“Be not affrighted: you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen: he is not here” — Mark XVI:6.
I hope, my dear Christians, that, as Christ is risen, you have, in this holy paschal time, gone to confession, and have risen from your sins. But, attend to what St. Jerome teaches — that many begin well, but few persevere.
Now the Holy Ghost declares that he who perseveres in holiness to death, and not they who begin a good life, shall be saved. “But he that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved” (Matt. XXI V:13). The crown of Paradise, says St. Bernard, is promised to those who commence, but is given only to those who persevere. Since, then, brethren, you have resolved to give yourselves to God, listen to the admonition of the Holy Ghost: “Son, when thou comest to the service of God, stand in justice and in fear, and prepare thy soul for temptation” (Ecclus. 11:1). Do not imagine that you shall have no more temptations, but prepare yourself for the combat, and guard against a relapse into the sins you have confessed. For, if you lose the grace of God again, you shall find it difficult to recover it.
I intend this day to show you the miserable state of relapsing sinners — that is, of those who after confession, miserably fall back into the sins which they confessed.
1. Since, then, dearly beloved Christians, you have made a sincere confession of your sins, Jesus Christ says to you what He said to the paralytic: “Behold, thou art made whole. Sin no more, lest some worse thing happen to thee” (John V: 14). By the confessions which you have made, your souls are healed, but not as yet saved. For, if you return to sin, you shall be again condemned to hell, and the injury caused by the relapse shall be far greater than that which you sustained from your former sins.
“Audis,” said St. Bernard, “recidere quam incidere, esse deterius.” If a man recover from a mortal disease and afterwards fall back into it, he shall have lost so much of his natural strength, that his recovery from the relapse will be impossible. This is precisely what happens to relapsing sinners: returning to the vomit — that is, taking back into the soul the sins vomited forth in confession — they shall be so weak, that they will become objects of amusement to the devil.
St. Anselm says that the devil acquires a certain dominion over them, so that he makes them fall, and fall again as he wishes. Hence the miserable beings become like birds with which a child amuses himself. He allows them from time to time to fly to a certain height, and then draws them back again when he pleases, by means of a cord made fast to them.
2. St. Paul tells us that we have to contend not with men like ourselves made of flesh and blood, but with the princes of hell. “Our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers” (Ephes. VI:12). By these words he wishes to admonish us that we have not strength to resist the powers of hell, and that to resist them, the divine aid is absolutely necessary. Without it, we shall be always defeated; but, with the assistance of God’s grace, we shall, according to the same apostle, be able to do all things, and shall conquer all enemies. “I can do all things in him who strengtheneth me” (Phil. IV:13). But this assistance God gives only to those who pray for it. “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find” (Matt. V1I:7). They who neglect to ask do not receive. Let us, then, be careful not to trust in our resolutions; if we place our confidence in them, we shall be lost.
3. “He that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed, lest he fall” (I Cor. X:12). Those in the state of grace should, says St. Paul, be careful not to fall into sin, particularly if they have been ever guilty of mortal sins. For a relapse into sin brings greater evil on the soul. “And the state of that man becomes worse than the first” (Luke X1:26).
4. We are told in the Holy Scriptures that the enemy “will offer victims to his drag, and will sacrifice to his net; because through them his meat is made dainty” (Habac. 1:16). In explaining this passage, St. Jerome says that the Devil seeks to catch in his nets all men, in order to sacrifice them to the divine justice by their damnation. Sinners who are already in the net he endeavors to bind with new chains; but the friends of God are his dainty meats. To make them his slaves, and to rob them of all they have acquired, he prepares stronger snares.
“The more fervently,” says Denis the Carthusian, “a soul endeavors to serve God, the more fiercely does the adversary rage against her.” The closer the union of a Christian with God, and the greater his efforts to serve God, the more the enemy is armed with rage, and the more strenuously he labors to enter into the soul from which he has been expelled. “When,” says the Redeemer, “the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, seeking rest, and not finding, he saith: I will return into my house, whence I came out” (Luke XI:24). Should he succeed in re-entering, he will bring with him associates to fortify himself in the soul of which he has again got possession. Thus, the second destruction of that miserable soul shall be greater than the first: “And the last state of that man becomes worse than the first” (Luke XI:26).
5. To God, the relapse of ungrateful Christians is very displeasing. Because, after He had called and pardoned them with so much love, He sees that, forgetful of His mercies to them, they again turn their back upon Him and renounce His grace. “If my enemy had reviled me, I would verily have borne with it…. But thou, a man of one mind, my guide and familiar, who didst take sweet meats together with me” (Ps. L1V:13-15). Had my enemy, says the Lord, insulted Me, I would have felt less pain. But to see you rebel against Me after I had restored My friendship to you, and after I had made you sit at My table to eat My own Flesh, grieves Me to the heart and impels Me to take vengeance on you. Miserable the man who, after having received so many graces from God, becomes the enemy, from being the friend of God. He shall find the sword of divine vengeance prepared to chastise him. “And he that passes over from justice to sin, God hath prepared such an one for the sword” (Ecclus. XXVI:2 7).
6. Some of you may say: “If I relapse, I will soon rise again; for I will immediately prepare myself for confession.” To those who speak in this manner shall happen what befell Samson. He allowed himself to be deluded by Dalila. While he was asleep she cut off his hair, and his strength departed from him. Awaking from sleep, he said: “I will go out as I did before, and shake myself, not knowing that the Lord was departed from him” (Judges XVI:2 0). He expected to deliver himself, as on former occasions, from the hands of the Philistines. But, because his strength had departed from him, he was made their slave. They pulled out his eyes and, binding him in chains, shut him up in prison. After relapsing into sin a Christian loses the strength necessary to resist temptations, because the Lord departs from him. He abandons him by withholding the efficacious aid necessary to overcome temptations; and the miserable man remains blind and abandoned in his sin.
