In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. "Jesus said, 'Which of you convinceth Me of Sin?'" Words of the Holy Gospel for the Day.
FEW are they who can make these words their own, and ask this question of their neighbours, "Which of you convinceth me of Sin?" Fewer still are they who can take the text within their lips, and apply it as a standard, by which themselves to gauge their consciences. But are there any, think you, my Brethren, who could utter the challenge contained in the inquiry, in the Presence of their God? None but ONE Who ever lived could do so before GOD, His Conscience, or His neighbour. None but One, Who was God, Whose Conscience knew no Sin, Whose neighbour condemned Him not, could venture to utter such a question. And He it was Who first used, Who alone could use [71/72] the words, "Which of you convinceth Me of Sin?" He used them, He only used them, as Perfect GOD and Perfect Man. He was capable of using them, and did make use of them, mark you, Brethren, not because, being Perfect Man, He was therefore God; but being God He was of necessity Perfect Man, and One Who could not sin. A most important difference, which divides the opinion of the World from the teaching of the Church. The one Deifies Human Nature from the Perfection of a Man; the other acknowledges a perfected Humanity which has its source in the GODHEAD. We are admitted to the Beatific Vision by virtue of Incorporation with the Deity: others claim a Salvation due to the cultivation of a spotless Morality. The World imitates, esteems, and patronizes a Man, Who was Perfect. The Church is made one with, adores, and worships a God, Who by the Incarnation has become Man.
These thoughts are not unsuitable to the subject we are considering--the Question of Sin: for only by comparison with One Who as Man is Perfect and Sinless, can we fully perceive our own sinful-ness and imperfection; only by Sacramental Union with One Who is God, can we become holy, "as He is Holy," and perfect, even as our "Father Which is in Heaven is Perfect." But I will not pursue these thoughts farther. I will at once turn [72/73] to that portion of the Question of Sin which awaits our consideration this morning--the washing away of Sin in the Blood of the Lamb, by the means of Sacramental Confession.
In discussing the connexion which subsists between the Sacramental System of the Church, and the effect on the Soul of the Personal influence of Satan, we found ourselves, on the third Sunday in Lent, in this position. We perceived that each want in the ordinary career of a Catholic, for advance in Holiness, was supplied. We perceived, also, that for the exceptional needs of his existence a supply of Grace was not lacking. And we perceived that these Superhuman needs and wants, both ordinary and uncommon, were obtained from the six-fold personal and Sacramental Extensions of the Incarnation. We saw, at the beginning of life, that the Seed of Holiness was implanted by the first Sacramental Extension; that, in passing from infancy to childhood, such Holiness was energized and made to germinate by a second Extension; that from youth to manhood, and from manhood to old age, the daily life of such Holiness was supported, nerved, and increased by daily supplies of Super-substantial Bread in a third Extension. We saw, also, that if GOD should call the Catholic to the estate of Marriage, a fourth Sacrament [73/74] blessed with special Gifts his union; if God should call him more closely to Himself, though unworthy of such nearness, a fifth Sacrament, in Holy Order, admitted him to the Priesthood; if God should call him, after the example of his Divine Master, to a suffering life, or to a bed of sickness, the Church permitted him, in a sixth Sacrament of Unction, to "call for the Elders," to "pray over him," and to anoint "him with Oil in the Name of the Lord."
All these Sacramental Extensions of the Incarnation serve for one purpose, centre in one point, Holiness of life; and Holiness of life is advanced by their use, either positively, by the addition of Grace, or negatively, by means preventive of Guilt. Now, my Brethren, I place this statement shortly before you. We all admit, that the Catholic Faith is a Religion of Sacraments. We admit, as a law with which GOD alone can dispense, that apart from the Holy Sacraments, no Grace can be conferred. We find that for every state and condition of life, in each ordinary stage, and in some that are not common to all, a personal Extension of the Incarnation awaits us to implant, to vivify, to expand this Supernatural principle and power, for Sanctity and against Sin. But, we also find, so far as we have as yet considered it, that the Sacramental System of the Church is absorbed in one single [74/75] idea, the perfecting and completion of the Christian character. Taking, however, the average life of a Catholic as a whole, and as we find it, one most momentous omission in the System is obvious. There appears to be absolutely no provision made for Penitence. There seems to be no means afforded, so far as we have as yet discovered, for those who fall into Sin, to restore them again to a state of Sanctity, and to re-instate them once more in the position they occupied, before their falling away from Holiness of life.
