Project Canterbury

Dancing before the Lord
and Other Sermons
Preached in St. Ignatius' Church, New York

by the Reverend Arthur Ritchie

Reprinted from "Catholic Champion."

New York: The Guild of St. Ignatius, 1892.

Sermon IX.
The Silence of Penitents.

"That thou mayest remember, and be confounded, and never open thy mouth any more because of thy shame, when I am pacified toward thee for all that thou hast done, saith the Lord God." Ezek. xvi., 63.

There is no more beautiful verse in that wonderful hymn of the Church called Te Deum Laudamus than the last, "O Lord, in Thee have I trusted; let me never be confounded." So great and sublime is the trust of the Christian in the mercy and grace of God, that he feels sure he shall not be confounded if he will but persevere in the way of righteousness.

Now while I would not in the smallest degree weaken this trust the faithful should have in God's mercy, I would remind you that there is another aspect of the matter not to be overlooked though I fear too commonly lost sight of. There are not wanting passages of Holy Scripture which point out the shame which ought to fill the minds of the elect at the thought of how ill they have deserved the grace of God. Most striking is the verse at the end of that marvelous sixteenth chapter of Ezekiel. It is the verse I have taken for our text to-day. The prophet has been rehearsing to faithless Jerusalem her true history, as God reads it. "Thy father was an Amorite, thy mother a Hittite." This was not true in what men call the literal sense, for Abraham and Sarah were Hebrews, but in God's eyes Judah's conduct was as if inherited from the idolatrous Amorite and the lustful Hittite. The prophet goes on to rehearse the outrageous impiety of Jerusalem, so much worse than that of her sisters Samaria and Sodom. These the haughty Jew despised, because he had not sinned as the Israelite had sinned or as the Gentile. The end is foretold in the rest of the chapter. Jerusalem shall be rejected as well as Samaria and Sodom, and Samaria and Sodom shall first be brought back to the truth and the way of holiness. After that shall Jerusalem also be redeemed and her former sisters be given to her for daughters, and when all the saving pity of God has been declared, the restored Jerusalem shall be confounded and never open her mouth any more.

It is plainly a prophecy of the way in which the remnant of Judah shall be saved in the last days after the fulness of the Gentiles has come in. And wise-hearted men believe it to mean that in the awful times of Antichrist the Christian Jews shall be the heroes of the faith and the bulwark of the Church. More mystical writers have seen in the chapter the reunion of Christendom, the great Oriental and Anglican Communions, sisters of the Roman as Samaria and Sodom are called sisters of Jerusalem, being purified and restored first, and then given to the great Roman Church for daughters though she would not acknowledge them as sisters in her days of pride; yet being purified and restored she shall then with her daughters be the crown and glory of Christendom.

However interesting these interpretations may be, we cannot overlook the extraordinary language of the last verse which points out the frame of mind appropriate to the redeemed Jew, or whosoever shall stand for the figurative Jerusalem in those final days of this world. It is being confounded, and never opening the mouth, because of shame.

Some famous commentators have thought this to be the meaning also of that strange verse in the beginning of the eighth chapter of the Revelation, "There was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour." This takes place after the seventh and last seal has been opened. Whatever may be the precise interpretation of the opening of the seals, the seventh and last one, as all commentators agree, means the final pouring out of the judgments of God upon the wicked in the end of the world. Then the righteous beholding the awful wrath of the Most High, shall realize as never before how great and how holy He is, and how outrageous sin must be in His sight; and thinking of all their own sins and shortcomings, in spite of which they have been saved, they are struck dumb with shame and confusion of face, so that their lips cease to utter the glad hymns of praise which are their wont. It is but for half an hour, that is for a very short space of time, for soon the tide of joy flows in upon their souls and they take up their alleluias once more never to discontinue them again.