7. “No man putting his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke IX:62). Behold a faithful picture of a relapsing sinner. Mark the words no man. No one, says Christ, who begins to serve Me, and looks back, is fit to enter heaven. According to Origen, the addition of a new sin to one committed before is like the addition of a new wound to a wound just inflicted. If a wound be inflicted on any member of the body, that member certainly loses its original vigor. But, if it receives a second wound, it shall lose all strength and motion without hope of recovery. The great evil of a relapse into sin is that it renders the soul so weak, that she has but little strength to resist temptation. For, says St. Thomas, “after a fault has been remitted, the dispositions produced by the preceding acts remain.” Every sin, though pardoned, always leaves a wound on the soul. When to this wound a new one is added, the soul becomes so weak that, without a special and extraordinary grace from God, it is impossible for her to conquer temptations.
8. Let us, then, brethren, tremble at the thought of relapsing into sin, and let us beware of availing ourselves of the mercy of God to continue to offend him. “He,” says St. Augustine, “who has promised pardon to penitents, has promised repentance to no one.” God has indeed promised to pardon all who repent of their sins, but he has not promised to anyone the grace to repent of the faults which he has committed. Sorrow for sin is a pure gift of God. If He withholds it, how will you repent? And without repentance, how can you obtain pardon? Ah! the Lord will not allow Himself to be mocked. “Be not deceived,” says St. Paul; “God is not mocked” (Gal. V1:7). St. Isidore tells us that the man who repeats the sin which he before detested, is not a penitent, but a scoffer of God’s majesty. And Tertullian teaches that, where there is no amendment, repentance is not sincere.
9. “Be penitent,” said St. Peter in a discourse to the Jews, “and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 11:19). Many repent, but are not converted. They feel a certain sorrow for the irregularities of their lives, but do not sincerely return to God. They go to confession, strike their breasts, and promise to amend. But they do not make a firm resolution to change their lives. They who resolve firmly on a change of life, persevere, or at least preserve themselves for a considerable time in the grace of God. But they who relapse into sin soon after confession show, as St. Peter says, that they repent, but are not converted; and such persons shall in the end die an unhappy death. “Plerumque,” says St. Gregory, “mali sic compunguntur ad justitiam, sicut plerumque boni tentantur ad culpam.” As the just have frequent temptations to sin, but yield not to them because their will abhors them, so sinners feel certain impulses to virtue. But these are not sufficient to produce a true conversion. The Wise Man tells us that mercy shall be shown to him who confesses his sins and abandons them, but not to those who merely confess their transgressions. “He that shall confess his sins, and forsake them, shall obtain mercy” (Proc. XXVIII:13). He, then, who does not give up but returns to sin after confession, shall not obtain mercy from God, but shall die a victim of divine justice. He may expect to die the death of a certain young Englishman who, as is related in the history of England, was in the habit of relapsing into sins against purity. He always fell back into these sins after confession. At the hour of death he confessed his sins, and died in a manner which gave reason to hope for his salvation. But, while a holy priest was celebrating or preparing to celebrate Mass for his departed soul, the miserable young man appeared to him and said that he was damned. He added that at the point of death, being tempted to indulge a bad thought, he felt himself as it were forced to consent, and, as he was accustomed to do in the former part of his life, he yielded to the temptation, and thus was lost.
10. Is there then no means of salvation for relapsing sinners? I do not say this; but I adopt the maxim of physicians. “In magnis morbis a magnis initium medendi sumere oportet.” In malignant diseases, powerful remedies are necessary. To return to the way of salvation, the relapsing sinner must do great violence to himself. “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away” (Matt. 2(1:12). In the beginning of a new life, the relapsing sinner must do violence to himself in order to root out the bad habits which he has contracted, and to acquire habits of virtue. For when he has acquired habits of virtue, the observance of the divine commands shall become easy and even sweet. The Lord once said to St. Bridget that to those who bear with fortitude the first punctures of the thorns which they experience in the attacks of the senses, in avoiding occasions of sin, and in withdrawing from dangerous conversations, these thorns are by degrees changed into roses.
11. But, to use the necessary violence, and to lead a life of regularity, you must adopt the proper means. Otherwise, you shall do nothing. After rising in the morning, you must make acts of thanksgiving, of the love of God, and of oblation of the actions of the day. You must also renew your resolution never to offend God, and beg of Jesus Christ and His holy Mother to preserve you from sin during the day. Afterwards, make your meditation, and hear Mass. During the day, make a spiritual reading and a visit to the most holy Sacrament. In the evening, say the Rosary and make an examination of conscience. Receive Holy Communion at least once a week, or more frequently if your director advises you.
Be careful to choose a confessor to whom you will regularly go to confession. It is also very useful to make a spiritual retreat every year in some religious house.
Honor the Mother of God every day by some particular devotion, and by fasting on every Saturday. She is the Mother of perseverance, and promises to obtain it for all who serve her: “They that work by me shall not sin” (Ecclus. XX1V:30).
Above all, it is necessary to ask of God every morning the gift of perseverance, and to beg of the Blessed Virgin to obtain it for you, particularly in the time of temptation, by invoking the Names of Jesus and Mary as long as the temptation lasts. Happy the man who will continue to act in this manner, and shall be found so doing when Jesus Christ shall come to judge him. “Blessed is that servant, whom, when his Lord shall come, he shall find so doing” (Matt. XXIV:46).