoiding people, places, or situations that weaken our resolve to avoid sin is a reason why many people don’t make progress in the spiritual life. We need to ask God for wisdom to identify those situations and avoid them as much as possible.
Teresa makes another very strong statement-virtually identical to what she said about carelessness about sin- which identifies a false understanding and attitude that very seriously blocked her progress: “Self-reliance was what destroyed me.”
One of the most common reasons why people begin the spiritual journey but then turn back is because they find themselves failing, wearing out, and getting tired or discouraged as a result of relying on their own strength rather than the Lord’s. Teresa’s testimony about how significant this problem was in causing her not to make progress is very clear, and she has advice about what to do about it.
I give you one counsel; that you don’t think that through your own strength or efforts you can arrive, for reaching this stage is beyond our power; if you try to reach it, the devotion you have will grow cold. But with simplicity and humility, which will achieve everything, say: fiat voluntas tua (your will be done). 
Teresa points out the discernible difference between the demeanor of someone who is approaching the spiritual journey primarily as a matter of one’s own effort, and that of someone approaching it as a matter primarily of trusting in the mercy of God. “When we are more determined we are less confident of ourselves, for confidence must be placed in God. When we understand this…there will be no need to go about so tense and constrained…Go about with a holy freedom.”
She urges us to trust in the blood of Christ and the mercy of God and to proceed with the spiritual journey, confident that we will make progress.
Through the blood He shed for us I ask those who have not begun to enter within themselves to do so; and those who have begun, not to let the war make them turn back…Let them trust in the mercy of God and not at all in themselves, and they will see how His Majesty brings them from the dwelling places of one stage to those of another…and they shall enjoy many more blessings than one can desire-blessings even in this life, I mean. 
Eventually, little by little, even if it may not be soon, Teresa promises that we will become saints: “Have great confidence, for it is necessary not to hold back one’s desires, but to believe in God that if we try we shall little by little, even though it may not be soon, reach the state the saints did with His help.”
 Teresa of Avila, The Book of Her Life, in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1987), 6:4, pp. 78-79.
 Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, II, 1:1, p. 297.
 The Book of Her Life, 19:15, p. 171.
 The Way of Perfection, 32:14, p. 165.
 Ibid. 41:4, p. 198.
 Interior Castle, II,1:9, p. 302.
 The Book of Her Life, pp. 123-124.
Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in the Jul/Aug 2006 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine.
Ralph Martin is the author of a number of articles and books the most recent of which are The Urgency of the New Evangelization: Answering the Call (2013), as well as Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization (2012) and The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints (2006).
Art for this post on the lost sense of sin: Teresa of Avila, Peter Paul Rubens, 1615, photographed by David Monniaux, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported, Wikimedia Commons.