Considering these facts, therefore, as in the sight of God, I confidently ask you, my Brethren, is it at all likely, is it at all probable, is it within the bounds of possibility, that such omission was intentional? Is it conceivable, that it was the deliberate Will and Purpose of the Good LORD, that no Sacramental Extension of His Own Incarnation should be afforded in His Church, to meet this difficulty, to supply this want? I cannot doubt your answer. To my mind, the supposition is simply incredible. It is beyond belief, that Almighty GOD should have furnished us with Means of Grace suitable to the events of life which happen less often, and to those which happen not at all to some persons; and, yet, should have failed to supply us with a Sacramental Extension to meet that event which comes most often to many people, less often [75/76] to most men, and occasionally to nearly all--declension from Holiness of life, the falling away into Sin. It is impossible to conceive, that He Who is Man, and Who knows what is in man, should have intentionally omitted to institute a Sacrament which is so absolutely needed for sinful men. It Could not for one moment be entertained, that such a necessity had been overlooked by the Church. We can, therefore, only assume that the necessity has not been forgotten, and that, the need has been supplied in that personal Extension of the Incarnation which we call the 'Sacrament of Penance.'
Some years ago, when the question of Confession was less widely, but perhaps more bitterly agitated than now, when persons spoke more harshly against its use, because they knew less of its blessings, one, who was then, and still is a Master in our Spiritual Israel, was asked his advice on the subject of preaching upon Confession. "Preach Repentance to your people," it is reported, was the substance of the Doctor's answer, "speak unto them of Penitence, and they will come to Confession of themselves." Advice, if I may say so,--and you, my Brethren, will give your assent to the opinion,--advice most judicious, based upon a knowledge of the human heart most profound. All the [76/77] preaching in the world will bring no Penitent, for any beneficial purpose, upon his knees in Confession, unless he feel, intensely feel, the need of the Atoning Blood of JESUS, unless he repent him truly, deeply, heartily of his Sins past. But, touch his inmost conscience with the key-note of Repentance, and the Penitent will instinctively seek after Sacramental Confession as the remedy, at once natural and religious, for the pangs of his wounded and unquiet Spirit.
There are, however, times in which to speak, as well as times in which to keep silence; and the Season of Lent, methinks, is no unfitting time to speak of the Sacrament of Confession. There are subjects, also, which, if discussed at all, necessitate open and candid speaking. And Sin, beyond all doubt, is one such subject. For, how can Sin be discussed in God's House and before God's people, if the covenanted Means for its forgiveness, to which God has pledged His Awful Name, be not mentioned; or, if any false sanction be given to excuses for placing it out of thought, out of sight, out of hearing, and worse than all, out of use? People, indeed, have not been averse from escaping the need of listening to an unpalatable subject. Priests, also, have not been slow to avail themselves of a self-allowed licence, to avoid an unpopular subject. And between these two causes, Sacramental [77/78] Confession has not been so widely preached, is not so widely employed, as its importance deserves, and as the benefit to Souls demands.
On the present occasion, I shall act as I have formerly acted. I shall take for granted your acceptance both of the doctrine and of the practice of Confession. As I have supposed your assent to much that has gone before, on the Nature of Sin, on the Guilt of Sin, on the Sacramental System of the Church, and on personal Self-Examination; so, on the subject of Confession, I assume your acceptance both of its teaching, and of its use. This will clear away a large amount of elementary matter, into which I need not enter; and will leave us at liberty to consider at once some special aspects of this Ordinance. The method which I shall adopt, God helping me, is this:--I shall endeavour to place before you, as simply and plainly as I can, a picture of certain states of mind, which either legitimately lead towards, or which, of necessity, find their solution in, Sacramental Confession. Having sketched the outline of this picture as closely to nature as I have the power, I shall leave the sketch in your hands to be completed, as GOD shall enable you to finish it. In other words, I shall assume your consent to the principle of what I say; and I shall leave you to apply the suggestive hints to your own needs, and to make use [78/79] of the Means specified as you may feel moved of GOD to employ them.
Suffer me then to attempt to put into words, thoughts and feelings which, to a certain extent, have passed, or are passing through the minds of some of us, on this much vexed subject, viewed practically, of the Confession of Sin. Should these thoughts and feelings find no response in your hearts, I shall unfeignedly rejoice; inasmuch as it will show, that no conscious or wilful Sin has harboured in your Souls. Should they, however, awake an echo there, I shall be still more glad; for I shall be assured, that the Guilt of Sin has been realized in your inmost Souls, and I shall know, if conscious Guilt be present, that you are not ignorant of the Means by which, in the Church of God, such Guilt is washed away.
