CHAPTER XVI — THE CONSTANT RESURRECTION
(Q. 84-90; Suppl., Q. 1-28)
THERE has been much loose talk in our time of the worship of the machine, of the terror of the mechanical idol which is said to be a kind of modern Moloch before which men bow in adoration as it destroys their lives. Men of our time, or any time, may appreciate a machine as a most excellent means to other ends, they may make use of it with ruthless disregard for other men’s lives; but the evidence is all against modern man adoring anything mechanical. It is easy to awaken a child’s excited interest by giving it a mechanical toy; but it is practically impossible to fasten the child’s interest on the toy for any great length of time. After seeing the toy do the same thing over and over again, the child tires of it, even though he does not, in an exceptional case, dissect it to see what accounts for this strangely monotonous activity. It s no trouble at all to gather a New York crowd in front of a window where a shiny, new machine turns out cigarettes or flapjacks as though by magic; but after a week, it is just another machine. Let a baseball or a football team function with machine-like precision to constant victory and the biggest games are soon indistinguishable from secret practice.
On the other hand, we can watch a craftsman work as long as we like, with no lessening of our fascinated admiration; we fondle his hand-made product, caressing it with praise long after we have dumped its machine-made counterpart in its appointed place to do its coldly efficient work unnoticed and unthanked. For all its perfection, for all the genius that goes into its design, there is a sameness about a machine that quickly bores us. It is a product of human ingenuity and, as such, attractive; but it is human ingenuity that is lifeless, frozen, static. On the contrary, the product of the craftsman has an endless variety about it, plenty of elbow-room for imagination and originality, and, inevitably, some few mistakes.
The variety, imagination, and originality appeal mightily to the human in all of us; this is human individuality at its flourishing best. Perhaps, however, it is on the count of the inevitable mistakes that the deepest appeal is made; for here we can rightly feel we are one with the artist. In a way, a mistake is not only a bond of unity with the rest of frail humanity, it is a distinctive badge worn with a kind of shame-faced pride. For we are the only ones who make mistakes. If an archaeologist, examining newly unearthed relics of past ages, comes upon indisputable evidence of mistakes, he has an authentic record of the presence of men. The angels made only one mistake; neither the animals nor God makes any at all. Only men can put a letter in the wrong envelope or burn the morning toast.
Mistakes and their makers: The fool and the wise man
A mistake is a genuine mark of human activity; moreover. it is a universal mark, for all of us make mistakes. The line dividing wise men from fools is not a line drawn between the absence of mistakes and their presence; rather it distinguishes the area of infrequent and dissimilar mistakes from that of frequent and similar ones. A wise man does not make the same mistake twice, but he does make others; whereas the fool cannot get variety even into his mistakes, their very character showing a lack of imagination and originality that approaches the monotony of a machine and recedes from the stamp of human activity.
The wisdom of the wise
The difference, of course, is much deeper than this. A wise man recognizes the reason for the distastefulness of mistakes. True, they are human things, but not agreeably human because they fall short of humanity’s capacities; there is something the matter with them. Now that it is all over, we know we shouldn’t have argued with the traffic policeman, that it was a mistake to bring up the subject of illness before a hypochondriac, that the very small, very white lie was not so easy an escape after all. These are human acts, disfigured with pock-marks of unreason, of inhumanity, whether the particular pock-mark be one of ignorance, of malice, or of lack of control. One thing comforting about these disfigurements is that they need not be repeated, the disease need not be contracted again. A wise man can do something about them for the next time; and he does.
The outcasts of human action
Nothing disfiguring and ugly is welcome; so mistakes are always uninvited guests in our lives. Yet, they are forever knocking at the door at the most inopportune times. Perhaps our enemies will give them a hearty smile of welcome; but for everyone else, there is an embarrassment and tension about their arrival like that set up by the meeting of a shady past with a brilliant future. The easy, pleasant flow of life’s conversation is instantly hushed; in the dead silence, all eyes focus on us to see how we shall face the confusing moment, how we can show a mistake to the door suavely, without a scene.
The technique of the makers of mistakes: The child’s technique; the man’s technique
The actual technique of dismissing a mistake varies with every individual. Some, clinging to methods found effective in childhood, brazenly deny the presence of mistakes through all the length of life; no one is deceived, of course, least of all these people themselves. Others employ strong-arm methods; the mistake is instantly hustled out of mind by a big muscled forgetfulness that never quite succeeds in ejecting the mistake the whole distance out of life itself. Still others put their trust in nonchalance. The mistake is greeted with a light, amused laughter that chimes on a desperate little note into a pathetic silence, like the tinkle of a doorbell into the ruined hopes of an abandoned shop. The silence is as portentous, and more tensing, than that of a hushed theater waiting for the point of a pointless joke. Then there is the whole class of timid compromisers, terribly anxious to keep the peace yet enjoy the spoils of war, who imagine that mistakes are handled effectively by an apologetic little cough or a muttered “pardon me.” Some of us, however, do grow up. Faced with our mistakes, we make no attempt to deny them. We admit them, look them in the eye; for it is well to fix their features in mind for future reference, it is good to study their strategy that we might meet them more successfully in the future.
