PEACE FOR TROUBLED SOULS¹
by Boniface McConville, O.F.M.
MEMORY OF SINS
MANY people have a tendency to forget that God does not take away our memory of our sins, even when the sins themselves are forgiven. And here we have the cause of much needless misery. This is not an idle theory. It has resulted from the hearing of confessions on missions for many years.
The forgiveness of sins, in the Sacrament of Penance, is one thing. The memory of sins forgiven is quite another. So also, the healing of a wound is one process; the scar that remains is quite another. Until we keep the two things separate, it is no exaggeration to say that those of us troubled by the memory of sins will never have peace. Thousands of sincere men and women are tortured by the thought of their vividly recalled sins, instead of being comforted by the fact, the definite fact, that those sins have been forgiven. We must wisely take refuge in the positive side of our religion. It is distressing and dangerous to concentrate on negations.
If you still retain your baptismal innocence, be humbly thankful. But many of the men and women who have fought and are fighting life's battles in the front line trenches, and have suffered the wounds and grime of the conflict, will know what this pamphlet is about.
Memory and forgiveness! If we will but keep the two distinct! A lively memory is a blessed faculty and possession. But why not use it to assure yourself of God's great mercy? Of course this does not mean you should be guilty of presumption. That will be referred to later. It means this: If you must remember the sin inevitably ---- let that memory be the occasion for a resolution to do sensible penance and amend your life. Use your memory for constructive purposes, rather than for falling into utter despair.
Some will say: "Well, I never feel sure of forgiveness, Father. Sometimes I wonder. I am usually terribly upset. So I guess I'll go to confession again. Even then, I won't be sure, but it will be a help. Oh, will I ever have peace?"
This pitiful, perpetual unrest recalls the story of a man who went annually to God's acre and exhumed the remains of a loved one. He could never content himself that the burial really had taken place. Some of the best souls that Almighty God ever created resemble him. They just cannot leave their forgiven sins alone, buried in the deep grave of God's forgiving mercy. They simply must make their regular trips to the cemetery of unhappy memories, to excavate the old bones once more.
Another similar example is found in the woman who had an intestinal incision made every few years, for the purpose of a thorough diagnosis. She felt all right, understand, but she thought that the safest policy is to be examined internally at regular intervals. These incidents may be slightly exaggerated, but they do bring out a point.
WHAT OUR LORD MEANT
When our Divine Savior told His Apostles, and their successors, "Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them," He meant those words literally and without reservation. Our faith and our confidence in our Savior should be such that we accept this comforting assurance at its full value. Our Savior did not say that your sins might be forgiven, or that they may be forgiven, or anything else of a conditional character. True God and true Man, the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity, Jesus your Savior, meant precisely what He said when He instituted the Sacrament of Penance. If the penitent has sorrow for the sin, there are no strings attached to the forgiveness. Nor is it necessary that you be able to shed tears in your sorrow. It is safe to say that sorrow and forgiveness depend in no way on the lachrymal glands.
Perhaps the reason why we almost doubt God's forgiveness is because we ourselves are comparatively slow to forgive injuries. How unkind it is of us to place Almighty God in our class in this regard, even unwittingly! "Be of good heart, son, thy sins are forgiven thee;" "Go and sin no more;" "Peace be to you" ---- these and many other convincing assurances of mercy were given by our understanding Savior for your consolation. But so many of us seem to believe in a weak and abstract fashion. So many of us are unwilling to rest content without a written statement of pardon, bearing the signature of our Savior.
This authentic signature of our Redeemer is written in His blood, in the work of Redemption. Never doubt it. Trust Him. And carry your belief and confidence over into that personal, unhesitating, Catholic conviction which brings you comfort, stability and the true penitential spirit.
Why should God destroy our memories when our sins are forgiven? You remember all the pleasant events of your life. Is there any reason why you should not also remember the unhappy and unfortunate phases of your experience? But, for your peace of mind, remind yourself firmly of the difference between memory and forgiveness.
It is correct that we must be sorry for our sins, and that we must have a firm purpose of amendment. However, after this sincere resolution that goes with effective confession, we step from the confessional into the world. Reluctantly we re-enter the battle against the world, the flesh and the devil. We are again in the thick of the fray. Although we have been Sacramentally absolved, although we have received an increase of sanctifying grace, and although we have made a firm purpose of sinning no more, we did not thereby take out an infallible insurance against ever committing sin again. All too well do we know that we must use devout prayer, heroic but sane penance, the frequent reception of the Sacraments and every source of grace as a protection against the hour of temptation.
