A great deal of our spirituality is taken up with our faults and backsliding. We are constantly being reminded that ours is a fallen race and that sin is our heritage. No inconsiderable part of ascetical treatises is composed of the survey of sin and its malice, and we are continually being invited to reflect on what miserable sinners we are and what a hash we have hitherto made of our lives. The sole object of a great number of sermons we hear is to point out to us the sins and faults into which we fall and to persuade us at once to set about the correction of them.
A necessary part of our spiritual training
All this is without doubt a most necessary part of our spiritual training, which we can never overlook or neglect. But there may be at times just too much of it. It may be unmeasured and disproportionate. If we keep our minds exclusively fixed upon such topics the natural result must be one of gloom and despondency.
Anyone who is engaged in the reformation of a sinner will prove his unfitness for the task if he is for ever harping upon the sinner’s depravity.
We need to encourage as well as correct
If we would do any permanent good to such a one we need to encourage as well as correct. We need to remind him that if there is evil in him, so is there good. Souls in whom there is nothing but evil are only to be found in hell. As long as a man is living on this earth, however bad he may be, there always remains in him some little spark of goodness which by co-operation with grace can be fanned into a flame of salvation.
A spark of goodness which by cooperation with grace can be fanned into a flame of salvation
That we need to encourage as well as to correct seems obvious enough to anyone with any knowledge of human nature; and yet, obvious as it is, it is a truth that is sometimes strangely overlooked.
The mistake is the greater when the people with whom you have to deal are not bad characters at all but in reality are substantially good, even though subject to many sins, imperfections and faults. Among such people we may most certainly and unquestionably count those Catholics who never neglect to hear Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation and regularly frequent the Sacraments. They may not have attained to any high degree of perfection but by fulfilling their duties they are making sacrifices which prove the genuineness of their faith and their endeavour to please God. A preacher, therefore, whose congregation is made up for the most part of such Catholics will conceive a certain respect for them and will avoid a form of address that may lead some of his hearers to go away with the idea that they are compounded of nothing but sins, with no redeeming virtues as a set-off to their failures.
A skewed picture
To be continually harping upon the faults and shortcomings of a congregation will not only have the effect of depressing or irritating them, but such a habit of speaking will not be conveying the full truth.
It will be as false as the picture entitled The Island in the North that leaves the impression that England is a country where nothing but damp and fogs prevail and where sunshine and beauty are never found. Whistler was fond of painting that kind of picture. It was sometimes described as a nocturne and a certain king of melancholy beauty was claimed for it. But it was really rather depressing, and one felt that on the same wall on which it was exhibited there should be another picture, say, of an English wooded country-side under a June sun, as a set-off to, and a correction of, the other. It is the distinguishing art of the Dutch school of painting that in their quiet scenes of home-life they manage so well the lights and shades; and it is the light of course that reveals the beauty of the picture as a whole.
We live in evil days when God’s laws are openly flouted
There is no doubt that we live in evil days when God’s laws are openly flouted by so many and His very existence denied.
But that is not the whole picture. There are still millions of substantially good Catholics and other Christians who acknowledge God as their Creator and Lord and strive to live by His commandments. Some of them are leading very holy lives in obscurity, unknown to the world at large.
Some live very holy lives in obscurity, unknown to the world at large
They are the really great ones in the eyes of God, who serve to counteract much of the evil surrounding them and by their example inspire us with hope for the regeneration of mankind.
This is a fact we need to dwell on when the outlook on what is undoubtedly a bad world is apt to depress and discourage us.
There have always been dark periods in the history of the Church but even in the worst of these God has always raised up saints who have helped to eradicate the evil and to bring back men to a sense of their duty to Him. What a scandal, for instance, was that of the great Schism of the West, when the faith of many must have been shaken or even wholly destroyed; and yet by the shining example of such saints as St Vincent Ferrer, St Catherine of Siena and others the Church emerged with her divinity unimpaired and entered upon a new life of worthier living.
“Lo, I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world”
So does Christ fulfil His promise: “Lo, I am with you always even to the consummation of the world.” It is faith in Him and in His presence in our midst that is the foundation of our confidence and gives us that encouragement, so necessary to preserve, in our service of God. It is the cheerful outlook that helps to advance in perfection; and sadness and melancholy, as we are constantly reminded, are enemies to be combated.
It is our faith in God that gives us that confidence
Our duty is not only to encourage ourselves but to encourage as well others with whom we may come in contact and to whom our influence extends.
