Project Canterbury

Locust Street Letters

By Frank Lawrence Vernon

Philadelphia: St. Mark's Church, Locust Street.




The Gospel for this Third Sunday in Lent teaches that an empty heart invites disaster. "Jesus was casting out a devil, and it was dumb. And it came to pass, when the devil was gone out, the dumb spake."

There is no record of what he said at the time. What he may have said later on would depend upon what things he had kept in his heart to ponder over. He must have heard what Our Lord said. "When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he saith, I will return unto my house, whence I came out. And when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished. 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." If he surrendered his heart to Our Lord, then and there, he escaped the sevenfold disaster of the empty heart.

The lesson for us is clear enough. It teaches the way of progress in the spiritual life. In the spiritual life there are three steps, purgation, illumination and union. These steps are called the Ways. To all is given the opportunity, the means, and the capacity for advance in some measure, greater or lesser, but sufficient for each.

The Purgative Way is the first degree. This way penitents know well. It is the way most of us know best. It is filled with unforgettable experiences. The awakening to the sense of sin. The inrush of sorrow. The desire for reparation, expiation and release. The humiliation of confession. The relief of absolution. The joy of the sense of forgiveness. The peace that passes understanding. All this fills the heart of the penitent. But the penitent does not stop there. He cannot. He must go on.

Temptations do not end with Absolution. It is a common experience that they return with sevenfold fury. The tempted penitent must plunge into the active campaign of the prayer life. A new chapter in life begins. In the prayer life the penitent begins to know himself as he never did before. Better than that he begins to know God as he never did before. Prayers which once were formal become vital. Prayers which once were languid become fervent. Faith which once was dim becomes illumined. The spiritual life which once was negligible becomes imperative.

The penitent finds himself at the early dawn of a new day, drinking in the light which is slowly but surely shining more and more and making his world, which once was dark, a place of light. This does not mean that there will be no more clouds. Clouds will return. Darkness will threaten. But if the penitent remembers the lessons of purgation he will have instant recourse to penance, and so keep his interior peace until the light returns. In the endurance of temporary darkness he will regain the lost light. But the penitent must not stop here. He cannot. He must go on.

He knows the way on. From the beginning of the Way of purgation he has learned and experienced the Sacramental life. He has found and kept the way of union with Our Lord. He has visited Him in the tribunal of mercy. He has learned that Our Lord has left power in His Church to forgive his sins because Our Lord has never left His Church.

After each absolution the penitent has gone straight to the Altar. "I will go unto the Altar of God, even unto the God of my joy and gladness." "We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink His blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by His body, and our souls washed through His most precious blood, that we may evermore dwell in Him, and He in us." The Penitent lives in Holy Communion.

The Saints know more and have made more of the three mystic ways than we. But this far we can go. It is enough for us. Our hearts are filled.

Affectionately in Our Lord,

Project Canterbury