Their common helplessness
But wise men or fools, perpetual children or fighting men, are all faced with a common helplessness in the face of their own mistakes. Almost any little boy can take a clock apart; no little boy can put it together again. The clumsiest assassin can snuff out a human life in an instant; the cleverest cannot restore it. A conquering army can destroy the treasures of centuries of genius by a few well-placed bombs; and then must stand as helpless as the barbarians surveying the ruins of Rome. For our constructive power is very much less than our destructive capacities. Once we have shattered the fragile perfection of a human act, there is absolutely nothing we can do about restoring its delicate beauty. We can be careful of future destructions, yes; but this is over and done with, and the best we can offer is our regret. In a sense, then, all mistakes are fatal; that is, in relation to the life of the act in which the mistake occurs. Some are horribly fatal in their effects destroying what can never be restored, things like innocence, love, or life.
God’s technique with man’s mistakes
Such helplessness could fill a man’s life with tears if it were not for the comforting difference between human powerlessness and divine power in dealing with the mistakes of man. The almighty power can do something, in fact everything; what is more, it does all that need be done. Not that God turns back the clock, decreeing that yesterday never existed; that is too much even for God. But the echo of the voice of Mary’s Son has not yet died out of the world; befouled rebels against God still hear “thy sins are forgiven thee,” throw off their filthy rags to put on the wedding garment, and are admitted to a feast of peace such as Magdalen found in the banquet room of the Pharisee. That divine voice still speaks its message of mercy in the sacrament of Penance.
Destruction of personal mistakes — by Penance:
The very externals of Penance are holy things. The words and acts of the penitent declare that his heart has turned from sin; the words and the acts of the priest promulgate the pardon of God. But it is not to the intrinsic holiness of these things that we must trace their divine effectiveness; that can come only from divinity. It is because these signs were constituted channels of grace by Christ that they loose a flood upon the soul which leaves it as pure as would the words of God Himself. Penance is a sacrament, a channel of grace, designating the course of divine action; as such, it produces what it signifies.
This sacrament, alone of all the sacraments, was constituted in the form of a judicial process. There is, then, a touch of misery in it, something of the tenseness of judgment, and all the finality of a terribly irrevocable sentence; for, as judgment, it necessarily revolves about crime, the crimes of men against God. However, instead of the ordinary judicial process’s rigid protection of truth against human weakness, this judgment, with a truly magnificent confidence in human honesty and courage, puts truth at the mercy of man by recognizing the accuser, the witnesses, and the defendant in the one person of the penitent. These two, the sins committed after baptism and the acts of the penitent (contrition, confession, and satisfaction) submitting these sins to the priest, are the remote and proximate material of the sacrament of Penance.
The sacrament of Penance: its matter and form
Obviously, the matter of Penance is not to be sanctified as is the water of Baptism; rather, it is to be destroyed as is the substance of bread in the Eucharist. The full clarity of the sacred sign, leaving no doubt of the effect of the sacrament, is stated with sharp brevity in the solemn words of the priest which are the form of the sacrament: “I absolve thee from all thy sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” By those words, a man is reborn and sin is destroyed, the helplessness of man is rescued by the omnipotence of God, mistakes are undone and a man can walk the roads of the present and the future free of the awful burden of the past; for the sacrament, like all the rest, effects exactly what it signifies.
The profound importance of this sacrament to human living has made the words of Christ, bringing it into existence, some of the most cherished that history records. There was a hint of it, of course, in Christ’s own dealings with sinners; “Thy sins are forgiven thee” is not something men will forget in a hurry. An explicit promise of the sacrament was made when Our Lord gave Peter the power of the keys, saying “To you I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatsoever you shall bind upon earth shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth shall be loosed also in heaven.” The direct institution of the sacrament came after the resurrection of Christ, putting it among those last minute treasures of His life among men, when He breathed on the apostles and said: “Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” As in the beginning God had breathed the breath of life into dead dust, so now He breathed the breath of life into all the generations of men who would die to divine life, falling victims of the heavy blows of sin.
Life came back to men. And the tree of that life was the cross of Calvary; this sacrament is its fruit which men, coming upon it thousands of years later, have clutched as desperately as Magdalen held to the feet of her Master. What a world of despair it would be if that fruit had not been given. By his very nature, man must try to remedy his mistakes, particularly those that threaten the success of his whole life; in sin, he was faced with a mistake that destroyed the very principle of the life of God within him, yet there was absolutely nothing he could do about it of his own powers. For there can be no salvation for men unless sins are forgiven; and only the power of God can remove the stain of sin.
It is true that, through the grace of God, an act of perfect contrition destroys sins and brings grace; we shall see more of this later on in this chapter. But the sacrament of Penance an instrument of forgiveness absolutely infallible in the production of its effects, as infallible as Christ’s own words: “Be of good heart, son, thy sins are forgiven thee.” In fact, that perfect contrition which forgives sin itself includes, at least implicitly, a desire for the sacrament of Penance; so that we may say that, once a man has grievously sinned, the sacrament is absolutely necessary, either in fact or in desire.