There can be no doubt that we are all too much disposed to underrate the exceeding shamefulness of wilful transgression against the light. There are those indeed who would eliminate the exercises of penance altogether from the Christian system. They hold that to expect a man to do penance for his sins after they have been forgiven him by our Lord is to take away from the perfection of His atonement, to limit the possibilities of His grace.

Curiously enough too those who thus repudiate penance are the very ones who do not believe in sacramental absolution. The reason is, I suppose, that they would reject all human agency, whether of priest or penitent, in the work of repentance. It is curious however because those who believe strongly in the confessional might with a certain show of reason say that no penances should be required after absolution save such as may be useful as proof of the sincerity of the penitent, and his submission to the authority of the Church. Indeed devout Catholics have said to me "I do not understand why one should practise penitential exercises after his confession if he has received absolution for his sins. The penitential exercises can only be understood with reference to those sins: was then the absolution incomplete?"

To this it is to be answered that the fault of sin consciously committed is so grievous a wrong against the goodness of God, that the sinner deserves only banishment from Him forever. Nothing but grace and His free pardon can take back the offender into favour. But there is also to be considered the temporal punishment due for sin that justice may be satisfied and the world governed righteously. Therefore while God forgives the outrage against His love and goodness so soon as the penitent honestly confesses and sues for pardon, there remains yet to be taken away by penitential exercises and patiently endured trials the temporal penalty which, all wilful sins deserve.

So there comes over the penitent as he goes forth from the confessional a feeling strangely mingled of joy and pain; of joy because God is so good and has rolled away the load of one's transgressions, of pain because one realizes then how base and ungrateful he has been in sinning. Nor can we doubt that this pain is a most healthful and profitable one. It must surely make the soul hate sin more vehemently and love God more ardently. It manifests a truer type of the penitent Christian spirit than the all-jubilant one.

What right-minded soul does not yearn to make up in such wise as it can for past acts of coldness and disobedience? Suppose a son that has been estranged from his mother for years, has neglected her, thought hardly of her, perhaps spoken against her. And then after a long season he is brought back to her again to find her poor, and old, and well nigh helpless, going down to the grave uncared for and unloved save by strangers. The old love of early life comes back to him; his eye fills with tears, his heart with compunction, that he could have so cruelly neglected for so many years the mother that suckled him. Now he counts nothing too hard to do for her; he watches her day by day to find out in what small ways he may lighten her heavy burden and brighten her few remaining years. He knows this does not make up for the past--only her dear pardon so generously given can do that--but it is all the reparation he can make and he strives with his whole nature to make it. In like manner the true penitent knows that he cannot give back to God the love and obedience withheld so many years as one might pay back money he had stolen, but at least he can show that he truly grieves for those years of sin, and has the heart to undo them had he but the power.

When therefore we consider the relation of love in which we stand to almighty God, and the duty of obedience which we know so well, we must acknowledge that only ignorance or thoughtlessness can make the penitent all full of joy without intermingling of pain.

Proud and haughty Jerusalem, that lived so long as if her father had been an Amorite and her mother a Hittite, instead of the faithful Abraham and Sarah, at last brought to her senses by calamity turns to her Maker and is forgiven, but for the rest of her days she is confounded and never opens her mouth because of her shame.

Happily our Lord does not quite permit it to be so with us. He bore the penalty too, that He might turn even that into joy for us. And it is a truth attested by all the Saints that there is no greater joy on earth than the sweet pain of the life of penitence. That too, some holy writers assure us, must be the case with the faithful dead in purgatory; their pains are pleasant pains, seeming rather like delightful exercises, so great is their joy in testifying by their sufferings that the love of Christ fills them overflowingly.