As it is a means of encouraging, it is good sometimes to give people praise, show recognition of their good points and virtues, to let them see that if in some ways they have failed there are many more ways in which they have succeeded.
Encouraging ourselves and others
Charles Brookfield, a well-known actor of his day and a convert to the Catholic Church, once jokingly remarked: “I think there ought to be in every church not only the confessional where we have to tell our sins but another confessional where we can tell our virtues. In that way we recover our self-respect and the priest would have a truer and more complete knowledge of us.”
Every sincere sacramental confession is not only a confession of sin but an unconscious revelation of virtue
There is, of course, no need for this second confessional. We may assume that the priest has the qualities of a good confessor and will know that every sincere confession is not only a confession of sin but an unconscious revelation of virtue. It is testimony to the penitent’s faith, to his hope, to his humility – and often much else. Remembering this, the good confessor’s inclination is not to upbraid but on the contrary to be sympathetic, encouraging and helpful. If he sees his penitent unduly cast down or even suspects that he is likely to be, it is for the priest to remind him that he is not without some virtue, or at any rate has a substantial foundation of good upon which virtue can be raised.
In all accounts of Our Lord’s risen life, we do not find a word of recrimination to his repentant disciples for deserting Him
It is characteristic of Our Blessed Lord in His dealings with men, and especially with sinners, that He was always striking the note of encouragement and cheer.
When sinners repented, it was not His wont to bring up their past against them but He hastened at once to put them on the footing of friends who had never gone wrong.
In the dark hour of His suffering and death, Peter denied Him, and the rest of His apostles who with Peter had declared they would die with Him had on the contrary ingloriously fled and left Him to His fate.
But in all the accounts of His risen life, where do we find a word of recrimination for their defection, a word of blame to those shame-faced repentant disciples who cane out of their hiding-places to have share with Him in the victory of His Resurrection?
If there was in one instance a gentle chiding of them for their want of faith, there was no lack of warmth of welcome, no diminution of His love and friendship now that they had seen their folly and had hastened to His side again.
Though always aware of the evil in men, Our Blessed Lord seemed ever more intent upon seeing what was good in them.
And so in the Gospels we find Him constantly commending and praising those who had shown faith in Him and had done something to win His favour. Even when they had been guilty of much evil but had turned from the evil with sorrow, it is not on their evil He dwells but on the goodness that led to their sorrow.
Her love was more than her sins
“Many sins are forgiven her,” he said of the Magdalen, “because she has loved much,” to show us her love was more than her sins. He did not reproach the good thief with his multiplied crimes; but because one act of perfect contrition outweighs years of iniquity, He has for him only the consoling words:”Even this day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.”
Our Lord’s mercy for repentant sinners
We might multiply the instances in which Our Lord proves that He makes the utmost allowances for human frailty, and seemingly ignoring what is wrong and defective, eagerly seizes and expatiates upon what is good in men, that He might give them hope and encouragement.
In the spirit of Christ
We must learn the spirit of Christ in our dealings with our fellow men and in the ordering of our own interior life.
Many of us have a long record of sins against us for which by the grace and mercy of God we have repented, and whilst we ever retain an abiding sorrow for those sins let us never forget that the merits of our Redeemer on our behalf are infinite, only to be measured, if any measurement were possible, by the infinite love that He bears for each and every one of us.
The merits of Our Redeemer are infinite
He knows the clay of which we are formed. Most of us are far from being saints even now: we still sometimes sin, but if the habitual set of our wills is on good, the Saviour of men is ever there to assist us at once to rise and with courage renewed to continue the struggle.
The Saviour of men is ever there to assist us
Nor can it escape His notice that we are living in times of unusual trial and strain, brought about directly and indirectly by the terrible wars in which the greater part of the world has been involved. Everything, as we know, has been made more difficult – travelling, food, clothes. We often consider ourselves lucky to find even standing-room in our over-packed trains. We no longer get the abundance and variety of food which we once enjoyed. Poverty for many who once were in possession of riches has become such a real thing that they are now content to wear, if they can get them, the second-hand clothes of a pawn-shop.
Under these conditions of living we may be quite sure that if we humbly and patiently resign ourselves to the dispositions of Divine Providence, our credit balance in heaven will rapidly mount up and we need not fear to find ourselves declared bankrupts when the great day of reckoning comes.
– From: Lift Up Your Hearts, Christopher J. Wilmot S.J., The Catholic Book Club, London, 1949