Sermon IV. Mid-Lent Sunday.
Of the Knowledge of Sin: By Self-Examination.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. "Then those men, when they had seen the Miracle that JESUS did, said, 'This is of a truth that Prophet That should come into the world.'" Words of the Holy Gospel for the Day.
THE manner in which the truth of our Holy Faith forces itself home to the inner consciousness of Man, is one of the many assurances we possess, that the Catholic Religion is at once Divine and personal. An expression of the Will of a Personal DEITY, established by personal agency, continued by personal organization, Christianity appeals to personal beings, for whose Eternal Benefit, and the Glory of God, the Church was founded. Without ceasing to be one, perfect and entire; without being subject to, or capable of, subtraction or division; without invalidating its claim to abide by the Vincentian, or threefold test of Catholicity--every where, by all, and [52/53] always--the manner in which the "Faith once delivered to the Saints" becomes "all things to all men," is more than marvellous. Each separate Soul is led to accept its teaching by a different method, and with different effects. No two cases of the realization of its Eternal Truths are identical. The means by which they shall be offered to individual Souls appear to be, as indeed they are, considered, shaped, and ordered, one by one, as if by some Infallible Director, as if by some Omniscient Spiritual-Guide. Position in life, and age; character and temperament; intellect, imagination, and will; even the sentiments and affections of the person to be influenced, and of the Soul to be saved, all seem to be cared for, all seem to be entertained. In short, but one word at all conveys an adequate conception of the Divine method in which immortal Souls are worked upon, for their Salvation, by the Catholic Faith--they are individualized.
If we call to mind a few of the cases of Conversion from the pages of the New Testament, with which we may be familiar, we shall at once perceive the truth of this position. Consider the case of the Woman of Canaan. Light dawned upon her Soul by the faithful acceptance of two tests which our Blessed Lord was pleased to offer. Take the case of the Woman who elicited from our Divine [53/54] Master the Blessing which we pondered last Sunday. Conviction flashed across her mind from the teaching of Christ on the subject of Demoniacal possession. The Penitent Thief was saved at his last hour, in the midst of torture, after a life-long course of wickedness, stung by the unjust taunts of a companion in guilt. The Conversion of S. Paul took place in the full vigour of a life of spotless respectability, as a leader of the Pharisees, when a Voice called unto him from Heaven. The Woman of Samaria believed, after a conference with the Divine Stranger, in which with pardonable exaggeration she declared that the God-Man had told her all that ever she did. Certain Disciples, in the storm, believed on Him, when JESUS said, "Peace; be still," and there was a great calm. Nicodemus became a convert after hearing Christ's statement of the Sacramental Doctrine of Holy Baptism. S. Peter made his celebrated Confession of Faith in the Divinity of our LORD in answer to a heart-searching, soul-subduing question. And, not to cite more instances, in the Gospel for the Day we read:--"Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that JESUS did, said, 'This is of a truth that Prophet That should come into the world.'"
Now, my Brethren, can there be more telling, can there be more varied instances of the manner in which our Holy Faith individualizes the Souls [54/55] of those to whom it bears the Message of Salvation? These cases have been selected at hazard. No two of them are identical in their outline: hardly any two of them are similar in their details; yet one and all go home to the mark which the Almighty intended they should pierce. In one case, it is a Miracle of the multiplication of food that convinces; in another, it is preservation from shipwreck; in a third, it is the curing of a demoniac. Here, is one converted in the full tide of successful persecution against the Faith; there, is a poor malefactor, in his death-pangs, admitted to Paradise. To the First of the Apostles is given a Blessing, together with the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, in answer to a question. A Disciple is secured by the enunciation of a single Article of the Creed. A Samaritan Woman, not above suspicion, is touched by a Superhuman insight into her past life; and a Heathen Mother is half converted by the silence of our Lord, and quite converted when He spake words of discouragement and opposition. Of course, in all these instances, the effects of the Words or the Acts of Christ were different in extent, though the same in kind. But they all tended so to bring home to the consciences of those who were thus influenced, the realization of the Truth, as to fall under the term 'Conversion.' And the means employed, and the individualization [55/56] which ensued, evidences the fact, that the Catholic Faith is a Religion at once personal and Divine.
