Tuesday, January 22, 2008

O felix peccatum

O happy sin. A Latin phrase that perhaps only a Catholic will know. I believe it may have first been used by Saint Augustine. The meaning is made clear in a Latin hymn:
O certe necessarium Adae peccatum,
quod Christi morte deletum est!
O felix culpa,
quae talem ac tantum
meruit habere Redemptorem!

O truly needful sin of Adam,
which was blotted out by the death of Christ!
O happy fault,
that merited
so great a Redeemer!
I never quite grasped the concept. Would it not have been better to live in a prelapsarian Eden, without death or woe, than to struggle through this vale of tears even with the dicey promise of salvation? What sort of God would dream up the notion of "needful sin"?

But there is a sense in which the idea of happy fault makes sense -- if you are willing to consider death a "fault" of the creation. Microbiologist Ursula Goodenough says it well in The Sacred Depths of Nature: "Sex without death gets you single-celled algae and fungi; sex with a mortal soma gets you the rest of the eukaryotic creatures. Death is the price paid to have trees and clams and birds and grasshoppers, and death is the price paid to have human consciousness, to be aware of all that shimmering awareness and all that love."

I discovered a few days ago that we have a nasty infestation of termites, gnawing away inside the kitchen cabinets -- a not uncommon tribulation in the tropics. In total darkness the termites are getting their share of sunlight, by eating the stored energy of leafy green trees. It's all part of the driving engine of evolution. It's me against them now, and there's going to be a heap of death before it's all over.

O happy death that gave us all that shimmering awareness and all that love.