Shortly after becoming Catholic and assisting daily at Mass, I began going to weekly Confession. The first time I went to confession with Msgr. Reynolds, he asked me to make an act of contrition. I had to say, “I’m sorry father, I don’t know what that is.” He told me what it was and as an example, he recited the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I didn’t know it, but this was my introduction to Eastern spirituality.
I am uncomfortable with saying, “I am the chief of sinners.” I agree with the sentiment, but I don’t like to compare myself with others. Not only does it imply that I must be a better Christian because I see myself as a greater sinner than anyone else, it puts me on the level of St. Paul (cf. 1 Timothy 1:15). Saying, “I am the chief of sinners,” could become an occasion of pride. However, saying, “I am the sinner,” focuses on me and no one else, and would not be an occasion of pride, or at least less of an occasion.
When we sin, we are alone in making the decision to sin. Others may lead us into temptation, but we alone are responsible for our sin. We are the sinner.
This fits well with my understanding of heaven and hell. Everyone in heaven is a person who is in communion with all other persons, particularly the Three Divine Persons. Everyone in hell is an individual, utterly alone and isolated. Everyone in hell is the sinner, not a sinner. This isolation is an act of mercy, as I explained in another blog post, to reduce the presence of God in hell to make it as less torturous as possible.
When I sin, I am an individual, I am alone, even when the sin leads others into temptation. When I do not sin, I am a person, I am in communion with other persons. On earth, I am a mixture of both. In the next life, I will be one or the other for all eternity. I confess that I am the sinner now in the hope that I will become a person for all of eternity.