Q: In the Gospel in a recent Mass Our Lord says we must be prepared to cut out our eye or cut off our hand if it is an occasion of sin for us. How are we to understand these hard words?
The passage to which you refer is from the Sermon on the Mount, where Our Lord says that “every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Mt 5:28-30).
These are indeed hard words. What Our Lord is saying is that eternal damnation in hell is so dire that it is worth doing whatever it takes, anything at all, to avoid it, even to the point of cutting off a limb or cutting out an eye. Naturally, there is no circumstance in which these drastic measures would be necessary. But it is vital to take other strong measures to avoid going to hell.
There is an analogy to this in the area of our bodily life. The Principle of Totality in surgery says that if amputating a limb or cutting out an organ is necessary to save the life of a person, this may be done. That is, the part may be sacrificed for the sake of the whole. For example, if someone has gangrene in a leg or cancer in a kidney and they will die without surgery, the surgery may be performed. Anyone would prefer to lose a leg or a kidney and continue to live rather than die from their condition without the surgery.
All the more, we should be prepared to resort to strong measures to avoid committing serious sins which might imperil our eternal salvation. After all, our eternal salvation is far more important than our bodily health. To be separated from God forever while suffering grievous torments in hell would be the greatest possible misfortune, the frustration of the very reason we exist: to know, love and serve God on earth in order to be happy with him forever in heaven.
Well known are the examples of saints who have done just this. St Francis of Assisi, when faced with a strong temptation, took off his habit and rolled in the snow to overcome the temptation. St Benedict threw himself into a thorn bush and St Bernard of Clairvaux plunged into a freezing pond.
St Josémaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, who relates these examples in his book The Way (n. 143) in the chapter on purity, himself took drastic measures to avoid an occasion of sin. It happened during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), in which over six thousand priests were killed in hatred of the faith.
One day early in October, 1936, when he was moving from house to house in Madrid to find safe refuge, St Josémaría learned that two of his closest priest friends had been assassinated. Shortly afterwards he met a friend in the street who offered him the key to a flat, whose owners were away, where he could take refuge. When he asked what he would do, living there on his own, if someone came to the door or called on the telephone, the friend answered that there was a maid there who was trustworthy and would look after him.
Fr Josémaría asked how old she was and the answer was twenty-two or twenty-three. He then explained to his friend that in the perilous circumstances of the war, when nerves were frayed and he was a priest, he did not want to be alone with a young woman day and night. He said his commitment to God came ahead of everything else and he would rather die than offend God by breaking his commitment of love. He then took the key and threw it into a sewer.
We too should be prepared to take strong measures to avoid putting ourselves into the occasion of serious sin and to overcome strong temptations. In the area of chastity, for example, we should avoid reading certain books and watching certain films or television programs which we know contain offensive material.
We might have to break off certain friendships if they could lead us into sin. And since the internet offers indecent material in abundance, many have blocked certain sites, put filters on their phone, or left their phone outside their bedroom to reduce the temptations. We don’t have to pluck out our eye or cut off our hand, but we should be prepared to take other drastic action. Missing out on heaven is too important.