With Saint Francis de Sales
Part III: Third Sunday of Lent
Let us continue our meditation on the quest of Christian perfection. We know now that it consists firstly of fighting our affections for sins. This fight is the negative side of perfection that we can associate with the purgative way described by the spiritual authors, especially Saint John of the Cross and Saint Theresa of Avila. It is the way of beginners in spiritual life, but it is not limited to beginners only. We can be tempted to think that after a while, we can ease off of penance and mortification because we have reached a higher level of sanctity. Then we believe, maybe in good faith, but certainly not without error, that because we love enough God, we no longer need to apply to ourselves certain penitential practices.
But the three stages of the spiritual life – the purgative way, illuminative way and unitive way – are not totally separate and distinct. Even the great Saints still had to mortify themselves because they were still tempted and marked by concupiscence as is every human being on earth. Lent comes to remind us each year of the necessity of mortification which should not to be in spirit and in intent only but must be applied with actions.
By the way, if anyone knows what it means exactly to have the “spirit of Lent” without practicing penance, I would be interesting to hear it so that I may be enlightened. It is like the “spirit of the Council”: many speak about it, but only a few know anything of what the proper texts of the Council actually say. And I, personally, find it very funny when their so-called spirit contradicts the text itself. One day, a priest tried to convince me that we have to use only vernacular language for the Liturgy, because it is the spirit of the Council. I just responded by saying that I don’t know what this spirit is, but, on the other hand, that I do know what the Council says, and it says that Latin is still the language that must be used for the Liturgy.
But, I disgress, let us now return to the heart of our subject. Christian perfection, on its positive side, consists of loving God. In fact, loving God and fighting against sin is the same thing; they are like two sides of the same coin, because the love of God is the antithesis of loving sin and the two mutually exclude each other. The more you love God, the more you hate sins and the less you care about your sins, the less you love God.
So, we must first be purified of any mortal sins because they remove charity from our soul. You already know from your catechism that just one mortal sin is enough to lose the Grace of God. It kills your soul by removing the principle of its life. Deprived of its life, which is God himself, a soul in the state of mortal sin deserves, in justice, hell for eternity. This is justice, dear brethren, and this justice does not contradict the love that God has for us. So, damnation which is an act of justice, shows a posteriori how grave and terrible a mortal sin is. If I deserve to go to hell because of one single act that I have committed maybe just in two seconds, it is because this act was a terrible act against the love of God, the love He has for me.
For that reason, Saint Francis de Sales says that “the first purgation which must be made is that of sin; the means to make it is the holy Sacrament of penance.” Then he gives some practical advice in order to make a good confession. It starts with a good examination of conscience, with the help a book that can help you. “ read it carefully, and note point by point in what ways you have offended God, from the time that you came from the age of reason up to the present time (it can be since your last good confession); and if you mistrust your memory, write down what you have observed. And when you have thus prepared and gathered together the peccant humors of your conscience, detest them and cast them away by as great a contrition and displeasure as your heart can conceive, considering four things: that by sin you have lost the grace of God, forfeited your place in Heaven, incurred the everlasting pains of hell, and renounced the everlasting love of God.”
It is the occasion to remind you that you must confess every single mortal sin not already confessed since your last confession, in order to receive absolution validly. And you must confess them according to their species. If you have murdered someone, it is not enough to say: I did something I shouldn’t have done or to say I have sinned against charity and justice. If you don’t remember how many mortal sins you have committed since your last confession, try to be as exact as you can and to say how frequently these sins were committed. For example, if you have the habit of stealing regularly from the cash drawer of your office, say that you have stolen around 10 dollars a week for 2 years. Remember that one mortal sin deliberately hidden in confession makes this confession invalid and even worse: you commit another mortal sin of sacrilege.
Now, you may have already renounced mortal sin and you try to keep your soul in state of grace, which is good. But you still need to be purified. Saint Francis de Sales speaks about this, saying: “the second purgation, which is that of the affection of sin.” Then he explains that “there are some penitents who forsake sin, but do not give up their affection to it.” Remember that we said last week how necessary it is to get rid of such an affection! Our Saint continues and says that these penitents “resolve to sin no longer, but they have a certain reluctance to deprive themselves of the miserable delectations of sin; their heart renounces sin and departs from it, but does not cease that to look back often in that direction. They abstain from sin as the sick abstain from melons, which they do not eat because the doctor tells them that they will die if they eat them; but they repine at abstaining from them, they talk of them and are unwilling to believe that they are unwholesome, they wish at all events to smell them, and envy those who are able to eat them."
"For in the same way these weak and faint-hearted penitents abstain for some time from sin, but it is with regret; they would like to be able to sin without being damned; they speak of sin with a certain satisfaction and relish, and esteem happy who commits sins.”
Saint Francis de Sales warns us: “Alas! Such persons are in great danger!” The safety net by which to guard this danger is a great contrition which we can obtain by meditating on the goodness of God and all the benefits he displays in Creation. Then, by comparison, we have to consider the wickedness of our actions and their consequences. If God wills, we will put into practice these meditations during the Recollection in two weeks.
The fact is that as much as our contrition increases, our love for God increases too because it becomes the main reason for it. This love will not suppress the necessity that we have to fight against our bad habits and our bad affections. It will not suppress the necessity of penance and mortification. But it will help us a lot for this hard task. As the Curé d’Ars used to say, love doesn’t suppress the cross, but it makes it sweeter to carry.
May Our Lady help us to obtain more and more charity. May she bring us to its source, God Himself. With her help, we will apply ourselves next week to the contemplation of the Love of God which is His own essence.