The claims on their belief, in the Mission of our Blessed Lord, came home to the men whom He fed in the wilderness, by the exhibition of Superhuman Power. The astounding display of Divinity was certainly beyond dispute; and the Miracle performed by Christ was of surpassing wonder. Perhaps the feature in it which is not the least noteworthy is this--that after feeding a large multitude with a small supply, the portion which was left exceeded in quantity that which was in the first place multiplied. This is not only a Supernatural inversion of the mathematical axiom that the whole is greater than its part; but is a marked instance of the lavish prodigality of Nature, and of the utter absence in the works of Nature's God on behalf of Man of that debasing influence which so often mars the work of Man towards his Maker--I mean a wide-spread influence in the present day, the spirit of Utilitarianism.
Upon the Gospel incident I will not enter. But, in passing, I wish to point out one fact which testifies to the position, that the Catholic Faith being a personal Religion, its objects are attained by means of personal agents. It is this. That instead of supplying the wants of the famishing men immediately, and still less, instead of permitting the [56/57] men to supply themselves, our Blessed LORD makes use of human mediation for this purpose; He employs the mediation of the Apostles. And it is not without its value to observe, in the Mystical interpretation of the Gospel, that the number of the thousands of those who were fed by the superhuman food is equal to the number of those five gateways of knowledge by which man has access to the outer world, which are also the handmaids of Faith. Neither is it without a purpose, that the number of the loaves and fishes--five loaves and two fishes--and still more, the manner in which they are severally divided, is identical both with the number and the division of those seven-fold Means of Grace, which the Church has provided for the sustenance of her children, upon which I spoke last Sunday, the seven personal and Sacramental Extensions of the Incarnation.
It is a thought which cannot be entertained without a feeling of awe, and which, if pondered upon, becomes almost overpowering, that Almighty God knows and sees us actually as we are. To consider that the All-seeing eye of GOD beholds our individual Souls, as if none other in the Universe met His gaze; to realize that the All-knowing Mind of God is conscious of each several and separate action of our lives, as if all the world [57/58] besides were nought, is at once awful and appalling. And yet, my Brethren, is it not true? Is this thought, or is it not, based upon a simple, though fearful matter-of-fact which allows of no doubt, of no denial? Is it, or is it not a truth, which admits of no palliation, of no explaining away? Each one of you, my Brethren, can answer, each one of you must answer, these Questions for himself. And they are Questions of much moment in the consideration of that portion of the Subject of Sin on which we enter this morning--namely, that of Self-Examination. For, if we believe, as we must believe, and as in our inmost hearts we cannot but believe, that Almighty God knows and sees us actually as we are, there exists a most cogent and powerful motive why, in our Self-Examination, we should be open, honest, and candid with our Souls--and that is, because, however much we may deceive ourselves, we may not deceive our God.
We will admit then, that God Almighty both knows and sees us as we are. For ourselves, however, this knowledge, this sight is not possible. As we are, we can neither see nor know ourselves absolutely. To be conscious of the actual condition of a sinful Soul, as GOD is cognizant of its state; to be forced to view it now, as we shall have power given us to behold it at the Day of Doom--such knowledge, such sight, would be more than human [58/59] nature could endure. We could not realize it, and retain our faculties. We could not look upon it, and live. And I do not mean, that memory could not be quickened, to call back to mind long-ago committed Sin. I do not mean, that imagination could not be stimulated to act again the scenes of Sin through which, unhappily, we have passed. But I do mean, that if the powers of the mind were Supernaturally heightened, to estimate the reality in our immortal Souls of that which either is, or has been, the human faculties and vital force of Man, as now organized, would be impotent to withstand the shock. The knowledge would be too fearful. The spectacle would be too appalling. We could not, I repeat, we could not see the one, or know the other, and exist.
