"It is well to choose some one good devotion, and to stick to it, and never to abandon it."

St Philip Neri

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"For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God?"

Thomas á Kempis

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"As the flesh is nourished by food, so is man supported by prayers"

St Augustine

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John Nicholas Grou, S.J. 

 

SPIRITUAL MAXIMS (cont)

 

by John Nicholas Grou, S.J.

Sixth Maxim: The Sacraments of Penance and Holy Eucharist

Make good use of the two sacraments, whereof one brings cleansing, and the other life

We all know that, after baptism which regenerates but can only be supplied once, the two chief springs of grace are the sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist, which may be renewed as often as the soul stands in need of them. The former cleanses it from sin and renders it pure in God's sight; the latter maintains its spiritual life by uniting it with the very Author of that life. Therefore the right use of these two sacraments greatly tends to sanctification, and his salvation is assured who does his best to receive them worthily, and profit by them fully.

It would lead me too far were I to treat of this matter at length, and my subject does not require it of me. I am not now writing for those who only go to confession and communion in order to obey the precept of the Church. This I will say, in case my book falls into their hands. As long as they do only so much as is absolutely of obligation, they run a great risk of not being rightly disposed for the reception of these sacraments. If they have any bad habits, it is most unlikely that they will overcome them, so long as they go to confession and receive communion only once a year, and their salvation, to say the least of it, will be imperilled.

Nor am I writing for those who are accustomed to confess and communicate only on the great festivals. It may well be that their lives will be exempt from grave sins, but they are surely wanting in zeal for their sanctification, and respond neither to the desires of the Church nor to Our Lord's intention in instituting these two sacraments. I would advise them to consult some good book on the advantages of frequent confession and communion; to obey the pressing invitation of the Church, and to listen humbly to the advice of their confessor.

I write only for those who, being resolved to lead a holy life and, knowing that frequent participation in the sacraments is one of the most effectual means to sanctification, have formed the good habit of going to confession and communion weekly and even oftener, as their occupations permit and their confessor recommends. I write also for those who have given themselves to God, such as priests and religious, who by their rule of life are encouraged to frequent confession and communion.

In addressing, therefore, such persons I must confine myself only to what is absolutely essential, if I am not to make this work too long. In any case, the general rules in regard to frequent confession and communion are sufficiently well known.

Now in the ancient Church, confession was much rarer, communion much more frequent. The bishop was then the only, or almost the only, confessor; and if the early Christians, who communicated whenever they assisted at the Holy Sacrifice (not to mention the times they communicated in their own homes), had gone to confession as often as devout folk do now, the bishop, it is obvious, would have had no time to hear them. As holy as their lives were, nevertheless some small faults escaped them daily, which they did not deem necessary to confess. If they had aught against their brethren, they sought reconciliation before offering their gifts; [31] and as for venial sins, they believed, as St. Augustine teaches, that these were wholly remitted by the recitation of the Lord's Prayer. They only applied to the bishop or to someone deputed by him, for sins of some little magnitude or concerning which they were in doubt; and we may well believe that their consciences were at least as delicate as those of devout persons of the present day.

As time wore on, and the number of confessors increased, the facility with which one could apply to them made confession much more frequent, whilst the holy custom of communicating whenever present at Mass being lost, the idea began to take root that it was necessary to receive the advice or permission of the confessor before going to communion, and this led to much more frequent and regular confessions; so much so, that people began to think that they had to go to confession always before communicating.

Now such continual confessions, when made a matter of routine or obligation, are subject to abuse. They give rise to anxiety and scruples. The penitent worries himself to find something to say. He dwells upon thoughts that had better be despised, and exposes himself to be wanting in contrition. Often there is no matter for absolution, and yet it would be distressing if the confessor gave none. The worst of it is that, without confession, such persons will not go to communion, when they could and should do. No one knows what it costs sensible confessors to bring such souls to reasonable practice in this matter. They take fright and are scandalized. Very often, nothing can be done with them, and the confessor is obliged to yield to their contumacy.

Another abuse, still greater and more common, is that of believing that all perfection consists in the frequent participation of the sacraments. Many think themselves saints because they communicate weekly or daily, who yet never dream of correcting their faults; who perhaps do not even know them, so blinded are they by self- love. They are impatient, harsh, censorious, full of self-esteem and contempt of their neighbour, proud of the multitude of their external observances, and without the slightest idea of interior mortification. All the profit they derive from their communions and other pious exercises consists in spiritual vanity, secret pride, and all the subtle vices engendered by devotion grafted on to self-love.