You may soliloquize: "Well, is there anything inevitable about committing sin? I wish that there were means of being saved against even slight imperfections. I am often so weary in the daily battle." In that soliloquy, you can give yourself the correct answer: Sin is not inevitable, since you have a free will. But sin is quite probable unless the available and indispensable means of prevention are used.
If, with Saint Paul, we desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, that is a legitimate and salutary yearning. There is nothing wrong about being homesick for heaven, about longing to go to our Father's house. On the other hand, it does not seem to be precisely Catholic to be fearful of sins which have been forgiven. Of course, we need not be reminded that it is not Catholic to abuse God's mercy by returning to former sins deliberately. We may feel that God is very broad-minded, in His boundless mercy, but we are not allowed to have presumption in our hearts.
You will recall from your catechism that the eternal punishment due to sin is wiped away by the absolution of the priest. It is also the traditional conviction of the Church that Purgatory must be faced by the vast majority. But Purgatory, in all its intensity, is temporary. And our punishment in Purgatory can be shortened greatly, or canceled entirely, by penance performed and indulgences acquired here below. The Catholic Church is Divine. This is Catholic doctrine.
THE CHURCH AND OPTIMISM
Your spiritual Mother, the Catholic Church, is the Mother of sane optimism. Pessimism and dour discouragement have no place in her doctrine. Under various guises, they have repeatedly tried to destroy the peace which Christ assures to the penitent sinner. This peace is assured, obviously, because of the penance, not because of the sin. Is there not balance unequaled in the teaching that you can possess true grief of the soul, and at the same moment you can have music in your heart and a smile on your face? These dispositions are entirely normal; they involve no contradiction or inconsistency. Your sorrow refers to your unfortunate lack of love of God in the past. Your happiness comes from the fact that your sins have been forgiven and that, through the grace of God, you are sorry for ever having offended Him. Do you need a greater proof that your sorrow is turned into joy?
You will recall, in the narration of the Passion in the twenty-third chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke, that Jesus was crucified between two thieves. Holy Scripture speaks of one of these criminals as "the good thief." There was surely nothing good about the stealing which he had done in his career. The term refers to his good dispositions while he was dying alongside of Jesus. What a place of distinction in which to die, by the way! And two thieves shared this distinction. Well, the good thief was humble and sorrowful. In his agony of death, he asked of Jesus: "Lord, remember me when Thou shalt come into Thy kingdom."
And Jesus said to him: "Amen, I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with Me in paradise." Our Divine Savior gave the good thief absolution then and there. Jesus also gave him a plenary indulgence, because the good thief, apparently, was not sent to purgatory. He was assured that on that very day he would be with Jesus in paradise. Here is a case, vouched for in Holy Writ, where our Lord saved a man from eternal damnation, and also removed all the temporal punishment which was due to this man's sin. And yet the man was a thief! He had been arrested by the authority of the Roman government and put to death on the cross as a public criminal and malefactor.
And we hear from the lips of Jesus that He took this good thief with Him to heaven on the very day of His own death. Now, you may be as discouraged and as pessimistic as anybody can be about your past life. But don't you honestly think that you will receive as much kind consideration from your Savior as a thief received? All doubts and misgivings must disappear as you read this narrative in the holy Gospel according to Saint Luke. And absolution for your sins is yours for the asking. A plenary indulgence, taking away all the temporal punishment due to sin, is also waiting for you if you meet the easy conditions of the Church for this great spiritual favor.
Most people have suffered physical in- juries of some kind. Perhaps as a boy or girl you fell and cut your hand. It may have been a deep cut, too. No doubt you remember the exact place where it happened.
Maybe you were running to the store and you fell. And oh how your hand bled! You were very young at the time, but you recall it vividly. However, it healed after a while, did it not? You almost forgot about the healing part ---- that was taken for granted. But every time that you notice the scar on your hand, you are reminded of the injury over again. It seems that sin is something like that. The wound caused by sin is healed by the Sacrament of Penance. But every sin leaves a sort of scar in the memory. And the saddest part of it all is that so many men and women are tormented by that scar. When they forget that the wound has been healed, they rob themselves of poise, comfort and spiritual health. We can almost hear our Savior's rebuke: "Oh ye of little faith." After all the convincing proofs of His mercy, our divine Lord deserves more confidence than that.