Persons may be found who ingenuously admit the truth of this statement when the subject-matter under discussion falls into one of three divisions:--firstly, when the Sins committed, in their opinion, are deadly, and certainly are wilful; secondly, when the Sins are of a debasing sort, or of a low and vulgar kind; and, thirdly, when the Sins are those of others, and not those of themselves. In any of these cases, the hideous likeness which a Sinner bears to one afflicted with that most loathsome of human maladies--the Eastern leprosy--of whom a sin-sick Soul is but a faint type, the [59/60] semblance, I say, without difficulty is allowed. The likeness, however, is not considered so obviously exact, when any one, or still more when all of these three conditions are not observed; and persons are then less easily discovered with equal candour. And yet, my Brethren, when we call to mind Who God is, and what we are; when we think of our Blessed Lord's own explanation of the Decalogue, on Sins of thought, on Sins of word, on Sins of desire; when we remember that the lost Angels were cast into Hell Fire, not for sensual, but for spiritual Sins, we shall modify our opinion, that it is only the open, carnal, or debasing Sins of what are called 'the dangerous classes,' which place Christian men and women without the pale of God's favour. We shall hold our minds in suspense, ere we assent to the popular and fashionable view of Sin, the source of which is most surely found in the presence of intense Self-Consciousness, and in the complete absence of S elf-Examination.
Not for one moment, then, extenuating the heinousness of coarse, and of vulgar sensuality, I venture to believe, my Brethren, that if we think less of the Sinner and of the Sin in the conventional aspect of both, and if we judge of either more by the unbending standard of God's Word than by our own opinion, the sight or knowledge of our own Souls, as they really are, would be intolerable. [60/61] How differently would even our faults and failings, our weaknesses and indiscretions, as we flatter ourselves they may be termed, under such circumstances, appear! Our ingratitude towards God would then appear in all its blackness; our want of love to man, in all its un-loveliness; our overindulgence of self, in all its utter selfishness. We should then perceive that our truthfulness was not sufficiently sincere; our faith was not sufficiently child-like; our worship was not sufficiently devout. Our fickleness, our irritability, our envying, our detraction, our contempt, our retaliation, our unforgiving spirit, and our lack of charity, would then be seen in their own form, in their own proportion. The employment of things positively lawful, but used without measure, would then be declared to be inadmissible. Perfect conformity of the human will to the Will Divine would then be owned to have been neglected. And purity, without which none can see GOD; purity, which, in every age, is so hard to keep, so easy to lose; purity, which, in this age, with many supports, is assailed by many temptations both in literature and in society; purity would then be seen to have been endangered with little compunction, or compromised with no hesitation. The actual condition of a Soul which is tainted even with such Sins as the world lightly esteems, could not be known as God knows it, [61/62] could not be seen as God sees it, with impunity. We could not contemplate such a reality, and live. The All-pure, the All-holy alone could behold such a spectacle unmoved. And, although this side the tomb we shall be afforded no such power of Self-Inspection, as would show a sinner the positive condition of his Soul; yet, that moment of our lives in which we first fairly stand face to face with our Sins, and, to some extent, know ourselves as GOD knows us, is the moment in which we have been candid, honest, and open with ourselves in the use of Self-Examination. That day in which we are enabled, after our measure, to view our Souls, even in a glass darkly, and thus to see our Souls as GOD sees them, is the day in which we realize that the Catholic Faith has at length individualized our hearts, in which we are compelled to cry aloud with the men who, "had seen the Miracle that JESUS did--'This is of a truth that Prophet That should come into the world.'"