A third abuse is that of treating confession and communion as matters of routine. Those who fall into this error come to the sacraments without any, or with only superficial, examination of conscience. It may be that they are afraid of breaking their rule and of attracting attention; or their director may have given them certain orders. And so these most holy actions are performed as perfunctorily as if they were the most ordinary affairs.

Let us consider each sacrament separately. The thing most to be feared in the matter of frequent confession is that, either the examination of conscience is insufficient, or else it is exaggerated and scrupulous. Persons of a light or thoughtless nature, or whose devotion is cold and indifferent, are liable to the first fault. Some only consider their external acts, and scarcely give a thought to what passes within them. Others have their pet sins, of which they seem quite unconscious, or they go through a regular form of examination which they repeat by heart to the confessor, nearly always in the same order and in the same words. There are others also who, being habitually subject to venial sins, such as breaking certain rules, and with no idea of correcting themselves, presume to leave them out of their examination and confession altogether. In general, their examination is badly done, either from ignorance or for want of watchfulness in the intervals between their confessions, or because they are not sincere in their desire for perfection.

On the other hand, very timid souls, who have lively imaginations or are narrow-minded, are apt to examine themselves too severely or too anxiously. They see faults in everything, and these faults, which are often nothing at all, they exaggerate and turn into immense affairs. They confuse thought with consent, first involuntary movements with determined acts . They worry themselves looking for trouble, and hours are not sufficient for them when it comes to their examination, and they go through torments every time they go to confession. Their examination not only wearies them at the time of confession, but all day long. They are perpetually searching their conscience, and do nothing but fret and dissect themselves.

I admit that it is not easy to keep to the happy medium. For those who lead a regular life, with little contact with the outside world, whose occupations vary little, and who are in the habit of making their examination of conscience daily, I would say that the immediate preparation before confession should not take long: a glance should be sufficient to remind them of what they have done during the week. Persons otherwise circumstanced require more time, but such time has its limits. A quarter of an hour more than suffices for a weekly confession, and it is better to run the risk of forgetting some slight fault than to torture oneself in order to omit none.

The examination should be made simply, quietly and honestly, after having asked the Holy Ghost for that light on which you ought to rely rather than on your own research. Instead of making painful efforts to recall everything, beg the Holy Spirit to show you those faults which most displease God, which offend your neighbour, and hinder your own progress. Then think of those only which come to your mind. Pay more attention to habitual than to occasional faults, to those which are in any way deliberate than to such as are simply inadvertent.

But it is much more important to feel real contrition for sin, and to make an earnest resolution of amendment. Such souls as I have here in mind do not find this difficult as regards great sins, which I would imagine they hold in habitual abhorrence. But that is not the case with regard to lesser sins of omission or commission connected with propensities which they treat rather lightly, and against which they have not the courage to fight resolutely. Such are sins of vanity, curiosity, laziness, self- indulgence, censoriousness and so forth. Such sins are always cropping up, and it is not easy to conceive real sorrow for them, or to make up one's mind never to commit them again, so long as the root is left unattacked. What happens is that the branches are lopped off, but they grow again at once, because the root is spared. Contrition for venial faults, habitually and deliberately committed, is as suspect as that for mortal sins of the same nature. We would like to amend, but deep down our will is not so sure. Grace demands correction, but nature refuses.

It is true that we can only hope for moral certainty of our contrition, but if there is any way of quieting our minds on this point it is by forming an earnest resolution never to commit a fault deliberately and intentionally, and to keep to that resolution. Then nothing remains but faults of impulse, of inadvertence or simple frailty, to which the will only half consents. A firm resolution never to sin wilfully readily obtains from God the grace of sorrow for those sins into which we fall. For the work of repentance is not our own but the gift of God; and He only promises it to those who make good use of His other graces.

Doubt, then, O Christian soul, of the sincerity of your contrition until you have fully made up your mind to avoid every deliberate sin; but once this is your habitual disposition, then have no further uneasiness in the matter. You must not judge your contrition by the feelings that you endeavour to excite at the time of confession, nor by the acts you then make, but by your habitual hatred of sin, your degree of watchfulness against it, and your efforts to overcome evil propensities and habits. There is no rule but this, and this rule is safe.

