It was 2005, and we were staying at the Hotel Gallery Art in Florence. A boutique hotel in an ancient, romantic city full of art. In the lobby bar, we sat with a little cup of crunchy snacks between us, a bottle of wine, and he confessed with some shame that he was obsessed with a fear of committing the unpardonable sin. A fear that he had already committed it without knowing he’d done so. This fear is called enissophobia. And he confessed he had OCD, too, which made it hard for him to take tests, because he was always checking and checking and rechecking his answers, never sure he’d gotten them right. The enissophobia, I’ve learned since, sometimes goes along with OCD.
According to the New Testament, the unpardonable sin is to “blaspheme” (or some translations render it “grieve”) the Holy Spirit. But this is a fuzzy concept. What does it mean to do this? Different churches have different ideas. The Catholic church has a list of six sins that are eternal and that effectively fit the bill as unpardonable.
I have a different definition, based on what I’ve learned about my own soul. We call the Holy Spirit different names, depending on whether or not we’re religious – but in practical terms, it amounts to the same thing. The Holy Spirit is the tongue of flame inside us – our inspiration, our psyche, the faint but instinctive thread we follow that leads us through life towards who we are becoming. For me, the unpardonable sin is willfully, continually ignoring that still, small voice we each possess. This probably comes as no surprise, since it accords closely with the shadow work I’ve been doing for years in analysis. My personal work has been about unearthing that voice, and learning to trust it to guide me. And it always does, when I’m really listening.
And so, for me, the unpardonable sin is unpardonable not because it’s a sin you can commit once and be done with it. It’s not some sudden thing you trip over and fall. On the contrary, it’s progressive. You have to keep doing it. You have to persistently, pointedly keep on ignoring what you know in your gut to be right, keep on making conscious decisions to turn away from that. Again and again and again. Eventually, your own repeated choices are what condemn you. God doesn’t even have to step in and do it. You’ve damned yourself to your own self-made hell.
Long ago, when he gave up art for medicine, he killed the tender, sensitive boy I was friends with when we were kids. The friend I loved. Giving up art for medicine doesn’t have to mean destroying one’s soul, of course – but in his case, it apparently did. That young man he was – he’s dead. He killed that sweet boy when he elected to stop listening to his inner voice. Sometimes I’m able to pity him for that. Sometimes, when I think of all the harm he’s done to others – not just to himself – I can’t find sufficient generosity.
That night thirteen years ago, when we sat together in the bar at that tiny table, I was stunned by the extremity of his worry. I wanted to comfort him, take away his dismay, reassure him that he had not committed any sin that could not be forgiven.
But the truth is, he just hadn’t yet. Now I feel certain some part of him must have known he was already heading in a dangerous direction. And the truth is, he was right to be worried.