Doubt or uneasiness about the effects of this sacrament really reflects on the power of Christ Himself. The sacrament is not something that has to be applied to the soul over and over again before a real lustre is accomplished, much as we polish old silver, never quite satisfied with the perfection of the result. Long years of heavy sighs, tears, bitter regrets, the long face of perpetual sadness, these are not the appurtenances of this sacrament. Indeed, they might well be suspect as children of pride. Their roots may go no deeper than the shocked vanity of the sinner who never gets over his astonishment that such a sterling character as himself could commit such sins, though of course they are easily understandable in others; it may be that he is still pitting his own power of sinning against God’s power of forgiving and weeping at how badly the divinity comes out in such a contest.
There is no need for a lifetime of uninterrupted external penance. It is true that a man is, and should always be, displeased at the fact that he has sinned. A murderer who emerges from the confessional both delighted at sin’s forgiveness and gloating over the murder he has committed, has wasted the priest’s time as well as his own; it simply is not possible for a man to enclose both God and sin in the one embrace. In the sense of displeasure at the sin we have committed, eternal penance endures; but the proper emotion after confession is one of complete joy, of release from the slavery of sin, of gratitude and wonder at the friendship of God. Our groans add nothing to the effect; for it is only because God has died that anything can be done about sin, it is only by the power of His passion that we can escape from the grave we have dug ourselves into.
Penance is not a coat of whitewash that wears off from time to time and must be renewed; it is infallibly effective, and its effect is the destruction of sin. It is, then, a radical obliteration of all that is inimical to divine life; it is complete and “for keeps.” Yet, it is not a miracle that happens once in a lifetime; rather, its frequency is measured by the ability of man to sin and be sorry, and the divine capacity for mercy. We are rather sure of our constant capacity for sin; we are absolutely sure of the divine capacity for mercy. Let us look a little more closely at the virtue that brings us to the feet of Christ again and again, our ability to be sorry.
The virtue of penance: Intrinsically considered: genus and species
The virtue of penance is a noble thing that has been grossly treated by a world accustomed to think of men in terms of animals. A penitent is not a dog come cringing in terror to its master’s feet; he is not the victim of a passing wave of shame and confusion beyond his control that hurls him into an abject posture before he can prevent it. Penance is a good habit, a thing of reason which enables a man to regret an act that was unworthy of his manhood. Supernaturally, it is an infused habit which enables a man to use the high grounds of regret furnished by faith and to begin the destruction of sin because it is an offense against his God.
We haven’t yet arrived at the point of sneering at justice, yet that is precisely what penance is — justice to God. By sin, we have invaded the rights of God; by penance, we offer what compensation we have to offer, pitiful enough, God knows, in return for the pardon of God. We are not giving something to God by our penance, any more than an apology for unwarranted insult gives anything to the man who has been insulted. We do not belittle ourselves by penance, any more than the thief belittles himself by surrendering his loot. We are merely facing the truth and making amends for our violations of the minimum requirements of social life with God.
It is true that, offending the Infinite, we can offend infinitely, while our penance is necessarily a finite, human thing. That is why God died for us. But by this virtue, perfecting our will as all justice does, we bring our little part to the judgment seat; and in return we receive, not condemnation, but pardon. The fact that the beginnings of penance are to be found in fear is no condemnation of penance nor does it reduce the penitent man to the status of a cringing animal. There are some things a man should be afraid of, for only a fool is absolutely fearless. Certainly, a man should be afraid of the wrath of an offended God Who would justly leave us to our miserable choice of an eternal hell.
However, Catholic penance rarely proceeds from such fear alone. Most frequently there is an element, often enough an exclusive element, of filial fear which is a mixture of reverence and profound love. It is a fear that recoils, not so much from threatened punishment, as from injury to One Who has been so infinitely good; it knows no worse evil than final separation from One Who is so deeply loved.
Extrinsically considered: object, origin, relation to other virtues
In a stately parade of virtues, penance would have to give precedence to many another. But in the disordered bustle of everyday life, penance often finds itself first elbowing a way for its fellows. It is a rough and tumble virtue, fitted by nature to carry off the brawl with sin; a handy virtue, indeed, to have around in times of crisis, especially when it so humbly and unobtrusively gives away to its superiors when the immediate fight is over. In a life like that of Our Lady, where no brawling enters in, penance has nothing to do; and it does precisely that without a single regret. The habit, the infused virtue, was of course in Our Lady; for it comes with the rest of the supernatural equipment brought to w on our birth to the life of God by grace.
It is not hard to see that penance has not much to do in the saints in heaven except to give thanks for the sins that have been forgiven. In the angels, good or bad, there is no room at all either for the habit of penance or for its acts. For penance involves the capacity to change one’s mind and the object of the affections of one’s heart; in other words, to change a course of action, to regret, and to do something in the opposite direction. The angels love but once and that forever, whether they have embraced sin or sanctity. They may regret the action for what it has done to them, but they have no notion whatsoever of revoking or changing that course of action; for what an angel does, he does once for all, just as what he knows, he knows completely, once for all. We may have our moments of discontent and grumbling as we munch our peasant fare in the tenements of rationality, thinking enviously of the royal palaces of intellectuality inhabited by the angels. But there is an advantage, too, in our lowly state; for it is only here that there is a second chance, that one can make a mistake and repair it, that one is not eternally committed, by the very nobility of nature, to one course of action without recall.
