Time out for Mortal Sin
I had intended to write about “seeking counsel” in this post, but I had a life-changing experience last week and decided to reflect a bit on mortal sin. I realize it’s ironic to abandon “seeking counsel” without asking anybody’s opinion, but blogs are not democratic. I’ll get around to it next time, or whenever.
Last week I spent five days in Los Angeles, during which time I rented a car, since there are few other options for getting around. I was there to give a presentation at The Getty Museum and to lead a retreat day for the Los Angeles area members of the Order of Malta.
On my first day someone discreetly confided that more mortal sins are committed on the freeways of Los Angeles than anywhere else in the County. I’ll admit I was skeptical. This was a pretty tall claim, when you consider that there must be fierce competition for this distinction in that fair city. After all, I’ve read the tabloids and seen Entertainment Tonight often enough to suspect that this guy was barking up the wrong tree. As if that weren’t enough, one need only note the absence of an award show to recognize mortal sin in Hollywood — to say nothing of mortal sin on the freeways. In a city that has award shows that recognize anything and everything, how in the world could producers have overlooked mortal sin? Imagine the ratings. Imagine the award categories: Best Mortal Sin in Politics, or Film or Ambulance Chasing. And just to keep everyone honest and on their toes, you could confer the Venial Sin of the Year Award on the loser (like Jersey Shore, which is being cancelled. The shame of it all.) What publicity-starved public figure wouldn’t crave being named The Mortal Sinner of the Year? In the stampede for such glory, the freeways of Los Angeles would be left in the dust.
Anyway, my five days in Los Angeles were a real revelation. First off, I came to realize that a lot of the sinning in Los Angeles barely qualifies to be venial, and much of it is mere pretense. Were there no cameras there to record it, a lot of it would simply vanish. With no audience, people would give up on most of the outrageous things they do. They’d go home and be conventional, which is what they do most of the time anyway.
But in five days I found that I had misjudged the freeways of Los Angeles altogether. For three of those days I tooled around in a rental car, and I was frightened out of my wits. Some of my experience was innocent enough, such as when I was barreling east on the 105 to connect with the 110 to downtown. “This is great,” I thought. But as I roared onto the sharp left ramp that merges into the 110, there it was: a solid phalanx of cars dead in their tracks. I prayed, because I honestly believed there would be no tomorrow. In fact, death stared me in the face in the form of six lanes of brake lights. I have no idea whether my brakes would have worked without the prayers, but pray I did. That afternoon I left a lot of rubber on the road, and I screamed to a halt with three feet to spare. I still wonder whether it was a sin to scare the driver in front of me half out of his mind.
My other adventures were less benign. We have traffic in Minnesota, so I don’t want to leave the impression that I was a rube in the big city. But I do believe there can be qualitative differences among bad drivers. In Minnesota our drivers can be as irritating as the rest, but they’re predictable. You can always find those drivers in the passing lane, going about three miles an hour slower than everybody else.
In Los Angeles the drivers, by contrast, are maniacally insane. For the sheer joy of it, a car will bolt out of nowhere like a cheetah, and it will weave across and around and back across six lanes of traffic, all without so much as a “pardon me” or a turn signal. Angelinos seem to take this in stride and assume the cheetah was in a hurry to get home for lunch or a nap.
While driving in Los Angeles I also noticed that the natives have a bit of the barracuda in them. In no time they can sniff out newcomers, and they toy with them. If you’re in a center lane and need to make a right turn, tough. Inevitably someone will sidle up to your right and shadow your every move. One night I found myself in that situation, and for ten blocks I tried to move into the right lane. No luck. In fact, I missed the exit onto the freeway, and that’s how I ended up downtown — which was a lucky break. There’s no one in downtown Los Angeles at night, and it’s the best spot in the whole city to pull over and calm your nerves.
Of course I was not always the victim, and therein was the moment of conversion. At first I tried to be the nice Minnesota driver, and one after another I let in all sorts of merging cars. I got a lot of honks from behind me, but that was a small price to pay for my acts of kindness. But after a while I began to realize that people were taking advantage of me. And then, one after another, five cars slipped into the gap in front of me. That’s when I got mad. After that, no one squeezed in front of me. And no space was too small for me to merge into. I began to honk at drivers, and I became totally unforgiving. How wonderful to be one of them!
At the end of the third day I began to realize what I was becoming. And on the morning of the fourth day I drove back to the car rental agency and turned in my keys, two days early. To the agent I explained: “Don’t get me wrong, I like your city. But I’m scared to death to drive on your freeways.” “We hear that a lot,” he said with a gentle smile.
I was scared indeed, but not for fear for my life. It was moral fear. All my life I have ended the Act of Contrition with the resolve “to avoid the near occasion of sin.” In three days in Los Angeles I had discovered that the freeways were the highway to mortal sin. Did I really want to go there? I think not.
While many days still feel a bit like summer, the hints of autumn are hard to miss. Already the days are cooler by several degrees, and they are measurably shorter as well.
But autumn does not mean the end of the flowers, and some species seem to come into their own at this time of year. Both red and blue salvia are particularly vibrant in September, and the marigolds are both colorful and fragrant. Today’s pictures all come from flower beds on the campus.