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Some Difficulties in the Practice of Frequent Confession and Communion
Two Instructions Given in a Retreat

By W. H. Longridge, SSJE

Oxford: SSJE, n.d. 16 pp.


It is part of the rule of some of us to make our confessions frequently and with regularity. Now if I may judge of others from myself, I should not wonder if some of you have sometimes felt this to be a difficulty. Perhaps when the time for confession came you felt you had nothing to confess; at least nothing that you could definitely single out and put into words. I do not mean that you felt satisfied with yourself. God forbid that we should feel thus. It would be a sign of deadness of spiritual life if we did, a sign of spiritual. blindness and hardness of heart and a delusion of the devil. S. John tells us very plainly: 'If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.' And S. James says, 'in many things we all stumble.' But still sometimes when the time for our confession comes, though we do feel our lives to be very far from what they ought to be and from what we wish they were, yet we cannot put our finger on any definite things, and say this and this and this I have done, or left undone. I am speaking of course of those who are in earnest, really trying to love God and keep His commandments, not of those who are living carelessly and taking little or no pains. And I say that people do feel this difficulty, and it may be that some of you have felt it.

What are we to do about it? Well, first, I think we should give God thanks. If, when we make our self-examination, we sometimes find nothing particular to say in our confession, why should we not give thanks to God? And yet there are people who worry themselves and think there must be something wrong, because they cannot find anything to confess. Surely what we ought to do in such a case is to thank God, renew our act of contrition for past sins, pray for grace to persevere, and then simply say in our confession that we have nothing particular to mention since our last confession. This will suffice to fulfil any obligation to confess at stated intervals according to the Rule of a religious community or otherwise. The priest will then give whatever advice or encouragement he thinks fit, and dismiss us with a blessing. Why should we not be content with this? Though we are not able to mention anything definite since the last confession, yet we feel how poor and wretched our lives are compared with what they might be and ought to be, and so our act of contrition is a very true one, and we have deepened our penitence and humility by making it and by presenting ourselves at the tribunal of penance. If, however, we wish to receive the grace of absolution, then in order that there may be matter for the sacrament we must mention some sin of the past for which we really can say that we are sorry, j Even venial sins are sufficient matter for confession, and absolution for them may be given repeatedly, for the penitent can always renew his sorrow for them; and in that case the previous absolution is, as it were, confirmed anew, and thereby fresh grace is infused into the soul, so that the confession is not fruitless.

I have thought it well to speak of such a case because I know people are sometimes worried and distressed over it when there is no cause to be so.

But I suppose a much more common difficulty about our ordinary confessions is that we feel that they get to be so formal and perfunctory. It is so hard to feel that we are really penitent. We wonder if we really mean what we say. It is difficult to be really sorry so often, and a fear comes upon us that our repentance itself may be turned into sin, because it is not real.

Now in dealing with this difficulty, which is a very real one, it is important to remember that what is called 'sensible' sorrow, e.g. the emotional feeling of sorrow, is no necessary part of repentance. There is a great difference between feeling sorry and being sorry. Sorrow for sin is not of necessity an emotion. We must be careful to avoid mistakes as to the place of emotion in religion. Perhaps there has been a tendency in the Church of England to make too little of it, or even to condemn it altogether. This tendency has been especially marked in the old High and dry Church school, and accounts for its failure, in spite of its many good points, to gain a hold on the hearts of the masses of our people; while no doubt, on the other hand, the recognition of the value of emotion in religion contributed much to the success of Wesleyanism in its early days, and of the Evangelical revival, before the rise of the Oxford Movement. But the Catholic holds the true mean between these two extremes. He values the use of the emotions, and yet does not depend on them. He knows that they are helps when rightly used, but are by no means of the essence of religion.

