Sermon 4. Dangers to the Penitent Seasons - Lent

"O tarry thou the Lord's leisure; be strong, and He shall comfort thine heart; and put thou thy trust in the Lord." Ps. xxvii. 16.

[Note] {41} NO state is more dreary than that of the repentant sinner, when first he understands where he is, and begins to turn his thoughts towards his Great Master whom he has offended. Of course it is tempered with comfort and hope, as are all acts of duty; and on the retrospect, far from being distressing to dwell upon, it will be even pleasant. But at the time it is a most dreary state. A man finds that he has a great work to do, and does not know how to do it, or even what it is, and his impatience and restlessness are as great as his conscious ignorance; indeed, he is restless because he is ignorant. There is great danger of his taking wrong steps, inasmuch as he is anxious to move, and does not know whither. Let me now make some remarks upon certain faults into which he is likely to fall.

But, observe, I am supposing a really sincere and {42} earnest mind, not a languid, dreaming, halting, double-minded penitent, who repents a little and not much. Such a one is certainly not in danger of becoming enthusiastic or superstitious; he has not the power of being intemperate or wayward in his grief, and has little need of guidance. Nor does what I am saying apply to persons of sound judgment or calm temperament, who though they do truly repent, yet repent with the reason rather than with the feelings. But still there are a number of persons to whom it does apply.

1. I observe, then, that repentant sinners are often impatient to put themselves upon some new line of action, or to adopt some particular rule of life. They feel that what they have done in time past is, as far as this life is concerned, indelible, and places an impassable barrier between themselves and others: happy only if that badge of guilt and shame does not outlast the grave, but is wiped out in the day of account. They feel that they can never be as others are, till the voice of Christ pronounces them acquitted and blessed. And their heart yearns towards humiliation, and burns with a godly indignation against themselves, as if nothing were too bad for them; and they look about for something to do, some state of life to engage in, some task or servile office to undertake. Now it commonly happens that God does not disclose His will to them at once,—and for that will they ought to wait, whereas they are impatient; and when God's will does not clearly appear, they try to persuade themselves that they have ascertained it when they have not. St. Paul should be the pattern of the true penitent here. First he said, "Lord, what wilt {43} Thou have me to do?" then he was "obedient to the heavenly vision;" he waited three days, till God spoke to him by Ananias; and after that he suffered himself to be led about by Providence hither and thither, as though he had been still blind, without apparent method or purpose, and in no regular calling. It was not till years afterwards that the Holy Spirit said, "Separate Me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them." [Acts xiii. 2.] What a lesson is this for patient waiting on God! "O tarry thou the Lord's leisure;" wait till He speaks. It is impossible but He means to put you on some service; but in His house are many posts, many offices. Be quite sure you are taking the place He would have you take. Since you have gone wrong, and now wish to go right, be sure to ascertain the right; take not only what is good, but what is best. This you cannot do, except by following His call; and for His call you must wait,—whether He will call you forward in your present state of life, or call you to change it. Like the prophet, you must stand upon your watch, and set you on the tower, and watch to see what He will say to you, and what you shall answer when you are reproved: recollecting that "the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak and not lie; though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry." [Habakkuk ii. 1, 3.] Never regard how long you have to wait; be it for years, suffer it. Say not time is short, for God can make it long. If He use you not, even till the eleventh hour, He can make that hour a {44} thousand, and can reward you in proportion to the years of your patient waiting.

