ST. PETER AND HIS FALL
THERE is so much that is attractive in blessed St. Peter. He had a warm and affectionate nature. He loved our Lord with great intensity. He seems to have been different from St. John. Peter loved with his affections, St. John with his will. Peter's large-hearted, warm, loving nature draws all penitents to him. As he was forgiven, so he knows how to sympathize with the fallen and to strengthen his brethren. He had been led on from one degree of discipleship to another. He was undoubtedly a very earnest follower of St. John the Baptist. He had heard him point out Jesus as the Lamb of God. With sincere devotion, he had left his nets to follow the Master. A great change took place in him at the Miracle of the Fishes. Something of the awful Divine character of our Lord came into his soul. The Messiah, Whom he took Him to be, was something more than the great promised Prophet. And in the spirit of awe before our Lord's Divine Majesty, He saw himself in a new light. A deep conviction of his sinfulness flooded his soul. "Depart from me, O Lord," he said, "for I am a sinful man." It was the perfecting of a true or second conversion. Then, enlightened by our Lord's teaching and by His rebukes, he received an illumination from the Father. His love grows and becomes more intense. It has from its very warmth a danger. He becomes over self-confident. He believes he would rather die than deny Christ. Yet it is the loving, converted, illuminated Peter, so strong in his devotion, who falls. He denies his Master. But, O wondrous mercy! our Lord looks on Peter. What was it that was conveyed in that look? That look penetrated his inmost soul. It woke depths of grief and sorrow such as only that nature could know. He is overwhelmed, crushed, broken-hearted at the thought of himself. How could he have done it? It seemed an impossibility. But alas! alas! for the ghastly fact! O! that look of Jesus! If it had not had love in it, Peter would, like Judas, have destroyed himself. He weeps bitterly for the love he has offended. And abased in deepest humility, he was emptied of all self-trust. He is at length restored by the Lord Whom He had wronged. Let his fall be to us a warning, and his restoration a hope.
O Lord, Who wouldst not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should be converted and live, Who in Thy infinite mercy didst restore Thy servant St. Peter, who denied Thee, and didst recover Mark, Thy Evangelist, after his fall, Who didst cleanse the Magdalene from all her defilement, Who canst save to the uttermost and recall to spiritual life those who are dead in trespasses and sins, have pity upon us. Let the deep of our misery call to the greater deep of Thy mercy. Wash us in Thy Precious Blood. Take us back into Thy loving favour. Raise us from the death of sin into the life of righteousness. Give us new hearts and re-create us in Thyself, that accepted and saved in Thee, we may glorify Thee as everlasting monuments of Thy Mercy, for Thy merit's sake. AMEN.
Sin is usually divided into two kinds: mortal and venial. Mortal, or deadly sin, is grave in character and separates the soul from God. It is consciously resistant to grace and deliberate in will. Venial sin is something of a less grave kind, and it does not separate the soul from God. It is often not deliberate, but the result of human frailty and surprise.
I am glad to think, dear Sisters, that none of you in your Religious state are guilty of mortal sin. Whatever the past may have been, God has blotted it out. But it may be profitable to consider it in Meditation as a warning safeguard.
Sin is the greatest of all evils. We want to impress this truth on our minds. It is seen to be so in its terrible, far-reaching effects. Think of the sin of the Angels. They were intelligent beings, formed in grace. They had none of the temptations of the flesh, or of an evil world, or of a fallen adversary. They had to pass through their probationary stage of trial, and by surrender of themselves to God, rise into a glorified and sinless union with Him. But self-love, or ambition, or some spiritual sin led them into disobedience. They rejected grace and fell. O how terrible was the fall! They were cast out of Heaven. They lost the blessed end they might have attained; separated from God's grace, they became devils. They were lost and eternally lost. Their leader, Lucifer, only waits the time when he should be cast out forever into the everlasting darkness and bottomless pit.