The method by which the Catholic Faith is wont to individualize the Soul of man, and the manner in which the presence of Sin in the Soul is realized is, of course, different in different persons. In these later times, the causes which influence 11s are as diverse as those which effected the several Conversions we considered last Sunday. But, if the mode of dealing with Souls by our Infallible Director, if the means which pave the way for a [79/80] successful work of Conversion, be so varied as to elude classification, and to defy analysis; yet, the effects which flow from the consciousness of Sin in the Soul not only are capable of assortment, but almost arrange themselves into a system. They all, more or less, follow one general law, when actually experienced. They all, more or less, tend to one conclusion, when positively felt. It is not usual, that the whole truth of the extent of Sin, and its effect upon the Soul, should be realized at once. It is not usual, that the final step needful to conquer Sin, and to banish Satan from the Soul, should be perceived at once. Of course, Almighty God may sometimes, and sometimes does, stop a Sinner in his headlong course of iniquity; and show him, as in a moment, who he is, and what he is doing, Who GOD is, and what he is causing God to endure. In such a case, if the Conversion be perfect, the Penitence will not be wanting in completeness; and Sacramental Confession will follow at once, and as a matter of course. But this is not the ordinary law of GOD'S Providence. Knowledge is acquired always slowly, often painfully. The manner in which we may obtain a knowledge of Sin, forms no exception to the law which governs other sources of information. It comes to us by degrees, and not without pain.
 We will suppose, then, that the Catholic Faith has so individualized our Soul, that we have been enabled to realize within it the presence of Sin. However little may be the first realization of Sin, that little leaves a sensation on the Soul. It makes an impression there. It may be a faint impression, it may be a feeble one; but there it is. And, if the impression be a genuine and honest one, it does not always remain feeble, it does not ever remain faint. It feeds upon itself; and by feeding, gains force and power. From a slight sensation, it becomes a strong one; from a strong one, it becomes a powerful sensation; and from a sensation full of Divine energy and vigour, it becomes at first almost, at last altogether irresistible.
In this mental journey from the Coasts of Wickedness and Sin within the borders of the Holy Land there are more stages than one--oftentimes there are three. Each has its own features, its own characteristics. The first is a stage of doubt. We are in doubt about ourselves and our estate. We have misgivings of our position. We feel uncertain how to act. It would be cowardice to fall back from the point we have gained. It is impossible to stand still; our consciences will not allow us to do that. It needs a large amount of nerve, and no small amount of determination, to go forward. This [81/82] condition of the inner life continues for a time, longer or shorter as the case may be. I will not deny that the conflict, in its first stage, occasionally ends prematurely at this point. The stage of doubt appears to some minds to be so exceeding doubtful, that they feel unable to dispel their doubts, and sink back again into their former condition of lethargic indifference to Sin; from which may it please the Good Lord to awake them ere it be too late. But, whether men persevere and conquer their doubts, or, whether they succumb and allow their difficulties to conquer them, the stage of doubt is no state in which to make use of Sacramental Confession.
In general, however, those whom the Good Shepherd leads so far upon the way, permit themselves to be led still farther. And if so, for which God be thanked, the stage of doubt is exchanged for another stage, the stage of uncertainty. This forms an intermediate position, between hesitating doubt and absolute assurance. Its symptoms are more decided than those of the last stage, though not quite so marked as they will be in the next. But, in a Christian sense, the condition of the Soul is more hopeful for a death unto Sin, and a new birth unto Holiness of life. The victim, or the patient--for I know not which to call the sin-sick [82/83] Soul--now becomes thoroughly uncomfortable, or to use a familiar and expressive term, he feels completely 'out of sorts' with himself. Wherefore, he does not exactly know; at least, he could not tell his most intimate friend the cause of the sensation. But the feeling is a very decided one, nevertheless; and now, all doubtfulness of our case, having disappeared, we become dimly conscious of what the reality of a sinful Soul may be. I say 'dimly conscious,' because we have not yet gained the last stage in the distemper, we have not yet reached that stage of the disease which ensures our cure. But, here again, we are in no fit state for Confession. We are, at the most, in a state of uncertainty; and the Confession of Sin, in any Catholic sense, implies a full, and a perfect consciousness of the Guilt of Sin.