The religion that is to be powerful must take hold of the whole nature of man. It must be able at times to appeal to his emotions, as well as to his intellect and his will. And yet we must remember that to rouse the emotions is not the end and aim of religion, and that it is a grave mistake to make constant demands upon them. Now, in the light of these remarks, let us review our own experience. We look back to the time of our first confession, and remember the penitence we really felt then, and all the wonderful peace and joy that absolution brought us. But now it is so different. We make our confessions, I do not say carelessly, but so composedly, so much as a matter of course and rule. The warm feelings of those earlier years are only a memory now; we cannot revive them. We make our confession, and we go away thankful, we hope, and with a good purpose to do better, but conscious of no deep emotion, no rapturous joy. Well, there is nothing wrong in this. We must not let it distress us. It is a law of nature that we do not experience continuously those first emotions; and yet we may be just as truly penitent, because penitence, does not depend on emotion; it is not a natural movement of the soul, but a supernatural grace infused by the Holy Ghost, and its essential character in us is not a feeling, but an activity of the will. It follows, then, that we must not always look for 'sensible' sorrow. We should indeed thank God for it when we have it; we may in submission ask for it, for it is a great help when it comes from God, but we must be content to do without it. We must know that just as sweetness in prayer is not the essential thing, and often those prayers which are made with difficulty and in dryness are the truest prayers and really help us most; so with our confessions, we must not measure their reality by our emotions, but by the good will which seeks to come back to God, or to give itself more truly to Him. Thus it is that contrition is essentially not an emotion, but an act of the will, the impulse of which is a supernatural grace.

God has given us a power of will, and He reveals Himself to us as the true end of our life and being. When by an act of will we choose God for our end, and cleave to Him, we love Him. When the will seeks some other end than God and forsakes Him, then we sin. But when we turn from the false end, and once more make God our end, that change of will from a false end to the true end is repentance and conversion.

I have said repentance is an act of the will, but, strictly speaking, it embraces three acts, an act as to the past, an act as to the present, and an act as to the future. As to the past, it is necessary for us to make a true act of contrition, that is we must honestly wish that we had not sinned, and resolve not to sin again. This is the most essential thing, and we must never pass it over. We must make up our minds that if we were placed in the same circumstances again, by God's grace we would not commit the sin. We must be honest about this. Sometimes we do or say something that we know is wrong, and afterwards we think within ourselves, 'Yes, no doubt that was wrong, but I am glad I did it, though of course I must confess it now.' That is not repentance; nor is it repentance to think we can make our confession, and then go and repeat the sin next time the temptation comes and we want to do it; like cleaning a slate, so that we may write on it again. No, with regard to the past, we must, using the grace God will give if we ask Him, honestly wish we had not sinned, and resolve not to sin again.

And then as to the present, we must have the will to make what reparation we can for our sins and to bear what punishment God may lay upon us for them. Sometimes this involves reparation to others whom we have wronged. And sometimes part of our punishment is that we cannot make this reparation, that we cannot undo what we have done, or unsay what we have said, however much we wish to do it. In this case we must offer to God the wish that we could make the reparation, and the pain that we cannot.

As to the future, there must be a real purpose to amend and to keep from sin altogether, and especially from our most besetting sin. I say a real purpose, not necessarily an unfailing one. It would be untrue to say that if a man repents of a sin and then falls into it again his repentance was unreal. We cannot make sure of the future. The way may be very slippery and we may be very weary, and temptation may overwhelm us when we are off our guard. But the point is that at the time we must be resolved never to offend God again by wilful sin.

Here, however, comes the difficulty. How can we make these acts honestly and really? The will does not move of itself; it needs motives to set it to work. Well, in the first place, there is the grace of God. We have no power in ourselves for a true repentance. It is a work of grace. Therefore we must pray for it. Yet we must also use the means at our disposal. We must use the intellect to move the will. In the development of spiritual life there is always an effort of human will working along with the grace of God. All depends on grace absolutely. That is the primary truth. Repentance, like faith, is the gift of God; and yet we have our work to do, God working in us. God, if we ask Him, will always give us the grace to repent, and we on our part must place before our minds considerations to move us to true contrition. There are several ways of doing this. Let us think of some of them.

Sometimes it may help us to begin with ourselves, to think what sin has done to ourselves. Think of what God meant me to be, and what I am. What might I not have been if I had not sinned? How wonderfully happy I might have been; how I might have rejoiced in the love of God; what power I might have had to help others! And now

what am I? The coldness of my love, the defilement of my heart and memory, the weakness of my will, the power temptation has over me because I have so often yielded to it, the miserable things that entice my will and senses, and yet never give me real happiness, but only leave me restless, unsatisfied, craving fresh excitements, and in the end the torture of remorse. Contrast these two things, what I am, and what I might have been. And then think, what I may yet become through the grace of God. The beauty and the joy of innocence is gone alas! for ever; but penitence has a beauty and a joy of its own; and the love of Jesus for the penitent is a very special love. Did He not show Himself first to Mary Magdalene when He rose from the dead? And did not the Angel say to the woman, go tell His disciples and Peter? Yes, Peter is especially remembered because he had special need of comfort and pardon. So we may have hope for ourselves, and out of that hope we will pray the prayer, 'Wash me throughly from my wickedness; and cleanse me from my sin.' Wash me throughly, i.e., wash me more and more, amplius lava me. And then 'Make me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. O give me the comfort of Thy help again; and stablish me with Thy free Spirit.' Or this little prayer of Dr. Pusey's, 'O my God, make me all that I might have been; give me all the love I might have had, if I had not so sinned against Thee.' Such thoughts as these may often help to move us to true penitence, and to a real desire for a better, holier life.

