“Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith the Lord” (Is10:1)
One of the great virtues, the importance and necessity of which we are many of us far from impressing upon ourselves enough, is the virtue of Christian Confidence. We may aim at leading an orderly existence, we may practise our religious duties with some exactitude, we may aim at keeping ourselves for the most part pure, truthful, and upright, but one may fear that many of us have little or no thought of deepening within ourselves the feeling of holy confidence.
A spiritual luxury?
We look upon it, perhaps, as a counsel of supererogation, a sort of spiritual luxury, a mere adjunct or condiment of the inner life, comforting, it may be, but still unnecessary and superfluous. Nevertheless, in point of fact there is perhaps no virtue of which people of goodwill stand more in need. Like Peter walking upon the waters they consider the fury of the wind and the tumult of the waves. They do not keep their eyes on Christ Our Lord, and the inevitable result follows – they begin to sink. “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” was the gentle reproof of Our Lord on that occasion.
Like Peter walking upon the waters…
But there are numberless occasions when He seems at special pains to enforce upon us the same lesson: He exhausts every comparison: He appeals to the birds of the air, to the flowers of the earth, to the grass of the field, that He may bring home to us the great commanding truth that God does really care for us, that He has our interests at heart, even though at sundry times He may appear to have forgotten us, He is in reality watching over us at every moment with the solicitude of a Father, and that not one hair shall fall from our head without his knowledge and consent.
…we consider the fury of the wind and the tumult of the waves
We all need these assurances of God’s providence and tender watchfulness, for there is no temptation so common, so insidious, so calculated to sap the roots of the spiritual life, as the temptation to diffidence and discouragement. It assumes different shapes in different persons. It may arise from the thought of past failings and sins, or, again, it may be the result of the hardships and sufferings we have to encounter in the life. The subject is too vast to be treated in the course of one conference and we may be content here to deal with the first of these causes of diffidence.
“O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?”
In the first place, there are many for whom the temptation to diffidence springs from a spirit of disquietude on the score of past sins. They are conscious of the error of their former ways, they recollect periods in their life when they gave themselves up to disorder, they are haunted by the thought of the divine chastisements they have incurred.
It is true that they regret their misdeeds: they have done penance for them: they have had recourse times without number to the Sacraments instituted by Christ for the cleansing of human sin. Nevertheless they are restless, anxious, ill at ease. They rack and torture their conscience as to the integrity of their confessions, or sincerity of their sorrow, and perhaps come to the conclusion that they have never repented as they should, that they cannot shake off the burden that oppresses them, that their case, in short, is desperate beyond redemption.
Feeling restless, anxious, ill at ease
Such a frame of mind is lamentable, and, moreover, is based upon a complete fallacy. It ignores the loving mercy of God which surpasses all our sins, however grievous and numerous they may be. It refuses to take into account the true Fatherhood of God, who knows the clay of which we are formed.
He knoweth our frame and remembereth we are dust (Ps120:14)
He makes allowance for us far beyond all we can imagine, certainly far beyond the allowances we make for one another, even in the case of our best friends. There is a saying that to understand all is to forgive all; and God, whom nothing escapes, does understand us through and through. He it is who searches the reigns and the heart and reads into the depths of our souls more clearly than we ourselves can ever hope to do. He discerns the many motives, both good and evil, which inform our best and our worst actions, the cross-current that distract the soul, the striving as well as the failing, the good intention as well as the miserable failure, the abiding love that persists even after many repeated relapses. He knows that most of our sins are sins of frailty, due to the pressure of temptation and the weakness of our nature. He knows that few of us, and perhaps only rarely, are guilty of the heinous sins, those which in His sight overshadow every defection of the flesh and every indulgence of the senses, inasmuch as they are directed immediately against Him and His infinite perfections.
God, whom nothing escapes, understands us through and through
And here, to make a disgression, it may be observed that there is a scale according to which sins, even mortal sins, may be graded. Many people do not seem to have been clearly educated into recognising the difference in gravity between sin and sin.
There are some who practically restrict mortal sins to those of the flesh. Even when guilty, they will not accuse themselves of sins of disbelief, or of entirely losing heart and confidence in God. And yet the very order in which the Decalogue enumerates the commandments more or less corresponds to the degree of gravity involved in their transgression. The higher and nobler the virtue to which it is opposed the more grievous is the sin.
Are all mortal sins equally grievous?
Now, among the virtues, the highest are unquestionably the theological virtues, faith, hope, and charity, which have for object the Increate Divinity Itself. Accordingly, the most terrible and grievous of all sins are the hatred of God, despair, unbelief, formal heresy, blasphemy, and the like.
In the second rank are to be placed those sins which are opposed to cardinal and moral virtues, first of all to the virtue of justice in regard to God Himself or in regard to His creatures. Injustice as regards God infringes the virtue of Religion, and is more serious if directed against the honour and service due to the Deity immediately. And so as we go down the scale of the virtues the gravity if the sins opposed to them also diminishes.
