Feast of the Circumcision, 1858.
An Acceptable Year.
Isaiah lxi. 2.
THAT, dear Sisters, it is my part and duty to do now: that, it is the duty of every Priest to proclaim to every flock in Christendom: but how much more mine, speaking in a Religious House,--speaking to those that have embraced the Religious Life! Every word tells; every word is. as it were, written for you.
"To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.'' Then first: this new year is to be the LORD'S year, and not your own. For one of you, at least, this is so in a sense in which no other new year ever was. Some of you enter the second, some the third, I might almost say he fourth, year of your new life; and this is to he the aim of you all. Let those years have been never so much devoted to GOD, this must be beyond measure more so. Let you have never so much tried, in those years, after holiness, love, purity, gentleness, zeal,--after every grace of a Sister, after every grace of a Saint,--you must not for one moment rest satisfied with what you have done. I know nothing more humbling than this: to look back at those weeks or months of our lives in which we know we have been most in earnest, and then to compare what we did with what we know we might have done; aye, with what we might easily have done. Oh dear Sisters, what love is this which after all will accept us! What if that dear LORD were to say of us, "I gave them in some small degree the honour of suffering for My Name's sake: I gave them the honour of being hated, ridiculed, despised by the world; others thought of them, and spoke of them, as undergoing My reproach, and what was the consequence in their own hearts? Was it love more like My love? was it zeal more like My zeal? was it purity more like My purity? ' What could have been done more for My vineyard that I have not done in it?'" Dear Sisters, you know best how it has been for the time past. Only remember that such seasons of trouble as those in which we have been ought to be seasons in which you are indeed leading the lives of Angels. Try to acknowledge this to yourselves. Try to aim high; try to feel that it ought not to be an uncommon thing to have a week pass in which you have nothing resembling a mortal sin to confess. That constant effort, more or less successful, would be the making this the year of the LORD.
But that is not all. It is to be the acceptable year of the LORD. And how acceptable? It has the force--that word--of a freewill offering. A year, not so made an oblation of to the LORD as every year must be by every one who would be saved: but such an oblation as they only can make who have chosen the more excellent way; who, having renounced other ties, are able to give all their time, all their energy, all their strength, to this: to whom that ring which marks them for the Heavenly Bridegroom is their all in all. The gold whereof that bridal ring was really made--the gold, dearest Sisters, of that land, is good. Oh how happy, oh how blessed a link it is! You, thus to receive Him in His riches; He, to take you in your poverty: you, to come to Him in His health; He, to have mercy on you in your sickness: you, to love and to obey Him; He, to love and to cherish you. A dear, pure ring indeed is that which does all these marvels,--is that vow of chastity, without which, in their fullest sense* none could ever utter those words of the Bride, "His left hand is under my head, and His right hand doth embrace me."
"The acceptable year." It is well, my Sisters, that we cannot look forward and see what will be the offerings that He will require from you in its course. Well, indeed! enough for you that, "As thy day, so shall thy strength be." See how that promise applies to the text. Of Asher it is said; and of Asher also that blessing is written: "Let him be acceptable to his brethren.'' And I wish no higher blessing for you;--acceptable first to that Elder Brother, Who, though He were dead, yet is He still alive, and "is Governour over all the land of Egypt:'' acceptable for His sake to those that are His; the poor, the maimed, the halt, the blind, the fallen. GOD make you their blessing here; and grant that the blessing of those that consider the sick and needy,--of Him that was needy when He had not where to lay His head,--of Him that was sick to the death on Mount Calvary,--may abide and continue with you for ever!
It goes on, "And the day of vengeance of our GOD." Now, dearest Sisters, this is the lesson which all those who would especially serve their LORD must more especially learn. Think what the ordinary meaning of the word repentance is. Think what we generally meant for repentance, before we had come for ourselves to that Blessed Sacrament of Penance. You all know the three parts of penitence; contrition, confession, and satisfaction. Contrition, the sorrow which arises not only or chiefly from the fear of hell, but from the love of GOD. Confession, at all events, to GOD; oh how much more blessedly, to man also! Satisfaction, either by restoring to others what we have unrighteously taken from them, or by offering to GOD something of suffering as an oblation for our sin: in other words, by penance; that is the clay of vengeance here spoken of.
But as I am on the subject of repentance, let me once more remind you how it is that this Sacrament co-operates to our justification. In this day of trouble and rebuke and blasphemy, you, dearest Sisters, ought to be able to give, as the Apostle says, a reason of the hope that is in you. Gon forbid that I should want you to go about disputing and controverting: but when you are met by the foolish stale Protestant arguments on the one side, you ought to be able, simply, and clearly, and quietly, to tell the true teaching of the Faith on the other. And so now: when you hear that vulgar staple argument against the blessed doctrine of Absolution, that GOD has either forgiven or not forgiven the sin--that if He has forgiven it, the Priest's absolution is superfluous; if He has not forgiven it, it is vain--remember this. All contrition is either perfect or imperfect. By perfect contrition we mean that sorrow for sin which arises simply and solely because we love GOD, because we cannot bear to grieve Him, because the knowledge that we have offended Him is itself misery; and this without any mixture whatever of any other motives for our repentance. This perfect contrition, in and by itself, justifies the sinner, at once, without the .help of the Sacrament. The Priest then only declares GOD'S absolution, but cannot strictly be said to absolve. I trust, dearest Sisters, that often and often you so come to me; absolved, in fact, before you say a single syllable here. This ought to be the usual Confession of a Sisterhood. GOD grant it may be so of this! But then we next have imperfect contrition. This is sorrow for sin, partly indeed because we love GOD, but partly also from inferior motives; the fear of hell, the fear of shame, sorrow that we have, by our fault, lost some earthly good; or, again, sorrow, pure in its motives, but not sufficient in its depth. Now imperfect contrition is not sufficient for justification without the Sacrament; with the Sacrament, it is. And herein lies the great danger of those who neglect this great means of grace. How difficult to be sure that our contrition is perfect! how very easy to deceive ourselves! And if we do, how tremendous the consequences may be!
