It had started out as a normal afternoon.
My aunt was shopping at our local supermarket. One moment everything was fine, but in the next the driver of a car on the street outside lost control of his vehicle and crashed it through the glass doorway of the store. Worse, it started a small fire.
My aunt scooped her toddler daughter out of the cart’s seat, grabbed her purse, and ran out the supermarket’s other exit.
Of course the police and the fire department were summoned. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, and the fire was put out quickly. The car was towed, broken glass swept away, the door boarded up.
That was the end of it.
Or so everybody thought.
What the fire fighters neglected to do was check the entire building to make sure the blaze was completely out. Unbeknownst to them, up in the attic the fire continued to smolder. That evening it rekindled—right over the liquor department.
It wasn’t long after the fire ate through the ceiling and dove down to all those bottles of wine, vodka, and gin that there were a number of explosions. Fueled by alcohol, the fire quickly spread into a conflagration that enveloped the entire supermarket. The blaze was so huge, regular television programming was interrupted to cover the story.
[SIDENOTE: The old saying is “Write what you know.” I used my memory of this event for a scene in my novel Amaranth. (See chapter 25.)]
Since this was only a few blocks from our house, we, along with many of our neighbors, walked over to watch the inferno. And I, like the other neighborhood kids, was crossing my fingers that the flames wouldn’t spread to the local toy store, a couple of doors down. (It, fortunately, survived.)
By the next morning, all that was left was a pile of rubble that looked like the aftermath of a war zone.
It reminds me of how insidious sin is.
When my sin is as obvious as a car crashing through a supermarket door, I’m of course going to confession and doing penance. We all have a tendency to think when we’ve done that, we’re finished. But there’s more to it. Like a flame smoldering in an attic, the propensity to commit the same sin is still there.
No wonder Jesus used incredible hyperbole when he warned us that we should obliterate desires that lead to sin: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matthew 5:29-30)
No matter how attached I am, no matter how badly I crave a particular inclination, that spark has got to be smothered. As Thomas a Kempis stated in The Imitation of Christ, “The man who only shuns temptations outwardly and does not uproot them will make little progress; indeed they will return quickly, more violent than before.”
If I don’t quench that one little flame, it can re-ignite into a holocaust that can reduce my soul into a pile of smoldering rubble.