Then we may go higher, and think how sin affects God; how it outrages His holiness, and majesty, and love; how it grieves His fatherly heart which is always desiring and working for our good; how it has brought about the greatest possible act of self-sacrifice on the part of God, the Father surrendering His only-begotten Son to suffer and die for us, that we might not perish in our sins. 'He spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all.'

And then of course there is always the memory of the Passion, of our Lord in Gethsemane bearing the load of all our sins, seeing them all, knowing them all, making for us the great act of contrition, out of which will flow the grace which helps us to be contrite too. Or the Cross, where He hung bearing our sins 'in His own Body on the tree.' So it is well when we are preparing for confession, to recall the thought of the Passion, and to pray through it for the grace of contrition.

Or lastly, we may sometimes think of hell, of the possibility that if we are careless even about venial sins, if we are lifted up with pride, or slumber on in sloth and self-satisfaction, we may fall into mortal sin, or lose, little by little, every spark of spiritual life, and so be parted at last from God for ever. Yes, it is good sometimes to think of that, the poena damni, the pain of loss, the loss of God, which is the loss of all light, and love, and joy for ever.

With thoughts like these, using sometimes one, sometimes another, let us try to put fresh reality into our preparation for confession. Do not let us be content merely with counting up our sins, and perhaps even letting ourselves be quite needlessly worried because we cannot find much to say; let us rather try to stir up the wish that we had always been more true to God, and the hope and desire that we may yet be what He desires that we should be. Let us long to rise out of sin and make at last some real advance in holiness and love. Then contrition will be easy to us, our confessions will be fruitful, and absolution will give us fresh cleansing and strength. All this may be very quiet, yet very real. There will be no tumult of emotion such as we had at first, when God gave us those first fervours to start us on the way; but there will be a growing realisation of faith, a deepening humility, a more settled hope and purpose, carrying us on in the way of perseverance.


Our Communions are still more frequent than our confessions. And so there is the same kind of difficulty about them also--the difficulty of making them well, of gaining the fruit we ought to gain from them; the difficulty of rescuing them from becoming formal and perfunctory. We come to the Altar time after time, we get so used to it, and sometimes we seem to be so cold and dry, so unable to enter into the wonder and the greatness of the gift we receive. Perhaps we look back to earlier days and remember the joy our Communions used to be to us then. How we looked forward to them;, how we seemed to feel our Lord's Presence with us; what tenderness of devotion we sometimes had! And now all that seems to have passed away. We make our Communions more frequently, and we try, we hope, to make them well; but often we seem to ourselves to do it very badly. Perhaps, too, we must own that we are in fault. We have grown a little careless and slovenly about the way in which we come to the Altar. Familiarity has made it so much harder to realise what we are doing. We do not take the care we ought to prepare ourselves.

How are we to meet this difficulty? Shall we make our Communions less frequently? No, that would very seldom be a remedy. In most cases it would make matters worse. We should come not better prepared, but worse? We must look, then, for the remedy in some other direction than that.

First, let me say, as I said about frequent confession, it is a law of nature that use and wont should make us feel things less keenly. We need not be surprised at this, nor distressed at it. We must not measure the value of our Communions, any more than the value of our Confessions and Absolutions, by the feelings that we have. We may be making our Communions just as fervently and as profitably without the feeling of sensible devotion as with it. Fervour does not reside in the feelings, but in the will--ยท in the will moved and strengthened by grace. Sensible devotion may be a gift of God, and when it is we ought to be very thankful for it. If it comes from God and is His gift, it is a very great help on our way. And so, no doubt, God gives it from time to time to those who are earnestly trying to give themselves to Him. But the times of dryness, are as needful for our spiritual growth. It is then that there is room for a truer exercise of faith, and a more generous devotion of ourselves to God.