This is the answer to that commonest objection: and only to that; the additional help of Confession in forcing us to be more strict in self-examination, in its tendency to make our repentance truer and deeper, these are all separate considerations.
Now to go back. "The day of vengeance of our GOD." It is that taking vengeance on ourselves for our sins,--that revenge, as S. Paul calls it,--which is almost impossible to those who do not,--which is so great a blessing to those who do, confess. And this, my Sisters. I have advised you over and over again, but I can never do so too often: to take this vengeance yourselves on your own faults, as soon as they are committed, and without waiting till your next confession. I should like to see you all begin this new year with the determination that if, at your nightly self-examination, you find any more than ordinary sin of omission or commission, you will deprive yourselves of Holy Communion on the next morning. This is really to be in earnest; this is in good downright strength to lay the axe to the root of a sin. Dear Sisters, I speak very plainly to you; and GOD forbid you should ever wish it otherwise! She is indeed happy, she is indeed a true Sister--ah, and a true Bride!--who, if she finds she has yielded to temptation, to slothfulness, to wandering thoughts, to temper, to whatever it may be, (the heart knoweth its own bitterness,) thus voluntarily deprives herself of her greatest blessing, as unworthy to receive on that next morning the Bread of Angels. There are few greater proofs of love to your LORD than this: for Him, to deprive yourselves for a while even of Him.
And then comes that lovely clause: "To comfort all that mourn." All! that is the work of Omnipotence indeed! And notice this. Whereas, generally speaking, each of the Three Persons of the Ever Blessed Trinity has His own attribute, that of Comforter is taken by all. Of the FATHER it is said, "Blessed be GOD, even the FATHER of our LORD JESUS CHRIST, the Father of all mercies and the God of all comfort." Of the SON, here, "He hath sent Me to comfort all that mourn." And the very Name of the HOLY GHOST is, The Comforter. And this, no doubt, is a thought that ought always to be in your mind. To comfort is emphatically and distinctively a woman's talent. And although it be very true that the office and ministry of a Priest is the office and ministry of comfort, yet GOD does not work miracles to change His ordinary laws. There are thousands and thousands of cases where one Sister is worth ten Priests. It has pleased GOD, indeed, to endue some of His great Saints with an exquisite gentleness and tenderness which almost comes up to that of a woman. S. Francis de Sales, for example. But compare one of his letters with, for instance, one of S. Jane Frances de Chantal's, where both write to console: and see how infinitely superior, so far, are hers! You know why I dwell on this. Simply to remind you that for this great talent you will all be accountable to GOD--that He gave it to you--that He expects to receive it again with usury. He, one of Whose dearest titles is, Consolation of the Afflicted, would see you also, after your own measure, that which He is without measure. "To bind up the brokenhearted:" that is the dearest and most glorious office I can wish for any of you. GOD give you to do it over and over again, before your own sorrows are for ever comforted, your own tears for ever wiped away!
And now I must go back to that word proclaim. For this, our dear LORD'S office, is not only the duty of His priests, but of those who are no less distinctly devoted to Him as Sisters. To proclaim is to speak of a thing boldly, plainly, frankly, without holding any part back, without shyness, without hesitation or excuse of any kind. Ah, dear Sisters, and you know what I am going to infer from that! I have no more doubt than I have of my own existence that, when you go out to nurse, you are gentle, tender, and loving, as much as even I could ask you to be. But I always fear this: lest you should be tempted to be shy or afraid of speaking to those whom you are nursing about the things which, in very deed, are dearer to you than life itself. None of you ever go out, but I make this the subject of my prayers for you more than anything else: because I know what is the danger; and because I know what is the sin if you yield to it. You must not be tired, you must not think it tedious, if you so often hear me speak of this same thing; it is the greatest fault to which you are likely to be tempted, and it is the fault which, perhaps more than any other, saps the very first principles of your Sister's life.
"Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh." Out of the abundance of the Bride's love, ought she not to speak of the Bridegroom? And yet I know how difficult this is. Dear Sisters, I speak from experience here: it cost me many a hard struggle when I was first ordained, and very hard and painful I often find it still. Therefore do not think that I know nothing of the difficulty to which I tell you that you must not yield.
But now again resolve that, with this year. GOD helping you, the case shall not be so. Determine this: that, with the assistance of the HOLY GHOST, this temptation shall never once be given in to.
And think again of the last clause, with all its bright consolations and tender love: "To comfort all that mourn." "O sweet LORD JESUS," as S. Bernard says, "Comforter and Comfort, Giver and Gift, when wilt Thou come to these, to me, to this house? When wilt Thou brace us for conflict, give us joy in sorrow, open the sight of Heaven amidst the raging crowd of the Jews? But yet move, O Thou Author and Finisher of Faith, when wilt Thou shelter these Thy lambs in the eternal fold? When wilt Thou give rest to these Thy weary servants in the unruffled bosom of peace? When wilt Thou comfort these Thy mourning and trembling brides by taking them to Thine own breast? There, like the beloved Apostle, they seek to repose; that is their haven of perfect blessedness: the Side, opened once with the spear, thus opened for them: the Arms, once extended on the Cross, embracing them in the full and deep love of eternity!"
And now to GOD the FATHER, GOD the SON, and GOD the HOLY GHOST, be all honour and glory now and for ever. Amen.