Locust Street Letters
By Frank Lawrence Vernon
Philadelphia: St. Mark's Church, Locust Street.
ST. MARK'S, PHILADELPHIA.
THE FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT, 1931.
MY DEAR PEOPLE:
The word repent does not convey the real sense of the original meaning. Translations often fail to do this. The Greek word means “to change one’s mind.”
The present common use of the word conveys the meaning “to change one’s feelings.” Feelings are fickle. One can change one’s feelings without changing one’s mind at all. One can be carried away by feelings without even stopping to think. This is the danger of emotional uprisings. They cause individuals to be erratic and crowds to be irresponsible. They not infrequently create difficult and dangerous situations which may and do get beyond control.
It has often happened in the field of religious activities that a wave of unreasoning emotion has supplied the current for extraordinary manifestations of religious excitement which have swept through an entire community like a fire, leaving an entire area devastated. I remember hearing, years ago, of a whole state that had been religiously burnt over. This was given as a reason for a baffling spiritual desolation of long continuance. The same thing happens with individuals. Overloaded and uncontrolled religious emotionalism may leave a person cold and dead. A period of violent reaction is an extremely likely consequence. Here and there the opposite symptom of morbidity or fanaticism will appear as a melancholy remnant.
All this sort of thing is not religious at all. Religion means a right relationship. Religion has to do with the process of bringing the mind and will and heart into right relationship with God and man. Proportion is preserved. Balance is maintained. This is a delicate operation. Like every delicate operation it requires intelligence, skill and precision. Quietness is indispensable. Excitement is dangerous. Maladjustment of the mind causes scrupulosity. Maladjustment of the will causes servility. Maladjustment of the heart causes fear. All three are symptoms of disorders which, if they become deeply rooted, are extremely difficult to dislodge, leaving wounds slow to heal.
This explains why it is so, very necessary to make clear from the beginning that repentance is a change of mind rather than feeling. After the change of mind there will follow a change in will. After that feeling is negligible and is usually better disregarded. Ignorance of this is the cause sometimes of life-long distress and of spiritual and moral failure. A person may hear something in a sermon which profoundly moves to willingness for genuine response. Too often the person is left to self-guidance. It is taken for granted that after a spiritual awakening the soul may be left to itself. It is not realized that careful, accurate, painstaking education must follow the awakening. The fact that there is such a thing as the science of the spiritual life, the art of living it, and the technique of practising it, seems to be unknown. The experience and the wisdom born of the experience of centuries is disregarded. The age-long witness of Saints is a sealed book. The deprivation of theological foundation is followed by the forfeiture of devotional background, and the loss of moral ideal completes the tragedy. The very vocabulary of all this constitutes an unknown language to many today.
Today is the first day of the Christian Year. Once more the Church will patiently unfold the theological, devotional and moral principles of the spiritual life. Her voice is the voice of Him who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” They who will hear will find peace. They who will not must wait. How long? Who knows?
Affectionately in Our Lord,