Let us dwell for a moment on the objective character and certainty of the gift. Christ is present in the Blessed Sacrament by the power of the Holy Ghost, not by any effort of our own. It is a presence, and a gift, quite independent of our feelings, or imagination, or power to realise it. When the priest has consecrated the Bread and Wine, our Lord is really present in the Blessed Sacrament; and when we make our Communions the gift is really given--the gift of Christ Himself, all that He is and has, His Sacred Body, His Soul, His Divinity. All is there, and all is given. That is one side of the truth. But there is another, which is perhaps not always remembered and realised as it ought to be. The gift is there and is given, but faith is needed to receive it, to partake of it, to feed upon it.

What do we mean by 'faith' in this connexion? What is the faith which receives and feeds upon the gift? Not a mere intellectual assent to the truth of the Real Presence. A person might have a perfectly orthodox belief about the Blessed Sacrament, might be able to argue rightly about it, to prove it from Holy Scripture and the teaching of the Church, and yet might be lacking in that faith which can alone enable any one to partake of it to his soul's health. The greatest theologian might fail to feed upon Christ in Holy Communion, while the peasant might be filled with all its fulness of grace. By Faith, here, we mean an act or energy of the whole moral and spiritual nature. Our bodily nature has no capacity of laying hold upon and assimilating food higher than that of earth. The Body of Christ in Holy Communion is present, given, and received only after a heavenly and spiritual manner. This does not mean that it is any less real than outward visible substances. Quite the reverse. It is far more real, and far more powerful than any visible substance. But it is a reality, a substance, of another and a higher order. Our Lord's Body is not less real since His Resurrection than it was before; but it has passed into another condition of existence. It has become a spiritual Body, endowed with power and capacities altogether beyond our imagination. Some foreshadowing of this was given at our Lord's Transfiguration: something more in the manifestations of the forty days after His Resurrection. We see His Body passing through closed doors, suddenly appearing now here, now there, and as suddenly vanishing away. Its normal state now was to be invisible. At the Ascension His Body was still more fully glorified, and passed altogether beyond the reach of the natural eye, till He shall come again to judge the world.

It is not, then, with any bodily faculties that we can discern or receive Christ in Holy Communion. It is the spiritual life in us, which lays hold upon the spiritual food given in the Sacrament, and feeds upon it. Faith, the faith we are speaking of, means the activity of the spiritual life. 'What is the inward part or thing signified' in the Blessed Sacrament? You know the answer, 'The Body and Blood of Christ, which are verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful in the Lord's supper.' By 'the faithful,' that is by those who are baptized and have a spiritual life. An unbaptized person cannot receive the gift of heavenly food; neither can those who do not approach it in the power of their baptismal life. A person without the sense of smell cannot partake of the fragrance of a rose, though he may hold it to his nose. The defect is not in the flower but in himself. Food may be put into the mouth of a dead man, but he cannot partake of it, so as to be nourished by it. So it is with the heavenly food of the Blessed Sacrament. S. Thomas Aquinas teaches us to pray 'that we may receive not only the sacrament of the Lord's Body and Blood, but also the virtue of the Sacrament.' The Sacrament we may receive by a mere outward act, but the virtue, i.e. the benefits, can only be received by the active co-operation of our spiritual nature. 'Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on Him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.'

Do not mistake me. It is not our faith that makes the Presence. Christ is in the Sacrament by the Power of the Holy Ghost, quite independent of our faith, or of any realisation of His Presence on our part. And when we receive the Sacrament, the inward gift is always given. But it is one thing to be given, and another to be received,--received, that is, so as really to pass into us and be made our own, received so as to produce its proper effect in us. That depends on our spiritual capacity to receive it and feed upon it.

Now let us pass on to some practical points. What can we do in order to make our Communions better? How can we rescue them from becoming formal and perfunctory?

1. First, the aim of our life as a whole must be right. We must be trying to live a spiritual life, wanting to make progress, to grow in grace. In other words, since it is by the act of our spiritual nature that we feed upon Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, we must endeavour to keep our spiritual life in a healthy and vigorous condition. Just as with bodily food, it is the healthy and vigorous body which best assimilates its food, and is nourished and grows by it; so with the spiritual food of our Communions. The soul that is dead in mortal sin cannot feed upon Christ at all. It must first be restored to life by penitence and absolution. In its deadness it can no more feed upon Christ, than a corpse can feed upon food placed in its mouth.'

But short of this, as all sin lessens the vitality of the soul's life, and is like a sickness and weakness to it, so even venial sins if allowed and condoned, hinder the fruit of our Communions, because they impair the assimilative power of the soul. And yet it is not so much these little sins themselves that hinder the fruit of Communion; for the Blessed Sacrament is the medicine of weak and sickly souls as well as the food of the strong. What does hinder is our acquiescing in the sin, being careless about it, not trying to rise out of it. If we are honestly making the effort to rise out of it, then our Communions will be full of power and fruit, even though through weakness and stress of temptation we should from time to time be overcome. So then the first requisite for making good and fruitful Communions is that we should be endeavouring to use the grace given, that we should have a good will and a desire to be better.