There is a modern surgery called "plastic," by which scars, wrinkles and various imperfections of one's appearance may be removed in whole or in part. The body is heir to these and a multitude of more serious woes, the last of which, of course, is unavoidable dissolution. It is said that plastic surgery is an expensive luxury, so most people have to do the best they can with their scars with- out the aid of science. If one enjoys good health, a scar or two should not interfere with one's happiness. The removal of blemishes is, at best, a temporary flattery and comfort. It is a scientific compliment and the postponement of the inevitable.
The immortal soul, being spiritual and having no physical characteristics, cannot be scarred or wounded in the accepted sense of the words. When we speak of wounds on the soul and scars on the memory, we use figures of speech. Living in a physical world, we naturally employ comparisons gathered from physical, visible and tangible realities. This art, incidentally, was supremely exercised by our divine Savior Himself, especially in the parables. You must be your own physician, then, for removing scars from the memory. These are of no more fundamental importance than scars on a healthy body. It is true, as previously indicated, that these memories frequently bring great and disturbing worries. They indicate a common and widespread spiritual neurosis. You must heal yourself by faith and confidence. Take your Savior at His word. There is no peace unless Christ brings it.
It requires no profound thesis to show that there are spiritual worries, or neuroses, which are manifested by all kinds of fantastic and extravagant imaginations in ordinary life. We see these nervous cases all around us. Perhaps, to your own regret, you are somewhat affected yourself. Some people cannot stay in a crowd. Others cannot bear to be alone. Again, there are those who are tortured if they go to high places. Unless you have experienced what such a nervous condition really means, you simply cannot be sufficiently sympathetic to the unhappy people who thus suffer. And the most distinguished nerve specialists of the world can do little to help. The sufferer must help himself.
THE NEED OF COURAGE
Courage is the answer. Face the very conditions that you fear and, defeat them. These conditions are not really there, of course, when you do face them. In overcoming them you will sigh with relief when you find out that you overcame nothing. You were fighting a product of your own imagination: nothing else. In overcoming yourself, however, you will win a great victory indeed.
Few swimmers are brave when they take the first dip of the season. They stand and fearfully contemplate the great, cold ocean. Most of them probably wish that they were back home. They cannot understand why they came to the beach in the first place. Reluctantly and with trepidation, they immerse one foot, then the other. In the course of human events, they finally get wet. Then it is, after having been dreadfully afraid of it, that they find out how delightful the ocean is. And far, far greater is the joy that awaits those who will cast fear aside and, with joyful abandon, plunge into the limitless ocean of God's mercy, which endureth forever.
There isn't anything narrow-minded about our Divine Master. His mercy isn't niggardly or circumscribed. Did He reject you when you committed your first sin? No. Our Savior never seeks, as some seem to fear, the easy opportunity to destroy sinners. You know that He walked the dusty paths of Palestine building confidence in the hearts of discouraged people. And His Church is solemnly appointed to continue His constructive program of mercy until soft twilight shadows fall on time's brief day. So, be unusually brave. Defy yourself. Wrap up all your doubts, all the phases of your terror, in one package. Label the package: "Vain Fears." Then, with courage born of strong faith, based on His unfailing assurances, throw that package into the yawning abyss of permanent oblivion. Forget it! Find out, finally, what Christ means by the greeting: "Peace be to you!"
When our Lord said to the Apostles and their successors: "Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them," He immediately added: "and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained." It is important, for a comprehensive picture, to note here that our Lord gave His Church the authority to loose a soul from sin, and also the power to refuse to forgive a sin. This authority to retain sins refers, of course, to the cases where sinners are impenitent and refuse to meet the conditions of the Church. We see here that the Church not only can forgive and sanctify souls, but can also reject, though reluctantly, those who are hard of heart. This twofold power is clearly conveyed by the commission to the Apostles.
