Two Rules of Thumb to Avoid Sin

Wise words from a grade-school retreat master are worth passing forward


Education Virtue

Before my class of one hundred graduated from grade school — from Mary, Seat of Wisdom School in Park Ridge, Illinois, in 1964 — we had a Day of Recollection at our church conducted by one of the priests who belonged to the Mission Band of the Archdiocese of Chicago. The priests assigned to the Mission Band would conduct retreats throughout the Archdiocese. (An aside: in December 2006, the late Cardinal George, O.M.I, archbishop of Chicago, wrote a column for The Catholic World, the archdiocesan newspaper, about a 1946 retreat described on the back of a holy card he found in a family prayer book. The retreat had been conducted by the Mission Band. )

The priest at our Day of Recollection gave my class two rules of thumb for behavior to avoid sin and the occasion of sin:

Do not do in a crowd what you would not do alone;

Do not do at night what you would not do in the day.

Since I did not always remember these rules of thumb, at least not in a timely fashion, I can look back and personally attest to their wisdom. Maybe you can too?

I suggested these rules to my children as they were growing up. And I added one of my own: Lots of bad things happen after midnight.

The history of the Church includes a great saint who on at least one occasion violated both the rules of my grade school retreat master at the same time. It is easy to violate both rules at the same time: being with a group at night doing what you would not do if alone or in the light of day.

St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) was bishop of Hippo in what is now Algeria. He is a Doctor (Latin for “teacher”) of the Church, author in superb Latin of The City of God, works on grace and free will, on the Trinity, on the Psalms, on the Book of Genesis, and more. In an autobiography he completed in 400 while serving as bishop, The Confessions, he related his journey of sin and his quest for truth which led him to baptism in the Catholic Church — the Church of his mother, St. Monica, and the bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose. Augustine converted in 386 A.D., at age 32.

Augustine recounts in “Book Two” (or chapter 2), section 4, of The Confessions that, when he was 16, he was with a group of young men his own age: “A group of young scoundrels [or translated just as well as “rascals,” “rogues,” “blackguards”], and I among them…” It was at night: “it was our bad habit to carry on our games in the streets till very late.” The sin was stealing pears: “We carried off an immense load of pears, not to eat—for we barely tasted them before throwing them to the hogs. Our only pleasure in doing it was that it was forbidden.” It was purely gratuitous: “I was evil for no object [that is, no reason]…seeking no profit from wickedness but only to be wicked.”

Augustine was 46 when he published his report of this night when he was 16. Obviously, this incident, this sin of unalloyed evil, haunted Augustine for his entire life. One of the benefits of avoiding sin is not being haunted.


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

From The Narthex

"Climate Crisis Lent"

This year my parish re-themed Lent to address the Climate CO2 Crisis. It's apparently a…

A Rival Religion

In the mid-1960s, I could be seen on the Boston Common dressed in surplus military…

Audit of Our Civilization

From time to time we need to take stock. The history of mankind has not…