Suffer me here to pause for a moment, in order to gather up the threads of our argument, so far as we have yet pursued it; and let us see, in what position we now find ourselves in considering the Subject of Sin. In the first place we decided, on the Nature of Sin, that Sin was the action of a Personal influence. Secondly, we perceived that the [62/63] objective mark left upon the Soul by such Personal action, constituted the Guilt of Sin. Last Sunday, we meditated on the Sacramental System of the Church, by which such Guilt of such influence, in the sevenfold Extensions of the Incarnation, was washed away. And to-day we are discussing the manner in which we may ascertain what special Sins in our Souls need that Sacramental cleansing, in order to take away the stain left by the action of the Personal agent in question. The method to be employed is that of Self-Examination.
In speaking to such a Congregation as I see before me, to the Congregation which I know worships in this Church, it is hardly needful to enter upon the value, the urgency, or the use of Self-Examination. We all are wont, with more or less of consistency, and as a matter of course, to make use of this two-edged weapon in our spiritual warfare. We all acknowledge its necessity. We all have practically learnt its value. My intention, therefore, is not to consider the Question of Self-Examination at large; but to offer a few suggestive hints, upon its effective and beneficial employment in a single way.
Now, it is a matter of the highest importance for our spiritual well-being, that Self-Examination may [63/64] have a fair chance of doing its work on the conscience effectually, and with due benefit to those who make use of it. After the Soul has become conscious of the reality of Sin, and after the Catholic Faith has individualized her, has caused her to look inward upon herself, has made her to bow before and to adore, "that Prophet That should come into the world "--Inspection of self must be employed after two different methods. Self-Examination must be used both specifically, and collectively. It must be employed in a general survey over the whole life; and in a particular investigation of a portion of the life. It must be used to discover all the Sins of the Soul; as well as to inquire into some given and special Sin. Of these two forms of Self-Examination, the special and particular form, of individual or daily Sins, is most widely known, is most widely acted upon. The collective, or the general, view of our Sins, of the Sins of our whole life, is less known and less often acted on. Hence, I shall endeavour, God helping me, to make a few practical suggestions upon the use of general, or life-long Self-Examination.
A general Examination of Conscience, as the words imply, is made in order to include the survey of a whole life. And the Examination of a whole life, is neither an easy matter, nor a short. [64/65] It may, however, at once be shortened and made less difficult, if it be undertaken upon some system. The system which may be adopted is comparatively of little moment, so long as the mental vivisector acts upon some definite and decided plan. And without going into many details, a system may be mentioned, which possesses the double advantage both of simplicity, and of elasticity. It is one which consists in dividing the inner life into certain distinct epochs or periods, conformable to similar divisions in the outer life of him who desires to obtain a general view of both. In the lives of most persons, such divisions are clearly marked, are easily defined. And it will invariably be found, I think, that each of such epochs possesses characteristics and features of its own. Each has its own specific dangers and difficulties, its own individual trials and temptations, its own peculiar Blessings and Means of Grace. Each will need to be carefully searched into generally; as well as, to be made the subject-matter of special Self-Inspection.
Take, for instance, the ordinary course of an average Catholic; and consider, one by one, the various phases, or epochs into which our existence is divisible. We first find the division which extends from our earliest years of consciousness, to the time at which we went to school. This would [65/66] form our Home life, in which, as there would possibly be discovered few temptations, so would there certainly be offered us few Means of Grace. Our Educational life would follow next in order of time; and there, perhaps, whilst the temptations would be increased, the safeguards would be diminished. The third epoch in our existence, would include our Entrance into the world, and our early years of manhood, in professional, or other life. And in this stage of our inner development, even if temptation assumed a more potent form, a more taking appearance, the Sacramental Means of Grace afforded would be more efficacious, and more plentiful than before. From this point to when, in one of many ways, we become, as it is called, 'Settled in life,' would form a fourth term in our career. Whilst the last division to be analyzed, perhaps, would extend onwards from the latter event to the present time, in which ever new, and more powerful temptations to Sin would be met with ever new, and more efficacious Sacramental Means of Grace for Holiness of life.