Spiritually, an angel can die but once, while a man can die a thousand times or more; for the angel dies forever, whereas man has life within his grasp even though he be dead. To understand better the resurrection that has been given us, let us suppose that a board of experts on sin, aided by a satanic council of strategy, had, after exhaustive study, declared that they had finally hit upon a sin that could not be forgiven by the sacrament of Penance. Then, let us say, they submitted their findings to Thomas for criticism over the protests, of course, of the satanic members of the board.
I do not believe Thomas would even look at the formulae, statistics, and equations; after all, life is short and there are so many important things to do. He would probably say something like this. “If there is such a sin, it is unforgivable either because man cannot be sorry for it, or because the sacrament of Penance cannot wipe it out. The first supposition is an insult to free will and the power of grace, a lie that conflicts with both natural and supernatural truth. The second, is a denial of the infinite character of mercy and the infinite power of the passion of Christ. Take away all the paraphernalia of your theorizing; there cannot be such a sin.”
The effects of Penance: On sin: mortal and venial
It is not only that Penance can and does destroy any one mortal sin; even though thousands of such sins were to herd together like a gang of toughs, they would be just as helpless to resist the blood of Christ. Penance forgives all sin. It cannot wash the face of the soul, leaving smudges here and there in less prominent spots; no mortal sin is remitted without sanctifying grace which cannot live in the same soul with mortal sin for the simple reason that the will of man cannot go in different directions at the same time. The sins that must be submitted to the tribunal of this sacrament are the mortal sins that have not yet been forgiven; these are the primary objects against which this sacrament is directed, what the theologians call “necessary matter.” The free matter, which may or may not be submitted to the judgment of the confessor as the penitent likes, consists of mortal sins already forgiven and venial sins; but there must be some sin told in the confessional or there can be no sacrament. The priest, asking about sins of one’s past life, is not whiling away the idle hours; he is making sure that there is matter for the sacrament, guaranteeing that the sacrament, with its infallible increase in sanctifying grace, will be received.
Venial sin can be taken care of without the sacrament. It does not require a new infusion of grace, since it does not expel grace but dwells, though not joyously, in the same house with charity. Of course, the forgiveness of venial sin demands something of the virtue of penance, at least that implicit displeasure at venial sin which is implied in an act of charity; for not even these slight sins are to be snatched out of a man’s hands as a noisy rattle is taken from a baby by a nervous mother. Wherever there is a movement of the will to God and away from sin, there is a forgiveness of venial sin; so in every new infusion of grace, venial sin is forgiven. On the contrary, wherever the will of man clings to his venial sin, no force in heaven or on earth will separate him from it. In actual fact, there are thousands of occasions for the forgiveness of venia1 sins. The reception of the sacraments, a fervent Our Father with its detestation of sin, acts of reverence to God such as the acceptance of the episcopal blessing, the use of holy water, genuflections, and so on, are all means of forgiving venial sin.
On punishment due to sin
To get back to the sacrament, it is always as complete in its effects as a man is willing to let it be: mortal sin, venial sin, and the punishment due to sin are all wiped out in this sacrament. We enter the confessional box enemies of God, and leave it friends with a right to His eternal heritage. However, if a man enters the confessional clinging to a venial sin, he comes out with it still in his hand; if he wants to hold to some of the temporal punishment due to sin, no one will take it away from him. In other words, what there is of sin or its vestiges after confession corresponds to the glance we throw over our shoulder at the world of sin; if our turning to God from sin is really complete, then there is no slightest trace of sin or its debt of punishment on our souls.
On virtues, merits, forgiven sins
It is to be remembered, however, that the effects of Penance fall on the soul, not on the body of man. A drunkard cannot expect to lose his taste for whiskey by a sincere confession. Physical dispositions and acquired habits are not whisked out of existence, short of a miracle; they must be worn down by steady battling. The point is, a man acquires the weapons of battle in the infused virtues, good habits directly from God, that come to him with the grace of the sacraments. Mortal sin, taking the life out of the soil of the soul, destroys most of the splendid growth of infused supernatural virtue; with Penance, grace falls with the refreshing effect of a spring shower, bringing all those destroyed virtues back to life.
The degree of this restored life will depend on the degree of grace a man receives in this sacrament, and this, in turn, is a matter of his conversion to God and away from sin. Infallibly, however, he will receive grace, its accompanying virtues, and the merits of past works that he lost through his sin. In the economic order, bankruptcy usually means that some one else has all the money this man has lost; in the spiritual order, the end of a depression means that a man has recovered much of the treasure of merit he had piled up, perhaps all of his original fortune, or even a much greater one, depending on the intensity of his sorrow for sin and his love for God.
It is altogether too much to expect Penance to give life to works that were never anything else but dead. Good works done in mortal sin have never had title to an eternal reward; they are not to be given that title by Penance. They are the works of a dead man done in death and nothing will change them In a sense, God undoes the work of man by restoring to life by grace what man has killed by sin, but man has no such power over the work of God; for what God destroys cannot be revived by any power of man. Thus, the sins destroyed in this sacrament are not to be called back to life the next time a sin is committed. They are dead, divinely executed, annihilated beyond burial. We may produce some of the same kind, but they will have to be brand new; we may weep over the memory of the forgiven sins, but we cannot very well worry about them without admitting that we are entering the shadowy territory of the non-existent in search of material for worry.
