Third Sunday in Lent

– Forgiveness and Cooperation

By Rev. H. G. Hughes



Come with me to-day, dear brethren, into the cell of a condemned prisoner, one sentenced to pay for his many crimes with the forfeit of his life.  Long he had gone free, working evil with impunity; at last, the stern hand of justice seized him; he was tried, fund guilty, and sentenced of death was imposed.  Now he has no prospect before him but the stern execution of that sentence.  He lies in prison awaiting the fatal day.

A thousand times, by day and by night, in his dreams and in his waking hours, there rises, hatred and unbidden, but not driven away, the black image of the scaffold.  Over his head, all the time, hovers the dark form of death.  Like a man at the edge of a precipice, shrinking yet fascinated, he cannot forbear to look over into the deep and dark abyss of the unknown, down which he is soon violently to be hurled.  His whole soul recoils in horror, yet into that gloomy gulf of death he must look – he cannot keep his mind from it.  His nights are a horror, his days a dread; existence is a living death.  He cannot keep his limbs from trembling; thought in a confusion; like a hunted beast he looks vainly for a way of escape, but there is none.  Worst of all, he cannot escape from himself, from his own thoughts, with all the horrors they conjure up before him.

Again and again, he rehearses the last scenes, and in spirit is led out to execution, and taken, in his wild imaginings, up to the very threshold of death – and his doom stares him in the face, and his soul madly recoils, only to travel again and again and many times over in his thoughts that terrible road.

Think of the horror, the bitter despair of such a soul; think of the hopeless future, the vain regrets, the unavailing remorse.

At last, the fatal day has dawned – his last on earth.  He rises from his uneasy bed, and waits.  Now he hears footsteps approaching his dark and lonely cell.  He trembles; all the accumulated dread and horror of the days of waiting come upon him in one combined and overwhelming avalanche of despair.  The door is flung open.  Two men enter; only two – the warden of his prison, and one other.  But he sees no armed guard to conduct him to the place of execution. “So,” he thinks, “the time is not yet; there are some hours more yet of torture to be endured.”  But listen, one of his visitors is speaking: he is reading from a paper which he holds in his hand; he is explaining something to the unhappy criminal.

What is this he is saying – Pardon?  Release?  Life?  It cannot be!  This is but a new torture of the imagination playing tricks.  But he hears again the words – You are pardoned; you are free; the sovereign has exercised his prerogative of mercy and has pardoned you; you are a free man.  All he asks is that you will be loyal to him for the future.

Oh, the indescribable relief, the rush of joy and gratitude that fills the soul of that poor man.  “Non moriar, sed vivam” – “I shall not die,” he cries, “but live” (Ps. cxvii, 17).  “Life is given back to me; life and hope; a new life, a now hope – a life to be given to better things; a life that shall efface the past; a life that, filled with a deep sense of gratitude, shall make up for the errors, the sins, the crimes of old days.”  And he goes forth from his prison a new man, he breathes again; the dark images of horror that oppressed him fly away; once more there is joy for him in the light of the sun, in the freshness of the air of heaven, in the life and movement of the earth.

A picture, dear brethren, of what has happened to us; of what happens whenever a poor sinner, touched by God’s grace, released, like the poor possessed man in to-day’s Gospel, from the devil of dumbness that has made him go about with a load of unconfessed and unforgiven sin upon
him; a picture of what happens when his tongue is loosed, and he seeks reconciliation in the Sacrament of Penance.

The horror of the prisoner’s condemnation to physical death is as nothing to the supreme horror of the sentence of eternal death from which we are set free in in this great Sacrament of Mercy.  Oh, what damned soul, sentenced and about to be buried in hell, would not gladly change places with the condemned criminal in his prison cell!

And even if they are only venial sins that we have to confess – even then our release is from prison, from long and terrible and bitter punishment; yes, and freedom that ever-present danger of mortal sin and consequent risk of eternal damnation which the careless committal of venial sin involves.

But by the Sacrament of Penance; by humble and true and contrite confession, with a firm will to amend, all is pardoned; life and hope, grace and spiritual strength are restored to the soul; and men can cry out joyfully, “I shall not die; but live.”

Dear brethren, some people, many people, I fear, stop there.  They are satisfied with having received pardon.  They do just enough to obtain pardon, and then they go away and forget the great thing that the Lord has done for them.  In to-day’s Gospel we have a terrible warning against this in the description given by our Divine Lord of the action of the unclean spirit who was cast out of a man, and who afterwards returned with seven others to repossess that unhappy soul.

“He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathers not with me, scatters.  When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walks through places without water, seeking rest; and not finding, he says, I will return into my house whence I came out; and when he is come, he finds it swept and garnished.  Then he goes, and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and entering in they dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.”

