I spent time recently repairing my garage door. On Saturday, one of the pulley cables snapped. Simple, I thought. I purchased a new cable and made the repair. The door worked for about a day and then jammed. A hinge had broken. I repaired the hinge, but still no go. The door would not close all the way. I finally determined that a pulley had lost a bearing and would not turn.
Of course, this was not some grand coincidence or case of really bad luck. The cable, hinge, and pulley were all related. One of them, probably the pulley, had begun to fail first. This put additional stress on the other parts. The cable turned out to be the first to fail completely. The other parts quickly followed suit. In engineering, we call this a cascading failure. It is a feature of any interconnected system.
Our spiritual lives can be like that. When we neglect part of our spiritual life – for instance when we sin – we can quickly find the rest of our life falling apart in short order, and soon we wonder why we feel so empty inside. One sin predisposes us to another and then another, until sinful behavior has become a habit and we start justifying ourselves, saying that such-and-such a sin really isn’t so bad. Sin becomes a part of every aspect of our life.
Now that my garage door is working again, I notice that it is remarkably quiet. I hadn’t even realized it was getting noisy. The pulley must have been getting a little noisier every day, the noise increasing so slightly that, like the frog in the boiling water, I was oblivious to the relentless creeping change.
Again, sin is like that. It can start with such seeming innocence that we barely realize we are sinning. It might start out as too much TV watching. Then watching shows that are morally questionable, that titillate and excite. Then turning to programs not just questionable but objectionable. This is how men get sucked into pornography, bit by bit. When we open the door to sin, it can grow throughout our lives without our even realizing it. And then it comes, cascading failure.
The sin has permeated us. We drift away from our loved ones. We drift away from the faith. Our lives become chaotic. We obsess about appearance, status, money, possessions. Eventually, we don’t even know who God is.
How do we prevent this? When designing a complex system, we first design to avoid cascading failures. We choose parts less likely to fail. We design in backups. We minimize dependencies between parts. And we do preventive maintenance, to catch small failures before they have a chance to cascade. This is why the mechanic, when he changes the oil in your car, always checks the air filter.
In our spiritual life we do the same thing. We design our life to avoid the failures. We call this avoiding the near occasion of sin. In our family, we don’t subscribe to cable TV. In business I have a personal rule not to have lunch or even coffee alone with a woman, no matter how innocent.
We also do preventive maintenance. We pray the morning offering and the rosary. We do a daily examination of conscience. We read the scriptures and frequent the sacraments of Holy Eucharist and Reconciliation.
In short, we can prevent the kind of breakdown suffered by my garage door, but it takes diligence and planning.