Integral parts of Penance — contrition, confession, satisfaction:
Contrition: Its nature and object; distinction from attrition
Up to this point, we have been looking at Penance as a whole, alternately marvelling at the power and love of God on the one hand, and at the renewed life of the soul of man on the other; but always seeing the sacrament in its completeness. The procedure was natural enough. After all, the beauty and character of a face impresses us long before we begin to study the excellence of individual features. Perhaps one of the reasons why love never tires of its object is that we come down to the last details so slowly, and never quite to their ultimate depths. Thomas was just coming down to such details of penance when the ink ran out of his pen. On his way to the Council of Lyons in obedience to a papal command, sick and terribly tired, Thomas was welcomed into the house of strangers to wait for his rendezvous with death. The intense, ceaseless labor of another son of Dominic came to a close when the bright, quick-burning flame of his life sputtered out. Thomas had paid the ultimate penalty for falling in love with truth.
Of the two human elements in penance, the acts of the accused and the judge, Thomas had just noted the three that are proper to the penitent — contrition, confession, and satisfaction — when death closed the cover on his Summa, putting an end to his search for truth by giving him supreme Truth. Here, we must leave the mature work of Thomas, take farewell of theSumma we have wandered through in these volumes, and, with a little envy of an older brother’s quick trip home, fall back on the earlier works of Thomas for the completion of the outline he had sketched for his supreme work.
The three acts to which Thomas had given his last farthing of attention make up the proximate matter of the sacrament of penance. By contrition, the sinner wills to make recompense for his sin and to avoid the sin in the future; by confession, he subjects his sin to divine judgment; and by his satisfaction, the acceptance of the penance imposed, he makes the recompense demanded by the judge of this tribunal. To the Catholic, there is nothing complex or mysterious in all this; he has been expert in its knowledge and practice since childhood.
He knows, for instance, that on coming to confession he must be sorry for and detest his sins, firmly resolving to avoid them in the future. Sometimes, that sorrow of his is only imperfect contrition, that is, attrition, a sorrow that does not trace its ancestry beyond a fear of gaining hell or losing heaven; again it may be perfect contrition, that perfect sorrow which is contrition in its strictest sense and which turns from sin in disgust as an offense against a Friend Who is infinitely good. In either case, the Catholic completes his confession with an easy mind; for even attrition is sufficient for the sacrament of Penance.
Its quantity and quality
Contrition, that is, perfect contrition, destroys sin of its very nature, though it always carries with it the obligation of submitting all mortal sin to the sacramental judgment. Attrition, on the other hand, is helpless of itself to get anything done about sin; yet is completely effective when coupled with sacramental absolution. The point to be noticed here, by way of anticipation of the demands of some who would be more Catholic than the Church, is that both of these are supernatural sorrow, sorrow produced by the aid of grace, sorrow whose motive is supernatural, whether that motive be heaven, hell, or the infinite goodness of God. It is not necessary that a man feel upset, downcast, disgusted, or angry at himself as guarantees of his sorrow; in fact, none of these have anything to do with the efficacy of this sacrament. A man might, merely naturally, be full of loathing for the baseness of gluttony or drunkenness; what is demanded here is not the natural, but the supernatural, not a repugnance of sense appetite but a renouncement on the part of the will.
Over and above its supernatural character, this sorrow for sin, whether contrition or attrition, must be more than a matter of words or imagination; it must be real, for it is an integral part of a terribly real sacrament. Moreover, it is not a delicate hint, a subtle implication, or a generous but highly imaginative interpretation; it is formal, a positive act by which a man here and now sorrows for his sins. There are no cautious reservations to be tacked on to it as though it were a dangerous partnership agreement with God, it must be sorrow for all sins; nor can it be carefully measured, lest we go too far with it, it must be a supreme sorrow, a sorrow that regrets this sin more than anything else. It must, however, be distinctly understood that there is no question here of feeling sorrow; where feeling has any part to play at all in this sacrament, it is as an echo of the resounding rational sorrow, the sorrow of the will that is essential for the sacrament. Even on the side of rational sorrow, a man may be very much more intensively sorry about the death of his wife than at his own embezzlement of a thousand dollars. No one will try to change that fact. It is not necessary, in fact it is very often impossible, to have that supreme intensive sorrow for sin; what is demanded is that we be prepared to give up any other good rather than commit this sin or keep it on our souls. In the theologian’s terms, the sorrow demanded for confession must be appreciatively , not intensively, supreme.
Confession: Its necessity
With all this in mind, it is not easy to understand how the word got around that confession was a license to commit sin and an encouragement of it. The recent convert to Catholicism is astounded that the rumor ever could get started. Our contrition is as firm and final a farewell to sin as the human will can speak. Its word is not a wish but a determination to avoid sin, even though it can have no guarantee against future sins. The point is that sin has lost its attractiveness and so we put it out of our heart, not tearfully, sighingly, half-heartedly, but emphatically. It may creep back later but only on condition of a change in our present disposition. At the moment we are determined; and that means that we propose to use all the means available to avoid future sin: prayer, caution, avoidance of the occasions, and so on. A license for sin? No indeed. But a brave defiance of all the attraction of sin.