Yet in this world neither can the pains be quite altogether delightful, nor the shame of past transgression not confounding. There ought to be, as it seems to me, deep silent moments of agonizing shame for the penitent soul, when in its secret chambers it bewails its past, the years of wilful persistence in sin, the braggart hardness that mocked at piety and thought devotion contemptible, the secret indulgence in shameful things it would not stir up courage enough to contend against though realizing full well how they must hurt and grieve the good God. Ah! the miserable things memory can call up in every life where there is honest retrospection. Do not tell me that this is morbid, that if my sins have been forgiven I should not go back to them even in thought. It were morbid indeed if one were to go back to them with thoughts of despair or even despondency, as if there had been no true putting away of the guilt of them in the confessional. But just as we may imagine the returned prodigal of our Lord's wonderful parable in his father's house retiring from time to time for meditation, asking himself over and over again How could I have been so base and heartless, and then coming forth to his happy life in the household once more--so may we think of the devout Christian in his daily self-communings calling up the many transgressions that have been confessed and forgiven in the past, and by that contemplation coming forth to life's duties again more humble-minded, more full of zeal to devote himself ever unsparingly to the glad service of the Master.

Indeed I think that these two things have more influence than any other in building up the strongest, that is the most Christlike, religious lives; a profound humility because of the ever present consciousness of past sins, a tireless zeal because of the longing to make up as well as one can for the lack of love heretofore.

There is also another aspect of the matter. This consciousness of one's own shame which belongs to the life of true penitence must materially affect our judgments of our fellows. What is more common than hard, almost cruel, condemnation of weak and constantly falling sinners by those who have themselves attained to a somewhat high plane of the spiritual life? We seem to think sometimes that we show the excellency of our own lives, the purity of our own hearts, by the severity with which we denounce transgressors. If when we are most earnest and stern-voiced in rebuking our fellows we could be suddenly brought face to face with the words of this text do you think we should not be silenced by them? "That thou mayest remember, and be confounded, and never open thy mouth any more because of thy shame, when I am pacified toward thee for all that thou hast done, saith the Lord God." What are we that we should sit in judgment upon our fellow men? Have we not sinned as grievously as any of them; or if not outwardly, when our greater light and opportunities of grace are taken into account, is there much in our favour?

This is by no means to say that we ought not to denounce sin, and to stand out for the very highest type of Christian living. We are to be absolutely inflexible in maintaining in all points the doctrine of Christ our Lord. But when it comes to passing judgment upon individual sinners let us not lose sight of the solemn words put by God in the mouth of the prophet concerning penitent Jerusalem. It maybe that we must condemn, it may be that we must pronounce judgment because of our position upon the wilful and impenitent sinner, even to the extent of the Church's anathema against the enemies of her Lord; nevertheless when we have come down from the judgment seat to our own house, and have entered into our chamber and shut the door, then on our knees let us cry, And I too am as great a sinner as this man; I too have wilfully transgressed the known laws of God; I too have spurned the love of Christ, and have crucified the Son of God afresh: except His pity had called me back, and His mercy pardoned me I too should have been cut off, a deserved anathema upon my head.

How can the Christian who has any vivid consciousness of his own past speak uncharitably of his neighbours and sharply condemn their failings, not making allowance for their circumstances and temptations, aye often not even considering his own probable ignorance of some of the facts about which he so sternly speaks? What if our Master had judged us as we judge, and had not pardoned us instead?

Even when we have learned in some measure to control our tongues and lips, how often do we find rising up in our souls the self-righteousness of the Pharisee, the contempt for others of which our Lord probably speaks when He says "Whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire," the proud consciousness of our own superiority. What a hateful thing it is! How unlike the spirit of our gracious Master? Is there no way in which it may be conquered, and banished from our souls? I think there is a way. It is that of daily calling to mind, and that not perfunctorily but very thoroughly, the many evil things in our past lives of which we have repented and for which we have received God's pardon. Then abased and humiliated by the remembrance, calling to our minds the words of the text "That thou mayest remember, and be confounded, and never open thy mouth any more because of thy shame, when I am pacified toward thee for all that thou hast done, saith the Lord God," we shall rise from our knees and go forth more charitable men.

Blessed souls that can so remember all they owe to God's grace that their lives are one unceasing act of loving penitence towards Him, and Christlike charitableness towards all their fellows.

Project Canterbury