You are alarmed sometimes, because you feel no sorrow for sin, and your heart seems frozen; your act of contrition appears to be a mere formal set of words. You used to feel really grieved; love constrained your heart, and you were even moved to tears. Look well within yourself. See if you do truly detest the sins you are going to confess. If so, be at ease, and seek no further assurance. Your state of mind is probably better than when you were touched with sensible grief. Do not hesitate, therefore, to cast aside all fears and doubts and scruples on this subject: and, having taken the advice of your confessor, if necessary, then dismiss the matter entirely from your mind.

Besides, we do not excite contrition, as some suppose, by squeezing feelings out of our hearts, or moving ourselves to tears, but by humbly asking God to inspire our souls with true repentance, and then simply and quietly making our act of contrition. It is enough to do so once before confession, repeating it while the priest is giving the absolution. Then as regards the accusation. This is very often defective. We either say too much, or too little, by reason of self-love or shame. Any defects which result from ignorance or natural stupidity, will be remedied by the confessor asking such questions as he deems fit.

The accusation should be short and simple. No useless details, which often implicate other people; no circumlocution. If you have to say that you were impatient, or wanting in charity, do not make a long story of it. Some people think they would make a bad confession, if they did not repeat exactly all that was said to them, and all that they said in reply.

It must be clear and precise. No indistinctness, ambiguity, or disguise. Let the confessor understand the thing as you do yourself. None of those vague accusations, which merely take up time, and to which those are prone who like to make long confessions. You accuse yourself of self-love and pride. But these are vicious habits; they are not sins. Of slackness in God's service: the exact way in which you are slack should be mentioned. You make lukewarm communions: what does that mean?

It must be thorough. No essential details should be suppressed. Together with the fault, mention the motive which induced it, and which is sometimes more sinful than the act itself. Be absolutely sincere. If any fault is particularly humiliating, or if you fear reproof for it, do not leave it to the last: really humble souls begin with these. It is good also to mention one's temptations, and explain in what they consist, even if you have reason to believe that you have not given way to them. Shame sometimes leads us to conceal certain temptations. There is danger in this. It is a device of the devil to render a fall easier, and it generally succeeds.

Lastly, the accusation must be strictly true. Do not exaggerate, diminish or excuse your faults. Call that certain which you believe to be certain; doubtful what you consider doubtful. Scrupulous persons and those who suffer from temptations are apt to accuse themselves of having consented when they have not done so. When the confessor knows his penitents well, he should be on his guard and not take them always at their word; otherwise, he may well drive them to despair. Others think they should say more rather than less: they should, if possible, say neither more nor less. Those who are possessed of a strong and lively imagination should be on their guard against it in their confessions.

Early instruction on the subject of confession is exceedingly important because, at a certain age, it is almost impossible to correct the erroneous customs contracted by long habit.

Except in cases of violent temptation and serious trouble, souls in the passive way examine themselves very quietly. They see the state of their conscience very clearly. They are neither scrupulous nor do they slur over anything, for God never fails to show them the least fault they commit. They are not uneasy in the matter of their contrition. They accuse themselves with childlike simplicity and candour. Their confessions are usually short and to the point. Unless obliged by rule, they only confess when they feel the need. When they do so by rule, they state quite simply that they have nothing on their minds, if that is the case. By these signs it is easy to know whether persons are in this way, or are disposed to enter it.

Some may ask whether it is advisable to make use of those exercises for confession and communion, which are to be found in most manuals of devotion. I consider them useful and even necessary for those who seldom approach the sacraments. They are suitable also for young people, who are trying to be good and find great difficulty in collecting their thoughts. Acts, well repeated, inspire devotion where it previously did not exist, and in general recall the mind from wandering. But I think that those who enjoy the blessing of frequent communion should acquire the habit of dispensing with these aids. For one thing, familiarity lessens their effect, and they are only striking when they are new. An exercise grows wearisome when we know it by heart, and it leaves us cold and dry. And so we go from one thing to another, without finding any real satisfaction.

Another great objection is that, when we find ready made acts in books, we make no effort to excite our hearts to make them ours, but having borrowed the sentiments of the writers fancy that we have expressed our own. And these feelings which are not our own leave very little behind them. Those, on the other hand, which come spontaneously from within us, with the help of grace, nourish the soul and develop it, giving rise to profitable dispositions and, by being frequently renewed, form a habit of interior recollection.

And there can be no doubt that the expression of our own feelings is much more pleasing to God, being the kind of prayer which comes straight from the heart. What can all these methodical and prearranged acts mean to God? The thoughts that really please Him are those which He Himself breathes into the soul, not those that we seek elsewhere. Provided they are not needed to make up for our indigence or fix our attention, it is better to do without them and leave the heart free to express itself to God in its own way. Free and spontaneous acts are much more natural and alive, and also more effective.