This is not a blind optimism which disregards a long history of weakness to coddle a pollyanna attitude towards the future. We know what we are up against, coming to confession and facing the future afterwards. We are not ignorant of the defects in ourselves; in fact, we have honestly focused our eyes on them. Knowing them, aware of all the odds against us, all the enemies drawn up in full fighting strength, we are still willing to have another try at it; to pit our will, fortified by the grace of God, against them all in a fight to the death. It is this clarion courage in the weakest of sinners that is so constant a source of humility and inspiration to the priest in the confessional.
The notion of confession as an encouragement to sin becomes still more absurd when we realize that all that has been said refers to the first of three acts of the penitent. There are still two others, confession and satisfaction, which set up quite substantial barriers to comfort in sinning. Take confession, the telling of our sins to the priest, for instance. It might not be so hard if we could talk about the sins of others; but if we try this, we shall discover shortly, very shortly, that this is no place for gossip, if there is any place for gossip. The trouble is we must tell our own sins, simply, nakedly, truthfully; not exaggerating them, minimizing them, excusing or explaining them away.
If anyone thinks this easy it is because he is an armchair penitent who has not yet personally made the long step over the threshold of the confessional. We are approaching a doctor of the soul; of what use is it to fake or hide a sin? We stand before a judge; how can he judge us if we give him false testimony? Yet, the things to be made known are those which no one but God could discover unless we revealed them; things we hardly can face ourselves. Confession is, indeed, difficult. It demands high courage and deep humility, secret though the telling may be; some inkling of the flood of grace which pours into the soul of the penitent can be had from the fact that the temptation to dodge this difficulty by cheating in the act of confessing hardly occurs to the Catholic. Perhaps it would not be so hard if we could write it out, or make our sins known by signs so that we would not have to hear the things we have done in the cold, clear tones of the spoken word. But unless there is a very good reason, even this softening of the difficulty cannot be allowed; the confession must be oral.
The difficulty must not overshadow the gracious thoughtfulness of Christ in leaving us this sacrament. This is not a high price to pay to be rid of sin. At any rate, by the command of Christ, our sins must be made known; He constituted the apostles as judges of the sins of men, so the material for the judgment must be furnished by the sinners. We must confess our sins and with a certain frequency. The bare minimum is fairly evident: a man must confess when he knows himself to be in mortal sin and he finds himself in danger of death; when what he is about to do, for example, to receive Holy Communion, demands the state of grace and this man, in fact, has not got it. But this procedure is not the high road to perfection; obviously, when a man has committed spiritual suicide, he should not see how long he can stay dead. Even where there is no question of serious sin at all, the infallible grace with its strengthening of the virtues is good enough reason for really frequent confession; for there are no men who cannot stand a little more help from God.
In the confessional, we must tell all the sins that have not yet been submitted to the absolution of a priest, as far as, here and now, they can be or should be confessed. We must tell them all; that is, the kinds of sin, their number, particularly aggravating or minimizing circumstances, and the external acts which flowed from them. However, this does not mean that we must draw pictures for the priest. The point is not to give a perfect, detailed, exhaustive account of sin; but to give the priestly judge accurate information. In actual fact, this need for completeness or universality in our confession is no cause for uneasiness. If we walk into the confessional with the intention of telling everything, we approach an expert who has his own solemn obligation to get the evidence straight; if anything is not sufficiently clear, it is the priest’s duty to ask questions. Our part consists in trying to tell our sins honestly and with what we consider sufficient frankness; the ultimate responsibility is the priest’s.
Obviously, if we have forgotten some sins, they cannot be confessed; if we have only thirty seconds to live, we can hardly cover the forty year space since our last confession. In other words, there will be times when the material integrity, or completeness, of our confession may be, or even must be, dispensed with. But the formal integrity, the telling of all the sins that can be and should be confessed, never allows mitigation.
Perhaps all this is said adequately enough when we say that we must not try to hide things in the confessional; it may be dark and not swept very often, but it is still no hiding place for even so elusive a thing as a sin. If we are trying not to hide anything, then we are certainly not trying to encourage forgetfulness. Sometimes we shall have to do a little research work before confession, examining our conscience to make sure we do not mislay any of the bundles we should be bringing to the courtroom as evidence. Not that we must undergo a soul-searing, tortuous self-analysis, determined to unearth the last detail and arrive at a mathematically exact statement of the number of our sins; it is to God that we are coming for judgment and He demands no more than a reasonably diligent attempt on our part to recall our offenses against Him.
Satisfaction: Its nature
With all the evidence in, we submit it with a contrite heart; the judge ponders it, makes his judgment and, before giving the life-restoring absolution, imposes a penance upon us. It may be only a light penance to dust off our wings, or a heavy one to blast out the remnants of sin; in either case it is a satisfaction for the temporal punishment due to sin. The priest has no choice, he must impose a penance; the penitent has no choice, he must accept it. For both the giving and accepting of the penance are integral parts of the sacrament; without them, there is no sacrament.