These divisions apply chiefly to the case of Men; but they are not wholly inapplicable to that of Women. As placed before a mixed Congregation, they are of necessity of the vaguest, the most indefinite kind. Perhaps on this account they may [66/67] possess a certain value, as serving for an inducement to some of us, in our own case, to make that distinct which is now vague, and that particular which is now wanting in definitiveness. Many subdivisions of the wider epochs, which I have marked out, will at once occur to any who take the trouble to give the matter thought. And, as a further aid in the investigation, certain landmarks in our course will inevitably appear. These will make admirable stand-points of observation, whence we may the more easily map out our consciences, note the lie of the country in our immediate neighbourhood, and take the bearings of the next natural feature in our onward course. These points of view are different with different persons. But they easily assort themselves into two distinct classes; those which are concerned with our Faith, our Spiritual Life, or the Holy Sacraments; and those which are connected with our family concerns, or with social, or personal events. Both are of much importance in the inner life; and both exercise great influence upon the due employment of Self-Examination.
Amongst the more important landmarks of our Religious or inner life, may be mentioned Confirmation, First Communion, First Confession, and the use of other Sacraments: our earliest conscious fall into deadly Sin, and what came of it; or our [67/68] escape from some almost overpowering temptation, and how we escaped it: our first realization of the Guilt of Sin, or conception of the fact that the Catholic Faith had individualized our Souls, how it came about, and what effect it left upon us: some fall into temptation in later life, some fall into Sin, more sad than any other, and what steps were taken in consequence: some very deep, keen, and hearty Penitence, which however was not permanent, and the cause of such evanescent feeling: or lastly, I will mention some un-ordinary, most undeserved, but altogether blessed Gift, or Grace, or Comfort of God the Holy Ghost.
Such are some of the Spiritual landmarks, the observation of which may help us in our wanderings along the difficult, but needful path of Self-Examination. And if I turn, for a moment, to those which are social or personal in character, I beg you to bear with me when I call to mind certain every day, possibly commonplace, but at the time they happened intensely vivid scenes, or events, which have left their mark upon us. For instance, our going to, or leaving school, or college: our entrance into a professional, or other walk of life: an engagement of marriage, or its fulfilment: the birth of a first-born, or, in after years, the death of some much-loved child: some dangerous illness, or [68/69] merciful cure: some great and unlooked-for success in life, or some unexpected and severe trial: the loss of parent, husband, wife, or friend; or any other circumstance that powerfully influenced our lives at the time, that still influences our lives now.
These events, or scenes, will act as useful standpoints, from which to look backwards to the landmark we have left, to look onward to that towards which we tend. From their elevation, we shall be able to see distinctly over the intervening country of our Souls; and we shall not fail to note the lights and shades, the hills and dales, the wood and water, the bridges, roads and paths, the cities, towns and villages of this thickly populated, this highly cultivated scene. Each feature in the landscape will have its story, each outline will have its tale. The works of GOD will become suggestive; the works of Man will be full of thought. Memory will thus be energized; imagination will thus be quickened; the mind will become stored with details of the life past; and the Soul will be placed in possession of the facts she needs, by the faithful and searching use of a general and life-long Self-Examination.
There is no need, I think, to dwell upon these [69/70] plain allusions: and further than this I will not go to-day. To enter upon the examination of each epoch of our lives, would be to apply the principle of special Self-Inspection to each division of the plan for a general Self-Examination; and into the Question of special Self-Examination, I cannot now enter. But, dear Brethren, one or other form of Self-Examination must be used, perhaps both ought to be employed, this Lent. In God's Holy Name I beg of you to make use of special Self-Examination before Easter, more consistently, more honestly, more searchingly than heretofore. And, if any of you, my Brethren, in God's Mercy, are now for the first time led to take a wider view of your life past, by means of a general Self-Examination, the hints which I have given, and the suggestions which I have made, by God's Blessing, may not be without their value.
Now, to God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be ascribed all Glory, for ever and for evermore. Amen.