Therefore I would suggest that you try gradually to dispense with books, both before and after communion. Let your preparation and thanksgiving be made quietly, without any straining of the mind, and with the help of God alone, Who is never so near to us as in these holiest of acts. And while acknowledging the insufficiency of your own attempts to receive Jesus worthily, and worthily to thank Him for this inestimable benefit, I would wish you trustfully to ask Him to dispose your heart aright, and then firmly believe and fully expect Him to do so. Then remain quietly recollected and interiorly silent, giving Him complete liberty over your heart, both as to the preparation for His reception and to His taking entire possession of it.

This divine method in which Christ would give us of His fulness, and we would give Him our simplicity, humility, faith, love and trust, is much better than our bustle and activity, and the shakings we give our soul in order to produce a little sensible fervour. And what an intimate peace it brings; what sweet suspension of the powers of the soul; what loving expectation of Our Lord's coming and of the unspeakable blessedness of His presence. Our self-love is always wanting to have a finger in the business, and so spoils everything. It seems to fear that God cannot do as well as it can itself. Whenever self-love interferes, therefore, God does little or nothing.

I allow that this method is only suitable for souls that have made some progress. But there are pure, young hearts, and indeed wonderful penitents, whom God Himself calls to it, attracting them to an interior silence, and kindling in them a sweet, powerful love at the time of communion. These souls need fear nothing. At such times, let them leave aside not only books, but also their own acts, and yield to God's own action. The confessor need have no anxiety on this point.

It is true that sensible sweetness at communion lasts only a certain time, but it is also true that it should not be sought or clung to. Nor, when God withdraws it, should it be regretted. There is much spiritual sensuality in this: it is loving Our Lord, not for His own sake but for His consolations. When the privation of these consolations is not the result of any fault of ours, our communion is none the worse, although it may be devoid of comfort. Its peace is imparted, whether it be felt or no, and our heart is filled, however empty it may feel. Our state at communion generally corresponds to our state in prayer; and the further we advance in the mortification of self, the more are we weaned from all sweetness. If the heavenly food is then less pleasing to our taste, it is all the more strengthening. In its trials, it is strength that the soul needs, not consolations; and this strength is abundantly bestowed in those communions in which nothing seems to be imparted.

A communion is not to be judged by its immediate but by its subsequent effects. God soon leads strong and generous souls beyond sweetness, in order that He may give them what is more substantial. A communion is excellent when it results in a generous determination to correct our faults, to deny ourselves, to bear the internal and external crosses sent by God, and to give Him, according to our present state, the proofs He seeks of our love, faithfulness and abandonment. Communions which do not produce this effect bear very little fruit. Natural sensibility, the imagination (not to say the devil) may often have the chief share in the pleasure then enjoyed, which only serves to lull vain and timid souls into dangerous illusions.

Now as to frequent communion, the confessor should give his advice with holy discretion. It is the present mind of the Church that the practice of frequent and even daily communion should be encouraged for all Christians who are in a state of grace, and are led by a right and pious intention, namely by a sincere desire to advance in the spiritual life, and not by any human motive such as habit or vanity. As soon as a Christian sets himself diligently to work out his own salvation, he should be exhorted to communicate often, without waiting until he is entirely rid of his former habits, or rather in order that he may get rid of them more easily. And there may be reasons, such as occasions of strong temptations or difficult duties, which render frequent communion still more desirable.

Greater profit will, of course, accrue to those who are not attached to any venial sins, but are resolved to commit no intentional fault and to obey the will of God in all things; who, moreover, devote themselves to inward mortification and mental prayer, so far as their condition allows, in order to acquire strength in the practice of virtue, bravely fighting themselves and avoiding all that might in any way draw them away from their interior recollection and union with God. As the spiritual life has its normal rate of progress, it is always easy for an experienced director to see whether a soul is advancing or not, and he will advise the frequency of communion according to the needs of the penitent.

As for priests, secular or regular, who daily offer the Holy Sacrifice, they must never think any perfection too high for them. On the contrary, the priesthood is of itself an engagement to what is most perfect in the Christian life. This is all the more so, when it is joined to the vows of religion. If one is obliged by one's office to say Mass, one is obviously obliged to say it worthily, and to draw from it all the spiritual fruits attached to it. It seems to me that by reason of their state, the functions they fulfil, and the example they should set, it is a law for them, not only to equal but to surpass in sanctity other Christians who live an interior life. But let each examine and judge himself in this matter.