Normally, a penitent does not roar in protest at the penance; this sort of thing is expected in a baseball player’s reception of an umpire’s decision, but quite unexpected in a confessional. The results, however, are pretty much the same in both protests. Without uttering a word of protest, a penitent may bitterly rebel against a penance and decide not to say it; by that decision, he has rendered the sacrament invalid. For the imposition of the penance is the judge’s work, not that of the accused; it can be changed or mitigated only by a judge sitting on the same case and with the same evidence. The penance must be accepted; if it is, the sacrament moves smoothly on to its incredible effects. Later we may forget the penance, or even neglect it; that will not undo the sacrament, though it may well leave us guilty of the sin of negligence.
The misfortunes of life, of which we are assured a fair share, almsgiving, fasting, prayer, are only some of the possible means of satisfying for the temporal punishment due to sin quite apart from the sacraments. But all such means must have the mark of satisfaction upon them; that is, they must be voluntarily done or suffered by way of recompense to God. In a sense, even so delicately beautiful a thing as an act of love of God can operate to the destruction of temporal punishment, though this is rather by way of merit than by way of satisfaction. In a much stricter sense, charity is at the root of all strict satisfaction. Certainly, it is only in charity that we can satisfy for our own sins; and it is only by the bond of charity which makes us one with others that we can satisfy for the punishment due to their sins. Under any other circumstances, satisfaction for the punishment due to sin is much more a matter of God’s generous acceptance of a trifle rather than a tribute to the value of our particular works.
The point of charity making it possible for us to satisfy for others is tied up closely with the comforting doctrine of the Communion of Saints. By charity, we are one, members of the same Mystical Body; we can operate for the whole or for any part of it. Indeed, the merits or punishments of any part are in a sense those of the whole. From this family helpfulness, the doctrine of indulgences is an inevitable conclusion, in spite of the calumny that has been heaped upon it for centuries.
Its means and limits
An indulgence is the remission, in whole or in part, of the temporal punishment due to sin. It is not a license for sin, or a forgiveness of sin; indeed, it demands freedom from sin to be effective, for it depends upon the bond of union which is charity The background of indulgences is made up of the superabundant merits and satisfactions of the saints, of Christ Who had no sin of His own and Whose merits were infinite, and of the sinless Mary with her charity above that of all the saints and angels. All these make up the treasury of the Church; for these works, unnecessary for their authors, were not done for this or that man, but for Christ and the Church. That treasury is dispensed by the Head of the Church on the conditions laid down by the Church and determined by it; but only to those who, by their charity, are living members of the Church.
Minister of the sacrament of Penance: A priest with jurisdiction
All through this chapter, we have paid very little attention to the man on the other side of the confessional grill; probably, most of the readers of this chapter have hardly noticed the omission, for this is the entirely normal degree of consideration given to him. Particularly in large city churches, he is more impersonal than the voice of a foreign radio broadcaster. He may never have seen the penitent, the penitent may never come in contact with him again; yet, in his quiet whisper, he wields the power of Christ Himself, saying whether this man is to rise from the dead or to rot in his tomb. It would, beyond doubt, be more accurate to say that it is the penitent who decides whether or not this priest shall be allowed to use the power of Christ on him; it is the penitent who denies himself absolution, for this cannot be denied to a penitent who is rightly disposed.
At any rate, that impersonal figure in the darkness of the confessional deserves a little more study. It is true that you may, if you like, confess your sins to a layman; you may shout them publicly at a revival meeting; it may even be that some day you will be allowed to broadcast them over the radio. But in all these cases, you need expect no absolution. This power is given only to an ordained priest; its source is the character of the sacrament of Holy Orders, an active spiritual power indelibly imprinted on the soul of a man. The character alone, however, is not a commission turning a priest loose on a world of sinners; his act of absolution is an act of government, an authoritative act, which needs what the theologians call `’jurisdiction.” That is, over and above the power of Holy Orders, the priest must be given a share in the power of government by one who has this power by reason of his office — the Ordinary, or bishop.
His office and obligation
Moreover, the priest’s office of confessor is hedged about with prerequisites and conditions in a manner calculated to make it fool-proof. Aside from the actual circumstances of hearing confessions, circumstances completely familiar to Catholics, there is the matter of the requisite knowledge of a confessor. Young Dominican confessors, on their way back every three years to face a two-hour grilling by a board of five examiners, will testify to the seriousness of this-demand in actual practice. Surely, the confessor must have a solid possession of the virtue of prudence; �or here he operates as the ruler and guide of souls. He must bring special excellence to the confessional in such Christian virtues as zeal for souls, that he might be all things to all men; indefatigable patience, to deal with the infinite variety of the unprepared, the ignorant, the tepid in such a way as not to lose a single sheep from the fold; a strong courage, lest he hesitate to admonish; and a purity which will enable him to reach out his hand to help others without soiling himself.