In the next place, St Thomas, whose teaching we have been following, places sins against the virtue of justice in relation to creatures, a virtue which gives to each its due, whether it be the Church, or State, or family, or our fellow beings. Sins then which are against the Creator, i.e. against Faith, Hope, Charity and the virtue of Religion, are the most grievous of all. Other sins are against the creature and therefore in a different category altogether. There is a gulf between them. Then, last in order, come the virtues of temperance and fortitude, by which we restrain our concupiscible and our irascible proclivities.
When the intellect is clouded and the will is weakened…
It is here, however, that human passion enters, and passion always takes away from the voluntariness of our actions, sometimes more, sometimes less, but on occasion to such an extent that St Thomas allows that it may do away with the entire guilt that would otherwise attach to some objectively evil action.
Wine and women, drink and lechery and other vices on the one hand, and on the other, hatred, anger, revenge, calumny, assault, murder, are no doubt mortal sins, given the necessary conditions – freedom of will, knowledge, and advertence – for gravity; and, moreover, some of these are the most common of all the sins that occur. But they have been described by certain authoritative writers as the least of mortal sins, precisely because they have not God in view directly, and because of the element of emotional passion which they contain, tending to cloud the intellect and to weaken the will. And it is this element which renders it difficult to apportion the guilt, and state which are the most grievous sins, those inspired by sensual love or those resulting from the passion of anger and hatred, the sins of impurity or those of violence and malignity. In any case, it is clear that they stand lowest in the scale as it appears in the sight of God.
To return now to our main subject, it may therefore be that we have often reproached ourselves in the past and held ourselves guilty of a grave transgression: it may even be that our confessors have judged in the same way as we have done, basing themselves, as they necessarily must do, upon what we have told them – and yet in the eyes of the all-seeing God the measure of our iniquity may have been diminished to an extent we cannot gauge.
Mortal or venial sin?
How many of these sins were made venial through lack of that full and entire knowledge and advertence at the time, which are requisite to constitute a deadly offence? How often were we not surprised or betrayed into some temptation when we were off our guard and acted on the spur of the moment without much thought, without much deliberation? How often has it happened that it was after committing a certain act that we have felt anxiety, lest it might prove to be wrongful, when we should have remembered that there can be no more evil in a deed than we apprehended at the moment itself? How often again have we been agitated with a doubt as to the lawfulness of some course of action in our past life, when in reality we had, though perhaps unconsciously, resolved that doubt and “formed our conscience” according to strict theological principles, thereby avoiding any serious guilt. If they go back to their first youth, some may realise now that in sundry directions their views of right and wrong were vitiated from the beginning without much fault on their part, through prejudice, through early education, through the example of others, sometimes even to a certain twist or kink of the mind peculiar to themselves.
Circumstances to be taken into account
Then again, it is impossible for us to surmise how many of our former transgressions have been shorn of their full grievousness because the consent we gave them was not complete and wilful. We may have been negligent or curious, we may have dallied with temptation, played with it, even yielded some sort of half consent, but on all the occasions when we did not let ourselves go altogether, we did not simply lay down our arms and surrender, when we continued to offer some resistance at least, on all these occasions we did not incur the serious imputation of mortal sin.
Perhaps we were engaged in doing what is perfectly lawful up to a certain point, yet one day, more by accident than otherwise, we went beyond and overstepped the mark. Perhaps we were placed in some occasion from which it was difficult to extricate ourselves, and where temptation was powerful and incessant. In all these cases can we suppose that a merciful God did not see and weigh in the scales the difficulty, the goodwill, the effort, though unattended with success at the last?
If any man lose his soul in the end, it will never be because of any act of his committed before his last good and valid confession, or before his last act of perfect contrition.
Many of our failings may thus be less serious than we have imagined. We may dwell too on the confidence we should entertain that the more undoubtedly mortal sins of our past life have been really and truly remitted, never to return, in so much that if any man lose his soul in the end, it will never be because of any act of his committed before his last good and valid confession, or before his last act of perfect contrition. God indeed is a kind and indulgent Father, always “ready and easy to forgive” and “His mercy is above all His works.”
Were it possible for us to choose for ourselves the Judge who should equitably and finally pronounce sentence upon our deeds as we pass out of this world, it would not be, I think, any parent or earthly friend that we should elect, one like ourselves subject to error and misapprehension – it would surely be Our Saviour Himself, for is He not the best friend we have, the one who knows everything concerning us, the good as well as the bad, the pressure of temptation as well as the reluctant fall?
“His mercy is above all His works”
Is He not the one who understands every detail of our actions, and who therefore can make allowance such as none other could; a Judge overflowing with kindness, goodness and love; nay one, we might almost say, who has a personal interest in passing a favourable sentence upon us, for has He not redeemed us at the price of His most precious Blood?
“Who shall accuse against the elect of God?” St Paul asks, and he answers, “God that justifieth. Who is he that shall condemn? Christ Jesus that died, yea that is risen also again, who is at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us (Rm 8:33-34), the while the Church, at that most solemn moment of our existence, appeals to Him in her prayers for the dying, making that only but most powerful plea, “However much he may have sinned, yet he hath not denied Father and Son and Holy Ghost, but hath believed.”
– From: Lift Up Your Hearts, Christopher J. Wilmot, The Catholic Book Club, London, 1949