Think also of the sin of Adam. He was made in God's image. He had received a gift of grace. It was to enable him to attain through a peaceful passage a union with God in glory. He sinned. He lost that superadded grace. He could no longer attain that blessed union. The day he sinned, his soul, losing grace, became as dead. His body came under the natural law of physical death. His soul, apart from the original grace, became wounded. Memory and reason, understanding, all, showed its effects. A rebellion sprang up between the different portions of his nature. Alienated from God, he was cast out of his original state, and could only transmit to descendants a nature weakened by sin. Consider all the miseries and sorrows which invade humanity. What terrible effects the sins of man have wrought. What wars, fightings, hatred, crimes, evils, man has brought upon himself. The world looks like one great hospital of misery. All these evils are the effect of sin.
Sin is not only the greatest of all evils: it is an act against God Himself. It so touches His moral Nature and contradicts it that logically, if it could be so effective, it would destroy God. As one does not say a child is not guilty of patricide who raises a knife against his father's heart, although unable to accomplish his purpose, so it is with the soul in respect to God. The sinner takes God's power and turns it against Him. The soldiers, when they so cruelly beat our Divine Master, until His Body was covered with the winding sheet of blood, were using all the time His power against Himself. They could not have crucified Him did He not uphold them in the power to do this. The Cross reveals to us the great truth that sin is an act against God.
Again, we may well remember the danger besetting even Religious of falling away. Amongst the Apostles themselves, there is the terrible instance of the fall of Judas. Apparently he did not accept our Lord's teaching about the Holy Eucharist, for our Lord said, "Have I not chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?" There was a secret sin, we know, of covetousness, and his pride was wounded by our Lord's rebuke of his criticism of the Magdalene's loving act. So he betrayed our Lord, and Christ said, "It were good for him if he had never been born." Think also of the fall of Peter, who fell through his self-confidence, or of Mark, who failed through want of endurance. Indeed, every large Religious Community has in its history some sad instance of a falling away. It came about through some un-exterminated secret sin, through neglect of rule, or lack of desire for perfection. It started perhaps from some sore feeling at the Superior's rebuke, sometimes from a temptation to other work. It may come from undue affection to some extern, or disloyal suggestions made by a priest. Great evil may be brought about by a false conscience, which justifies the leaving a Community. But whatever may be the causes that lead to a fall, the condition of such a Religious is a most terrible one. Better a thousand times to bear the trials in a Community, than to desert one's post and deny the life.
The more we know of God, the more we realize our ingratitude and sinfulness. In the sight of the All Perfect One, the Heavens are not clean, and He charges His Angels with folly. The increasing knowledge of His goodness and love intensifies our sorrow, but it makes us more fervently desire to be less unpleasing to Him.
"The more I know Thee, dearest Lord, the more I love Thee. The more I love Thee, the more I grieve that I have ever offended Thee; yet the more I grieve, the more I love."
As we grow in grace, the more we realize the injuries done to our nature by heredity. The grace lost by Adam left our nature a wounded one. Our reason, understanding, imagination, all were weakened. The affections became warped, the will enfeebled. A rebellion set in between the various faculties. Our bodies craved self-indulgence, our reason and will asserted their independence. Our nature became like a sleeping volcano: if quiescent, it was healed over by sorrow. The insurgent passions and unregulated desires at times asserted themselves. Our characters, strong perhaps in some one faculty and in some one direction, were almost always weak in another. Our spirit was governed by self-love, self-sufficiency, and independence. Vain glory and secret pride had their seat therein.
Under this head of our sinfulness, we may well contrast ourselves with the Saints, with the Blessed Martyrs, with the Holy Religious. How far are we from their sanctity. How we are still the slaves of a weakened and disordered nature. How imperfect my return of love for the Love that died for me. How far is my nature from being dead and crucified with Christ and risen new and holy in Him.
Let us examine ourselves again.