So equipped — and the responsibility for that equipment is his to be answered for eternally — he must sit in judgment on the deeds of men, judging with all the efficacy of Christ’s own judgment. He must teach and admonish men, dispose them for contrition, correct their lives, lead some on to heights of sanctity, rescue others from the mire of sin, and, rarely, face the awful fact of his inability to give this penitent absolution. Aside from the physical considerations, such as lack of air, nervous tension, and the aching fatigue involved, this gives us some insight into the heroism of the Cure of Ars’ ordinary day of from sixteen to eighteen hours in the confessional. Certainly it makes quite unnecessary my assurance that every young priest, equipped with all these things and adhering to all the conditions demanded, walks into the confessional for the first time in a state of terror. A doctor’s mistake may, at the very worst, bring physical death; here, a mistake may mean eternal spiritual death for which the priest is strictly accountable.
The seal of confession
It is probably the secrecy of the confessional more than anything else that has caught the imagination of every age. Probably the world outside the Church never really realizes how absolute that secrecy is. The world might understand, at least vaguely, that the confessional secrecy extends beyond sins to all the penitent has said in the process of sacramental confession, whether absolution is given or not; that is, everything that would make the sacrament onerous or odious. It could be easily understood that this included all that might redound to the injury or even to the displeasure of the penitent; such things as physical defects, outstanding virtues, personal qualities, and so on.
The secrecy, of course, goes beyond this. These things not only cannot be told, they cannot be hinted at by the priest. They cannot be made known directly or indirectly; in fact, the priest cannot, outside the confessional, talk of these things even to the penitent without the penitent’s permission. All this might be gathered by an outsider studying the records; he might even understand that the penitent himself is obliged to no such secrecy. The real mistake is made in comparing confessional secrets with professional or natural secrets. There is an infinite difference between them. Professional or natural secrets can be, indeed, sometimes must be revealed; certainly, in cases where their preservation would do serious damage to a third party or to the common good. These things, after all, are known by man. The knowledge of the confessional is not man’s but God’s; at no time does it belong to the priest. He cannot reveal it to save his own soul from hell, to save a nation from annihilation, to save the Church from being utterly obliterated. The priest simply does not know these things.
Conclusion: The living Christ:
In Palestine: Key to His life among men
Some two thousand years ago in Palestine, the leaders of the people heard the Son of Mary say: “Thy sins are forgiven thee.” They were indignant, demanding who but God could forgive sins. They were right; for this man was God. This act of forgiveness revealed, not only His divine power, but the whole purpose of His life among men. He came that men might have life; therefore He came to raise them from the death of sin. For this He lived, suffered, and died, that men might be free of the chains of death they had voluntarily embraced.
Its dramatic heights
A subtle realization of that central fact in Christ’s life has led men to single out particular moments of that short life as focal points for the human heart. The whole of it was a great drama; but moments of it reach heights of the dramatic that men will never allow themselves to forget. There was the breathless moment when a woman stood before Him, silent and ashamed, after her accusers had all gone away; we can still hear His merciful judgment: “Neither do I condemn thee; go in peace and sin no more.” There was another moment of silence, when the guests of the Pharisee stared in consternation at the woman who threw herself at the feet of Christ: “Much s forgiven her for she hath loved much. Go in peace; thy faith hath made thee whole.” Hanging on the cross, He reached up from the depths of an agony only to be relieved by death, to snatch a repentant soul from hell.
In the sacrament of Penance: a constant drama, the constant resurrection
When Rubens introduced Magdalen into his magnificent “Descent from the Cross,” the picture was taken out of his hands; for any artist who has allowed the Magdalen to walk across his canvas has had to make her the most arresting figure on it. Men have held fast to such memories of Christ; for this was God at work on the mistakes common to all mon, doing what no man could do, destroying them. Men have more than memories of Christ to cling to. His life did not end on Calvary; rather, we might say that His life started there, to be continued by His own institution in the sacramental structure of the Church, never more strikingly than in the sacrament of Penance. There, day after day, hour after hour, century after century, in all corners of the world, those same dramatic moments are reenacted; men rise from the dead to the life of God.
The secrecy and difficulty of confession: A hard truth for a cowardly world; a balance of difficulty and effects
It might be hard to understand how men could shrink from such miracles of mercy if we did not have personal experience of the difficulty of confession; having had it, we can appreciate the courage of the silent adulteress waiting judgment. It is not that men are necessarily afraid of having their mistakes known; after all, the secrecy of the confessional is so well assured as to be taken for granted. There is, of course, the difficulty of being honest with one’s self, of deliberately recalling and regretting sins committed. And there is the even greater difficulty of mustering the courage to fight back against the possible sins of the future; of admitting defeat, perhaps again and again, and still, somehow, finding the courage to go on fighting. This sacrament is hard. It is a terrible blow to vanity; a severe test of courage; a challenge to a great heart. Vanity never recovers, and it shouldn’t; but self-respect and courage are both causes and effects of a good confession.
The conquest of death
It is hard, yes; but is it too high a price to pay for release from death? For escape from darkness? For the restoration of the ruined work of a lifetime? For divine friendship and its eternal reward? No, the mystery is still on the side of sin and man’s preference to remain in it. Christ’s exit from the tomb on the first Easter threw open the gates of hope to the world; but His conquest of death will not be completed until the last absolution is given to the last sinner, until the last man in love with Christ escapes from the grasp of death. How much more complete it could have been, only a survey of the regions of hell will ever reveal.