2. And next I would say to such persons as I have described, Be on your guard, not only against becoming committed to some certain mode of life or object of exertion, but guard against excess in such penitential observances as have an immediate claim upon you, and are private in their exercise. The danger is, that what is really an excess, seems to such persons to be only moderation. When men are in horror and anguish at their past sins, they are anxious to put some burden on themselves, which may relieve their feelings, and remind them of what they have been, what they are. Now nothing is more unadvisable in most cases than to begin with severity. Persons do not know what they can bear, and what they cannot, till they have tried it. They think almost they can live without food, without rest, without the conveniences of life to which they are accustomed. Then when they find they cannot, they despond and are miserable, or fall back, and a reaction ensues. It is a great fault to be ambitious, and men may easily aim at praying more than they can, or meditating more than they can, or having a clearer faith and a deeper humility than at present they can have. All things are done by degrees; all things (through God's grace) may come in time, but not at once. As well might a child think to grow at once into a man, as the incipient penitent become suddenly like St. Paul the aged. Moreover, even if we could possibly have those views of God and of ourselves, which are the simple truth, it would not be good for us to have them,—they {45} would be too much for us. As Christ hides Himself from us in the Holy Eucharist, so does He hide from us ourselves, in mercy. We are weak,—we are not able to bear great burdens yet; light burdens are heavy to us. Moreover, if penitents are bent on lading themselves heavily, let them know that the greatest of burdens, as well as the most appropriate, is what is lasting, what is continual. A slight penance, if long, is far more trying than a severe one, if short. This stands to reason; for it outlasts their present agitated state of mind. For the same reason, it is more beneficial, for it reminds them of what they afterwards will be likely to forget. A stone in time is hollowed by a continual dropping; and be sure that a very easy rule, if it endures, is a very severe trial. It is not much of a penance to take upon one what is a mere relief to the feelings, and to end it when the feelings cease to require it. True penitence is that which never comes to an end; and true penance is that which lasts as long as penitence. Nor does any one, I suppose, but those who have tried it, know what a peculiar character of severity is given to any observance whatever, by the knowledge that it is never to cease; or even that it is to last for a certain number of years. And independent of the prospect for the future, even monotony itself is often a severe punishment, and requires to be tempered, lest it should unfit us for our duties.

3. What has been last said leads me to another subject, on which some remarks ought to be made. When persons are in acute distress about their sins, they are sometimes tempted to make rash promises, and to take on them professions without counting the cost. They {46} think their present state of mind will last for ever; it changes—but their promise remains; they find they cannot duly fulfil it; then they are in great perplexity, and even despair. Perhaps they have been even imprudent enough to make their engagement in the shape of a vow, and this greatly increases their difficulty. They do not know whether it is binding or not—they cannot recollect the mode in which, or the feelings under which, they took it; or any of the minute circumstances on which its validity turns. Now all this on the very first view of the case shows thus much, how very wrong it is to make private vows. We cannot be our own judge in a matter of this kind. Yet, if we take on ourselves an engagement without telling any one else of it, we trust it in a great measure to our own memory and judgment. The special publicity and distinctness with which the marriage vow is made, gives us a pattern how vows should be undertaken. The Church should hear them, and the Church should bless them. In the early Church even the highest ecclesiastical authorities were appealed to as their witnesses and imposers. But unless in some sense or form the Church is present, it seems rash to make vows. I would rather recommend an observance, which is safer and more expedient. Persons who wish to repent of their past sins, are tempted to make vows of poverty, or continence, or humble estate, or the like. Now I do not say that they are wrong in wishing for themselves this or that kind of life which the Apostles exercised. I do not say that it is enthusiastic, or wild, or fanciful to wish to be like St. Paul, considering that he expressly wished all men to be as he was. I do not {47} say that there is any thing eccentric or reprehensible in grudging oneself those comforts which our Saviour refused; but, as things are, it is best to confine ourselves to the wish and the endeavour, and to spare ourselves the solemn promise. I say this, because I think there is something which persons may do, which will practically come to the same thing, yet without the risk of their acting on their own judgment, unaccompanied by the formal blessing of the Church on their act. I mean, they may make it a point ever to pray God for that gift, or that state which they covet. If they desire to be humble, and of little account in this world, let them not at once make any engagement or profession to that effect, but let them daily pray God that they may never be rich, never be in high place, never in power or authority; let them daily pray God that their dwelling may be ever lowly, their food ordinary, their apparel common, their home solitary; let them pray Him that they may be least and lowest in the world's society; that others may have precedence of them, others speak while they are silent, others take the first seats, and they the last, others receive deference, and they neglect; others have handsome houses, rich furniture, pleasant gardens, gay equipages, great establishments. Will not such a prayer be a sort of recurrent vow, yet without any of that dangerous boldness which a private self-devised resolution implies? Who can go on day by day thus praying, yet not imbibe somewhat of the spirit for which he prays? As the creed is in one sense a prayer, so surely such a prayer may in some sense be considered a profession. Yet even such a prayer let not a man begin at {48} once; let him count the cost before offering it, for this reason, because, assuredly, it is a sort of prayer which Almighty God is very likely to grant. There are prayers which we have no confidence will be answered; but there are others which, as the experience of all ages assures us, are dangerous ones, because they are so effectual. Often the word has passed the tongue, and is written in heaven, and in spite of our own change of wish it is accomplished. Among such prayers are prayers for affliction, and for trial; and again, those which I have been describing, for the manner of life of the Apostles and first Christians, or (what may be called by way of distinction) the scriptural life. Let no one then rashly pray for that scriptural life; lest, before he wish it, he gain his prayer. Yet still, if after much thought he considers he really and deeply covets it, let him pray for it, and pray for grace to endure it; but this will be enough, he need not take any vow.