Brethren, this is not a warning to impenitent sinners, but to those who have confessed their sins, whose souls have been swept and cleansed by their humble confession, and garnished with Divine grace.  After this effort, there is always the danger of remaining satisfied, of neglecting that positive cultivation of virtue, of prayer and of piety of which a good confession should be the beginning, not the end.  So, the house is left empty – and when the devil comes again to tempt the soul to sin, he comes with sevenfold force; there is nothing to keep him out, and so “the last state” of that soul easily becomes “worse than the first.”

Brethren, we are apt to forget that the Sacrament of Penance is not only the Sacrament of Pardon, but also the Sacrament of Perseverance.  Not only does it confer the race of pardon; but it confers, and was instituted to confer, grace to persevere.

But you know well that I all the Sacraments a certain amount of willing effort and cooperation on our part is necessary.  We cooperate – it may certainly be hoped that we cooperate sufficiently with the grace of pardon to obtain its healing effects – but it is to be feared that often, very often, we lose the grace of perseverance by failure to cooperate with that.  We show ourselves to the priest; we are cleansed; then we do no more.

Ah, brethren, it is sad, it may easily be a fatal mistake, to stop at this point.  You have been to confession; God has pardoned you; God’s priest has done his part; now is YOUR time; now it is for you to act.  Annexed to the Sacrament are great graces for the future, graces that will support you in temptation, will enable you to keep from sin, to root out bad habits, to overcome your passions, to go on bravely and successfully in the Christian life.  God is waiting for you He has those graces ready – they are yours. You have a right to them in virtue of the Sacrament of Penance which you have received; you have but to stretch forth your hand and take them.

The Sacrament does not destroy your passions and evil inclinations all at one blow; it does not all at once root out bad habits; one confession is not going to make you saints.  But again, I say it, to the Sacrament of Penance are annexed graces of perseverance which you have a right to on account of the Sacrament you have received, graces that will make your fight successful; that will lead you to victory after victory over your passions; that will enable you to root out your bad habits – if only you will cooperate with those graces.  And you must cooperate by what you do after confession

How important then is the time after confession!  Let me conclude by giving you a few practical hints as to the use of that time.

First, do not be in a hurry to get away from the church.  Thank God.  Go before the Tabernacle and thank our dear Lord for the pardon and release He has granted to you who were a condemned criminal, worthy of eternal death.  Spend at least some moments in rousing up sincere gratitude in your hearts.

Then, in the presence of Jesus, renew your good and firm resolution – first to avoid all mortal sin, and then to overcome yourselves in some particular matter – to keep from dangerous occasion – to practice some virtue especially necessary for you.  We should fix on such things in your preparation; our examination of conscience should reveal to us what special point we ought to fix upon.  In this, too, the advice of our confessor is a guide by no means to be neglected.  How many people give careful attention to what the priest says in confession?  How many think over it afterwards when they are making their thanksgiving!  Yet your confessor does not speak at random; and God enlightens him specially in the confessional.  It may not be necessary or even useful for him to give you special advice every time if your confessions are frequent; but from time to time, he will do so.  Listen and mark what he says; and think upon it after confession when you are renewing your resolutions in the presence of Jesus in the Tabernacle.

And, dear brethren, lay out your plans for the future.  Before you leave the church, let there be one or two definite things that you have determined to do, with a fixed determination which you are resolved not to go back upon.  These special resolutions should not be many in number – one or two at the most – but carefully selected, going to the root of some evil that you are conscious of in your spiritual life – carelessness in prayer, or sloth, or a bad companionship, or an occasion that must be avoided, or some unworthy self-indulgence.  If you have examined yourselves well, with a view to discovering such things, this little plan of campaign which I recommend after confession will not take many moments.

And I would add this – ask your confessor to advise you about this plan of campaign.  This is a thing in which you should not be afraid to take the initiative.  Your confessor cannot do everything for you, and you should give him a chance to help you by seeking his advice.  And when you go to confession again you should mention your special resolution and how you have succeeded.   This is not necessary for absolution, but it is the way to cooperate with the graces of perseverance which may be had through this great Sacrament if we will do our part.

Finally, speak to our dear Lord with the utmost confidence and love.  He has put His love, Divine charity, into your souls.  You have now the right to love Him and the right to be loved by Him.  Claim this right, act on that right.  Say to Him, dearest Lord, I was Thine enemy; now I am Thy friend and Thou are mine.  Now, dear Lord; Thou wilt refuse me nothing.  I wish to life for Thee; for Thee I will live.  Give me thy strong grace.  Temptation will come again; but I will turn to Thee the very moment that it comes.  By virtue of this Holy Sacrament and of Thy Blood sprinkled upon my soul – my soul that is now knit close to Thee in charity – help me to be faithful, help me to persevere, help me to make amends by a new life, for the evil that is past.  “I shall not die, but live; and shall declare the works of the Lord.”