Reflect upon our faults. Here is a fruitful subject of examination. We come into Religion probably from Christian surroundings. We had made some progress in a devotional life. We went to Confession and made frequent Communions. We were surrounded by sympathizing Catholic friends. Our priest had us in much esteem. We unconsciously reflected their estimate of ourselves. So it surprised us when we came into the Novitiate that the Mistress began to point out faults in us of which no one had told us, and we had never been aware. They were faults of character, of speech, of manners. The latter related to very little things, to our rapid walking, the manner of our speaking, of a lack of courtesy. We naturally did not like this, for we had almost always been looked up to in the Religious world. But we began to see how much our interior life could be improved, and our wills, thoughts, manners, be brought under control. We were to grow in quietness, calmness, recollectedness of God's Presence within us, in gentleness, loving manners and spirit, tempered by the Holy Ghost. And now that we have passed out of the Novitiate, what are still our faults of character? It has been said that every one has some fault of which he is not aware. Self-deceit is so subtle. Our faults become concealed. Others may see them, but not we ourselves. It is often a fault that hinders successful work in our Community. It often hinders its harmonious working. Why is it that all Sisters cannot work together in harmony and love? How often is a Superior forced to assign work to different Sisters, because some cannot work well with others. Why should this intelligent Sister be so keen of criticism? What sore feeling has led to a party spirit? What lack of humility is it that thinks itself overlooked in the assignment of place or work? Whence comes this desire to reform the Community when we do not reform ourselves? Why this over-anxiety in some one about their health, and the care that is to be bestowed on it? Poor human nature! How weak it is! How full of evil tendencies! How we all need the grace of fortitude to fight it, the grace that St. Theresa so prized.
Turn to another matter. Review your neglects. You do not wilfully disobey your Rule, but you neglect a complete surrender to its spirit. The Rule looks to you like a high standard to be admired rather than kept. No one, you say, can keep it perfectly. And do you not neglect its strict observance? Neglect thus holds a prominent place in the failure of our sanctification. "Take away neglect," it is said, "the neglect of grace, neglect of duty, neglect of means, neglect of precautions, and neglect of opportunities, and you remove most of the sad causes of moral deterioration." Let me invite you, dear Sisters, in this Retreat, to examine yourselves, if in any way the insinuating fault of neglect has undermined your spiritual life. The earnest soul will prove its interior loss if, through any laxity or neglect, it is found declining from its divinely taught standard.
We must all guard ourselves against the subtle snare of a neglect that may terminate in a condemned lukewarmness. See how neglect of a sharp ruling of the tongue, or neglect of mortifying self-conceit and self-opinionatedness, neglect of conquering uncharitableness and a critical tendency lead on ofttimes to fatal faults. How true it is that he who despiseth little things, little by little shall he fall. It is equally true that he that is faithful in little things, little by little shall be exalted. Like soldiers in a campaign in face of the enemy, we cannot be too strict in our discipline. A failure to take every precaution against surprise, neglect at a simple outpost, has often lost the victory and led to a defeat.
How careful, how punctiliously careful, a Religious should be in the observance of her Rule!
Another subject it is profitable to weigh well is our human frailty. God, in His tender Mercy, takes account of this. He knows whereof we are made. He remembers we are dust.
"There is no place where Earth's sorrows,
Are more felt than up in Heaven.
There is no place where earth's failings
Have such kindly judgment given."
We can but expect there will be wanderings in prayer, and some incautious or unwise utterings. There is the dulness that comes from a continual routine. There is a tiresomeness arising from the monotonies of the way. There are periods when we lack devotion, even at the Blessed Sacrament. We are conscious of a lack of fervour and a dry-ness of devotion. Sometimes these symptoms are occasioned by physical weakness or disorder. The mind cannot always bear the tension required. It must sometimes be relaxed by profitable recreation. St. John the Apostle is recorded as fondling a dove, St. Carlo Borromeo as playing a game of chess. Dr. Neale would give to a Sister, after coming home from nursing a serious and trying case, a story to read. But recreation taken for God does not separate us from God. And dryness is different from lukewarmness. In itself it is not sin. God indeed may withdraw sensible devotion in order to strengthen our wills and increase our piety. Yet human frailty needs to be watched. It is a prolific cause of venial sins. We cannot escape them all, but we can avoid all deliberate venial sins. We must not indulge in low spirits, in emotional moods, in trifling with temptations to doubt, in unloving feelings towards any, in idle castle building, in gossiping about Community matters with ex-terns, in over-ardent particular friendships, in aught that savours of electioneering, in respect either to the election of a Sister or a Superior. It is so easy to fail in any of these or like ways. It becomes us therefore to rule, not only our thoughts, but our emotions. Our hopes and joys, our sorrows and fears are to be brought under the control of the Holy Spirit. We are to become like unto the seabirds sleeping on the tossing waters, our souls undisturbed, resting sweetly on the ocean of the Divine Love.