The condition in which the Soul now finds herself placed is abnormal, if not unique. There is nothing with which it may conveniently be compared. And yet, there are certain circumstances in life which bear an indefinite likeness to her state. In this stage of the complaint, we often suffer much, and suffer long. We are now in the condition of those who look for something which they cannot find. We are like those who, in the dark, feel after something which they cannot touch; or who, in the daytime, attempt to call to mind [83/84] something which they cannot remember. We act as those who, in the live-long hours of night, in a state of semi-consciousness, are not quite certain whether they may be awake or asleep; whether what they dream, they have dreamt before; whether what haunts their mind be a reality, or a vision. In such a state, the Soul is apt to look upon her condition from without, as if it were the Soul of another, and not her very own; as if her sins were not her own, but those of some other. The Soul which has gained this stage of the disorder is almost hopelessly lost to the World, is almost completely won to God. But almost is not altogether; and the Soul is not yet fitted to undergo the discipline, in order to gain the blessing of the Sacrament of Penance. There is still another phase in the complaint to be endured. There is still another stage in the journey to be travelled.
From the stage of doubt, the Soul has passed to the stage of uncertainty; and from the stage of indecision, she must now pass to the stage of assured and absolute consciousness of the reality and the Guilt of Sin. This stage borders upon despair. The Soul is only saved from despair by the firm belief she entertains that there is a "Balm in Gilead," that there is a "Physician there;" that a Fount for Sin hath been opened, and that the "Forgiveness [84/85] of Sin" in the Church is an Article of the Catholic Faith. The realization of Sin has been seen afar off; it has been sought after nigh at hand. The Guilt of Sin has been considered in doubtfulness; it has been contemplated in uncertainty, and as that of another man. It is now felt to be very near indeed to us, to be part and parcel of our inmost selves. If the sentiment might once, and with ease, have been cast aside at a certain stage of the inquiry; if the idea could formerly have been shaken off, with a mental effort, at another stage; it cannot now be dismissed, it cannot now be ignored. There was a time when we might have mastered it. It has now fairly conquered us. And until we are clear from its influence, the feeling plays the same part in our waking hours, that a painful nightmare plays in our sleeping moments. It is a companion with whom the sooner we part company, in a Christian manner, the better, both for our present comfort and our future peace. But, it is a companion with whom it is difficult to part company; and from whom we can only part in one single manner.
In this the last stage of Penitence, before persons avail themselves of the discipline with which the Church has furnished them, perhaps no mental, nor bodily condition is so painful to suffer, so piteous to behold. The thought of Sin haunts them. The [85/86] reality of Sin never leaves them. The sense of the Guilt of Sin takes possession of them. With no figure of speech, it is about their path, and about their bed, and spieth out all their ways. They go about like men with a disaster hanging over their heads, with a presentiment that something dreadful is about to happen to them. When they arise in the morning, they feel a weight at their hearts, and say--"Would to GOD it were evening." When they lie down at night, they wonder if they shall see another day, and say--"Would to GOD it were morning." All day long, in one form or another, Sin is before them. They feel concerned, unquiet, desolate, dejected. They seem anxious, look depressed, are unhappy. They become sullen, with no apparent cause; sad, without any thing outwardly to vex them; silent, where they were wont to be cheerful; suspicious, where formerly candour and simplicity were their characteristics. In short they become morbid, over sensitive, valetudinarian, in some cases with a tendency to hysteria. Health is often lost in the conflict; intellect suffers; and the mind has been known to become endangered.
My Brethren, these are no fanciful descriptions. They are stern matters of fact. They are known to, they have been felt by, many. They are based, in part upon personal experience, in part upon [86/87] personal observation, in part, and I beg you to note this, in part upon medical testimony. And if you will call to mind, in what terms the Kingly Penitent has poured forth the agonized feelings of his inmost Soul in the Penitential, and other Psalms, you will no longer think, if you ever considered, these statements to be exaggerated. Whether what I have said be overstated or not, they and they alone can tell, who, in God's Mercy, have either themselves passed through these stages; or, in GOD'S Providence, have been called upon to witness them in others. Only Priest, only Penitent, or one who is both, can judge of this matter. The World without is utterly powerless to form a judgment, though it may undoubtedly, and certainly does express an opinion, upon the case. I submit what has been said, with humility, but with confidence, to the verdict of those, be they Priests or people, who are qualified to decide. Whether false or true, of this one fact all may be assured, that if any Soul finds itself in the position here feebly, but, as before GOD, faithfully set forth, there is but one single course to be pursued; and that is to make use of the Means which our Lord has provided for this purpose, to make use of the Sacrament of Confession.
"Speak to your people of Penitence; of [87/88] themselves they will seek for Confession." With these words, in the spirit of which I have spoken, will I conclude. These 'Lenten Lectures' are not controversial. They are dogmatic, if they possess any special feature; but are intended to have a practical result. And, if I have been enabled, to a certain extent, to point out to you, my Brethren, the path of Penitence, I pray GOD heartily, that He may be pleased to lead you therein, for the sake of His Own Dear Son.
Now, to God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be ascribed all Glory, for ever and for evermore. Amen.