The Sacrament of Penance is the greatest major spiritual surgery in the Church. The medical art of removing scars from the face is comparatively child's play. It has much the same importance and permanence as when a baby's chubby hand pats away a bulge or bubble in a fresh mud pie. But when the hand of a priest of Jesus Christ is raised in absolution over a sinner, that soul is returned to the state of grace and prepared for eternal union with its Creator. That is really God's work. And, because He gave us this all-comforting Sacrament, we stand in awesome gratitude. The Royal Psalmist foreshadows this peace when in the 102nd Psalm, he sings: "As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our iniquities from us;" because "the mercy of the Lord is from eternity and unto eternity upon them that fear Him."
True, it was not our precious privilege to have seen Jesus in the courtyard of the Temple, or in Naim, or in Capharnaum, healing the sick, forgiving sinners, and doing the work of the God-Man with mercy that possessed perfect finesse. The fact that we did not see Him in Person, however, must never interfere with our faith. The Master rebuked the Apostle Saint Thomas by reminding him that they are blessed "who have not seen and have believed." It is no distinction and no comfort to be numbered among the doubters.
Of course, we have no photographs taken of our Savior in His work or in His suffering. Photography was unknown two thousand years ago. But speaking of pictures, we were given, as it were, the negative or the undeveloped film of faith when we were Baptized. Although we were made children of God and heirs of heaven on that occasion, in one sense of the word it was only the beginning of our spiritual career. All-important and necessary for salvation was this baptismal beginning; but our co-operation is needed to develop that vague negative into a bright, cheerful, positive picture. This developing takes place in the fluid of confidence, by a life of prayer, by the frequent reception of the Sacraments and by avoiding the occasions of sin. What we here call the negative film of faith contains in essence everything that is necessary. But our active, Catholic lives must develop it into the finished photograph.
By our inactivity and our careless failure to develop our Catholic faith, the great gift of faith continues, in a sense, to be a permanent negative. And it is apparent that a professional photographer cannot be engaged to do this developing which we speak of. That must be our own personal activity.
There is little enjoyment, indeed, in the possession of the undeveloped negatives of the pictures which you snapped in the mountains or at the shore. The picture which you took of your friend, or of your sweetheart, or of that smile on your sleeping baby's face, will never enrapture you if it remains undeveloped. A film, as you know, often contains within itself a nourishing harvest for the hungry soul of the camera fan. People usually hurry to have these negatives developed so they may enjoy the feast of happy memories.
THE CAUSE OF SPIRITUAL ILLS
It is too often the case, in the spiritual order, that dormant negatives and undeveloped Catholicity are the cause of spiritual hunger and of consequent spiritual illness. Where there is no Catholic development, there is no reaping of the rich spiritual harvest for the hungry soul- there is no spiritual health and stability. It may be called a lack of confidence, or a neurosis, or scrupulosity, perhaps. But it can be called a derangement caused by the want of the correct Catholic attitude. This negative, spiritual, nervous attitude is a plague which destroys confidence and makes the unhappy soul afraid of almost everything.
Before His Ascension into Heaven, our Savior said good-bye to the Apostles. He was always most kind, but in this farewell message He uses language that is more than kind ---- language that creates most wonderful confidence:
"Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in Me. In my Father's house there are many mansions. If not, I would have told you: because I go to prepare a place for you. And if I shall go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and will take you to Myself; that where I am, you also may be" [John 14:1-3]. Humanly speaking, the Master felt as disappointed about His necessary departure as the Apostles felt. But if you read that text again, slowly, and visualize our Savior giving comfort and assurance to His closest friends, you will find therein the treasure that you have sought all your lifetime. And you will not be afraid any more. That reassuring farewell message was not only for the Apostles; it was for us too. The words, "Let not your heart be troubled . . . I go to prepare a place for you . . . that where I am, you also may be," always bring confidence.
In the meantime, until life's day is done, until evening comes, until those quiet, personal shadows which creep constantly, kindly and imperceptibly toward us ---- until those soft shadows place mercy's comforting cloak about your tired form ---- until your guardian Angel touches you on the shoulder, calling you home ---- until your weary heart and exhausted nerves enjoy that peace which Mary's Son waits to give you ---- until then, don't be afraid. The forgiving Master said that He went to prepare a place for: you. Where He is, there you also soon shall be.
Imprimi Potest Fr. Jerome Dawson, O. F. M., Minister Provincialis.
Nihil Obstat Arthur J. Scanlan, S. T. D., Censor Librorum.
Imprimatur Francis J. Spellman, D. D., Archbishop of New York.
New York, August 25, 1939.