4. What was said just now naturally leads to one other remark, viz. that when men are in the first fervour of penitence, they should be careful not to act on their own private judgment, and without proper advice. Not only in forming lasting engagements, but in all they do, they need a calmer guidance than their own. They cannot manage themselves; they must be guided by others; the neglect of this simple and natural rule leads to very evil consequences. We should all of us be saved a great deal of suffering of various kinds, if we could but persuade ourselves, that we are not the best judges, whether of our own condition, or of God's will towards us. What sensible person undertakes to be his own physician? yet are the diseases of the mind less numerous, less intricate, {49} less subtle than those of the body? is experience of no avail in things spiritual as well as in things material? does induction lose its office, and science its supremacy, when the soul is concerned? What an inconsistent age is this! every department of things that are, is pronounced to be capable of science, to rest upon principles, to require teaching, to exercise the reason, except self-discipline. Self-discipline is to take its chance; it is not to be learned, but it can be performed by each man for himself by a sort of natural instinct. And what is more preposterous still, a person is thus to be his own guide and instructor at the very time, when by the nature of the case he is in error and difficulty. How can a person show himself the way, when by the very hypothesis he has lost it? how can he at once guide and be guided? The very seasons I am speaking of are those, when a man is agitated, excited, harassed, depressed, desponding; the very time when of course his judgment is not clear, when he is likely to be led away with fancies, when he is likely to be swayed by inclination, when the light that is in him becomes, if not darkness, yet a meteor leading him the wrong way. But if the blind lead the blind, shall not both reason and passion, shall not the whole man, fall into the ditch?

Nor is it to the purpose to say, that we cannot be guided without the grace of God, and that the grace of God will guide us; and that the grace of God is gained by private prayer. For still God makes use of means; we must do our part; we must act, and God will guide us while we act; and the question is, whether taking the advice of others is not God's way, through which He {50} blesses and enlightens us, and without which our souls will not prosper.

I state my deep conviction when I say, that nothing healthy can be expected in the religion of the community, till we learn that we cannot by our private judgment manage ourselves; that management of the heart is a science which it needs to learn; and that even though we have paid attention to it, we are least able to exercise it in our own case, that is, then when we most need it. We must use in religious matters that common sense, which does not desert us in matters of this world, because we take a real interest in them; and as no one would ever dream of being his own lawyer or his own physician, however great exposures, whatever sacrifice of feeling may be the consequence, so we must take it for granted, if we would serve God comfortably, that we cannot be our own divines, and our own casuists.

To conclude, let us excite each other to seek that good part which shall not be taken away from us. Let us labour to be really in earnest, and to view things in the way in which God views them. Then it will be but a little thing to give up the world; only an easy thing to reconcile the mind to what at first it shrinks from. Let us turn our mind heavenward; let us set our thoughts on things above, and in His own time God will set our affections there also. All will in time become natural to us, which at present we do but own to be good and true. We shall covet what at present we do but admire. Let the time past suffice us to have followed our own will; let us desire to form part of that {51} glorious company of Apostles and Prophets, of whom we read in Scripture. Let us cast in our lot with them, and desire to be gathered together under their feet. Let us beg of God to employ us; let us try to obtain a spirit of perfect self-surrender to Him, and an indifference to one thing above another in this world, so that we may be ready to follow His call whenever it comes to us. Thus shall we best employ ourselves till His voice is heard, patiently preparing for it by meditation, and looking for Him to perfect what we trust His own grace has begun in us.

There are many persons who proceed a little way in religion, and then stop short. God keep us from choking the good seed, which else would come to perfection! Let us exercise ourselves in those good works, which both reverse the evil that is past, and lay up a good foundation for us in the world to come.

Top | Contents | Works | Home


Return to text

Top | Contents | Works | Home

Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.