Locust Street Letters
By Frank Lawrence Vernon
Philadelphia: St. Mark's Church, Locust Street.
ST. MARK'S, PHILADELPHIA.
THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT, 1935.
MY DEAR PEOPLE:
The Gospel for today gives us a study in temptation. It gives us the answer to a puzzling question. It gives us warning. It gives us consolation.
Our Lord describes the soul from which an unclean spirit has been expelled. The soul has been swept and garnished. But it has remained empty. The former tenant, the unclean spirit, revisits the soul and discovers its emptiness. "Then goeth he, and taketh to him, seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in, and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first."
Until we understand that the spiritual combat is the one important event in life, we can never get beyond a tepid interest in religion. Until the spiritual combat becomes an absorbing adventure in search of the vision of God, the practice of religion can never get beyond conventional conformity. The Christian Religion prepares us for this from the start. It demands repentance and conversion as the conditions of seeing and entering the Kingdom of God. Repentance is the turning of the mind which enables the soul to see the Kingdom. Conversion is the turning of the will which enables the soul to enter. Repentance and Conversion will mean a revolution.
The Oxford Dictionary defines the word revolution as meaning "a complete change, a turning upside down, a great reversal of conditions, a fundamental reconstruction, a forcible substitution by subjects of new ruler and polity for the old." If you take each of these definitions, one at a time, and consider and weigh them, until you get the sense and feeling of each and of all of them taken together, then you will understand what the spiritual combat means. But you will only partly understand. You will only fully understand when you have lived through the experience. And it must be lived through. It is a mistaken idea to suppose that any human being can expect to be exempt.
I know about the classification of people as once born or twice born. The once born who need no repentance, and the twice born who do need repentance. But who is there who needs no repentance? As a matter of observation the people who have least need for repentance have been the people whose goodness has so sensitized their spiritual faculties and made keen their moral perceptions as to give them a capacity for penitence conspicuously above and beyond the ordinary person living on a lower plane. The greatest saints have been the greatest penitents.
The greatest penitents have become the greatest saints. Here is the other picture. Here is the material of the other volume of spiritual biography. These are the persons out of whom the evil spirit has actually been expelled. These are the persons whose souls have actually been swept by searching, drastic, valid repentance. These are the persons whose souls have been actually garnished by heavenly graces. They constitute the overwhelming majority. But so long as they are on earth they are never beyond temptation. As a matter of fact their temptations become more dangerous because more subtle. Just because they have made some advance in the spiritual life, these souls are the more aware of the foes who press on from every side.
This renewal of temptation after repentance and forgiveness is often the occasion of dismay and disappointment. The forgiven penitent looks for peace, and finds war. Indeed the temptation returns with greater intensity. What is to be done about it? What does it mean?
In the parable we must note that a soul was recaptured by the enemy because it was empty. It is not enough to banish a vice. The opposite virtue must be established. This is what makes the spiritual combat so interesting. This explains how sinners became saints. Out of weakness they were made strong. They supplanted vices with virtues. They overcame evil with good. They became, through grace, the exact opposite to what they were by nature.
What they did we must do. We can if we try. If we understand we shall want to try. What we must do is to plan out our two battles in life. The first battle is to expel the vices that are in us. The second is to cultivate the virtues which are to take their places. Our faults will show us what our virtues should be. We must have a definite purpose of cultivating definite virtues. Then when this life is over we shall have something to show for it. Our last state will be better than our first.
Affectionately in Our Lord,