But we shall not attain that perfection which we all earnestly seek, unless, summoning all our courage and with earnest prayer, we vigorously attack our own greatest enemy, the human spirit of self-love. It is more dangerous or more subtle than our enemies the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. There it lies, like a venomous serpent, hidden and coiled up in the secret depths of our being.
It is seen in the promptings of our fallen nature. It is ease-taking, comfort-seeking, so far as the body is concerned,--self-justifying, self-opinionated as to the soul. It is self-prompted and self-loving in spirit. It is a self-deceiving spirit, making warm exalted feelings to be taken for inspirations of the Holy Spirit. It often suggests the undertaking of good works, with the idea that benevolent persons should subscribe to their support. It wants others to carry out its own devised plans. It leads some persons to talk much about their spiritual condition. The experience meetings held by sectarians are full of dangers. The early Church allowed of public confession of sins to the humiliation of the penitent. But telling what the Lord has done for our souls endangers our humility.
Again, the spirit of levity is a note of the human spirit. There are some ever striving to be witty, to say bright things, to ridicule persons, even to make light of holy things. They desire to startle or dazzle their companions. Then this spirit gives way to despondencies or sore feelings at rebukes. We should be thankful when any faults are pointed out. Our falling into them should not lose us our peace of mind, but should be productive of humility. Being disgusted with self is only a sign of self-love, and not repentance, but pride.
Again: as every one has many natural virtues, it is to be remembered that no one or particular virtue is a test of character. It may be the result of good breeding, or of social position; virtues may be cultivated from some one worldly end, or to cover up some ambition, love of popularity or a vice. It may be the outcome of a mere natural good nature, and so it is in religion. The human spirit may travesty virtues: it may put them on as a garment. Moreover, a naturally active disposition will be untiring in good works, an emotional one will be ever ready with a flood of tears, a melancholy one will easily spend hours in prayer. So, too, the human spirit speaks in a very excited way when critical reports are made concerning its conduct. It does not consider that if the accusations are not wholly true, yet some may partially be so. They always open the way to self-examination and to acts of humility. Why be so sensitive as to what others think of you? This touchiness about our reputation is only another sign of the human spirit. Our Blessed Lord's Example should be made ours. He was called a fool, a blasphemer, a gluttonous man, a winebibber, a companion of publicans and sinners, a breaker of the law, inspired by Beelzebub, yet He was silent. The human spirit exaggerates little slights, broods over little misunderstandings, is irritated at interferences with one's work, prides itself on its own better skill. How subtle, how persistent is this spirit! It lies, as we have said, like a serpent coiled up in the heart.
Out of all these points shall we not find something to arouse ourselves to fresh exertion? You belong, dear Sisters, to Christ. You are His. I do not believe any mortal sin has separated you from Him. The soul of God is not made sad by you. I would have you maintain the assurance of your acceptance and your peace, but there is no one, says the Apostle, that hath not sinned. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." Retreats are times of improvement, and improvement demands a knowledge of our defects. The Religious will sincerely pray, "O Lord show me myself. Look well, O Lord, if there be any way of wickedness in me. Yet show me not myself apart from Thee. Let me see more fully Thy tender mercy, forgiving love. I should sink in despair, but in Thee is pardon for every and all my sins. Thou art my deliverer, my blest Redeemer, my dearest Saviour. My love draws me to Thyself. O Lord hear, O Lord forgive, O Lord seal my loving pardon with the assurance of Thy Peace.