And, next, it may help us if we often set before us in meditation and in prayer the greatness of the gift we receive in our Communions. One Communion, it has been said, ought to be sufficient to make a saint. And so, surely, it would be, if we could receive it in a perfect manner. For in each Communion we receive Christ Himself, the whole Christ, all that He is and has. All that we can possibly need for the very highest sanctity is there, and is given. The fault, the hindrance, is only in our power of reception. Think what it would be if we could have once knelt before our Lord in the days of His earthly ministry, and had His Hand laid upon us in benediction. But how much more wonderful to have Him come to dwell within us! To be made one with Him, and He one with us! Or think again, if this wonderful Sacrament could be celebrated only by one priest in the world, and only in one place; what should we have thought of the opportunity of once in our life being present at that Celebration and receiving Communion? But now everywhere and day by day it is close at hand. Yet the frequency does not make the gift less great or less wonderful. So we must try to cherish high and worthy thoughts of so great a Sacrament; that will help to guard us against receiving formally and out of a dead habit of routine.

Thirdly, when we are making our immediate preparation we must try to stir up both faith and desire. 'Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness; for they shall be filled.' Spiritual desire is the soul's hunger, which has the promise that it shall be filled. The Blessed Sacrament is like the Manna of old, of which they 'gathered every man according to his eating,' some more, some less. Or it is like an inexhaustible fountain which can fill to the full every vessel that is brought to it. But some vessels are larger than others, and therefore receive more. So must we enlarge the capacity of our souls by acts of faith and desire. We must stir up spiritual hunger. 'He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich,' those who feel no sense of hunger, 'He hath sent empty away.' Yet this hunger is not always a sensible feeling; it is a hunger of faith. We know our emptiness and need; we believe in the fulness of the gift. We come to seek it in the humility of faith; not because we feel ourselves to be devout, but because we know and feel our poverty and need. So it is well if our immediate preparation for Communion contains always, or often, some definite act of faith in the Real Presence, and some prayer that God would give us this true hunger of spiritual desire, this sense of our own poverty and need.

Then, again, it is always a help when we come to Communion to have some special intention; something we want to ask of our Lord for ourselves or for others. This will give reality to our approach, point to our faith and desire. In the crowd which thronged our Lord on all sides one woman touched His garment and was healed of her disease. Her touch was different from that of the others, who were equally in contact with Him; for she touched with a definite act of faith and desire. 'If I may touch but the hem of His garment, I shall be whole.' And so she touched and was healed. 'Daughter, be of good cheer; thy faith hath made thee whole.' So as we kneel at the Altar, one touches with faith and is blessed, another makes his Communion heedlessly, without faith and purpose, and misses the blessing our Lord was ready to give. According to thy faith and thy desire, it shall be done unto thee.

Lastly, there is our behaviour after Communion. First, of course, our thanksgiving, not necessarily long, but let us try to make it well, to spend some few minutes at least in real acts of thanksgiving and prayer. But all is not done when we have made this thanksgiving. We should try to let our thoughts go back from time to time through the day to our Communion in the early morning and try to mingle with the thought some words of prayer. Much grace is often lost or wasted through forgetfulness. We make our Communions, and forget that we have made them; forget the Presence of Him whom we have received; forget the purpose for which we sought Him. We need to detain Him by watchfulness and prayer. We need to use the grace received, by doing or forbearing things for love of Him who has given Himself to us. A temptation comes; we remember our Communion, and for love of Jesus and in the power of His indwelling presence, we resist it. So we shall have grown in grace, because we have used it, made it our own. We meet with some disappointment, trial, or suffering and bear it patiently for love of Jesus; again we have used His grace, and grown thereby. We do a kindness, or practise some little self-denial, or refrain from some uncharitable word; and if we do it for the love of Jesus, we have made our Communion the more fruitful to His glory, and our own advancement. These are the kind of ways, very obvious and commonplace, by which we may hope to make our Communions better, and save them from being formal and unfruitful. You know them as well as I do; but we are all apt to forget them. It is good therefore to remind ourselves of them from time to time, to examine ourselves as to how we are making our Communions, and to set ourselves with God's help to make them better.

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