IN PRECEDING chapters it has
been pointed out that pious penitents
are inclined to drift into a habit of rattling off a long list of sins,
for many of which they have no effective repentance; and that remorse
and repentance are not synonymous terms.
A sermon on these lines is generally considered very discouraging, and
somewhat aggrieved listeners are liable to comment: "It made me feel
that I have never made a proper confession in my life." To which
remark, perhaps the best answer is: "Well, have you?"
Of course, all depends on what is meant by a "proper confession." What
is your standard?
What are your terms of comparison?
There are two possible terms of comparison:
1. Validity --- i.e., a good confession as opposed to a bad confession.
2. The Ideal --- i.e., a good confession as compared to a perfect one.
Between a good and an ideal confession, there is room for a vast
difference of degree and intensity. If the preceding chapter has made
you feel, dear reader, that you have been making invalid confessions,
then you have probably misunderstood it. If it has made you realize
that your confessions have been far from ideal, it has done you great
service. Complacency is a curse and the child of delusion. Blessed
Claude de la Colombiere said: "I think there are no souls with whom God
is less pleased than those who are most pleased with themselves."
To avoid any danger of misunderstanding, it may be well to insist once
more how easy it is to make a valid confession. (Cf. Chapter II.)
If a penitent goes to Confession sincerely desirous to avoid all mortal
sin, it is morally impossible that he should not have the minimum of
contrition required for the validity of the Sacrament. If he is not
deliberately insincere, the mere fact of going to Confession proves
contrition, or why would he go? The onus
probandi is on the devil, not
the penitent. No need for the penitent to prove that he has contrition;
this can safely be presumed until the contrary is proved.
To secure validity, it is enough to be sorry for:
1. Past mortal sins, or for
2. One venial sin confessed; or
3. If the venial sins confessed are old favourites, hardy habituals, it
is enough to confess with the intention of reducing the number of
faults. This is a very important and consoling point.
It is neither wise nor humble to persuade ourselves that we shall never
sin again. In the supreme and most sacred hours of life we must reckon
with the possibility that we shall sin again. For this possibility
always exists. It exists for all men in regard to venial sins; it
exists also in regard to mortal sins for those who have long been the
slaves of some vice. If such persons, when making a good resolution,
honestly and sincerely admit: "I shall most likely fall again," they
act more prudently than those who, by a sort of self-deception,
persuade themselves that they will never sin again. It is a mistake to
shut one's eyes to the realities of life. Therefore, when we have
firmly resolved to sin no more, let us boldly say to ourselves (I speak
here of venial sins only): "I shall sin again." 
A humble realist will not promise or expect greater success. That does
not mean, of course, that we can reserve a number of sins which we
intend to commit in the future; we intend to try in every case, but we
don't promise to succeed in every case.
It would not be surprising if this doctrine shocks some people and
strikes them as dangerously lax. A reader who is inclined to be shocked
by it could profitably answer these questions before God:
Have you not been confessing practically the same sins for the last
year ... ten years
... twenty years? Have you even diminished the number of your
"regulars"? Could you not almost confine your confession to saying:
"Same again, Father"? Are you not morally certain that you will have
the same sins to tell next week?
In that case, if the above doctrine is lax, what becomes of the
sincerity of your confessions? Do you mean to tell me that you expect
to do more than diminish the number of your habituals before next week?
If this doctrine is lax, what of your conduct which falls below these
lax standards? Harsh theory is usually a sign of lax practice. Rules
seem easy on paper, but they are not always so easy when we come to try
We could learn wisdom from an Italian boy, Livio Galeota, who died at
the age of five. When he was preparing for his first Holy Communion, he
wrote down the following resolutions:
"I will be a little better than before. I will hardly ever get angry.
I will do my English a little better.
I will hardly ever do underhand things. I will hardly ever be rude.
I will hardly ever do mean things to my brothers.
I will hardly ever do spiteful things to my brothers and sisters.
I will almost always do my English lesson well."
Of course, the wise little boy meant to try always to avoid these
faults, but he did not expect to succeed, and with the genuine
transparent honesty of a child, would not promise more than he felt
able to fulfill. Would that we had some of the wisdom of that child!
St. Thomas has recorded the same childlike wisdom. "To repent of venial sins," he says, "it is
necessary that the penitent purposes to avoid each particular sin, but not all, because this would exceed
our ability in this life.
He must, however, resolve to make an effort to reduce his sins; else he
will run the risk of sliding backwards, because he gives up the desire
to go forward." 
"It is not possible," says St. Francis of Sales, "to acquire dominion
over your soul by your first effort. Be content with gaining a small
advantage over your passions from time to time. We must learn to bear
not only with our fellowmen, but also with ourselves, and have patience
with our imperfections."
In the will, there must always be determination and hope to succeed in
In the mind, however, there should be a wise recognition of the fact
that we shall not succeed in every case, despite our best endeavours.
The mind, however, must not be allowed to depress the will. If our best
efforts are hardly sufficient, indifferent efforts would doom us to
"He who has ceased to move towards God," says St. Leo the Great, "has
ceased to approach near unto Him," and one might add, has begun to
drift far from Him. The inevitability of failures should act as a spur
and a warning against the folly of relaxing our efforts.
To say to oneself, therefore, "I shall most probably sin again," is a
wise and humble facing of facts and a great safeguard against surprise
and demoralization in failure. When sinful habits are combated,
failures are to be expected. Without an exceptional grace, a habit is
never broken at once, and a long struggle and many failures are
inevitable before self-mastery can be established. Forewarned is
When a priest talks like this to ordinary penitents, his remarks are
often received with surprise and suspicion. Obviously he is taking a
low view of things and minimizing the power of grace; moreover, he
obviously does not know the strength of their resolution! Now that they
have started in earnest, he will see! Such thoughts are strongly
reminiscent of St. Peter's words on the eve of the Passion. When warned
of his impending fall, Peter by implication as much as told the Master
that He did not know what He was talking about. Peter knew better than
the Master. He found out his mistake to his cost. Beware of
self-confidence based on ignorance and presumption and the notion that
you know better than the confessor and the Church.
If you imagine that you will henceforth avoid all sins, even venial,
besides being very unrealistic, you are getting dangerously near to
heresy. Attentive study of the following words of the Council of Trent
might chasten and correct your ideas:
"If anyone says that a person, in a state of grace, can avoid all sin,
even venial, throughout his whole life, without a special privilege
from God, let him be anathema" (i.e., he is a heretic).
Note well that the definition refers:
1. To a person in a state of grace, and
2. To a privilege, i.e., an exemption from the common lot, and
3. To a special privilege.
It would hardly be in accordance with Christian humility for any of us
to presume that we are specially privileged.
BEWARE OF OVER-CONFIDENCE
Father Faber gives this wise warning:
Resolutions must be founded on solid motives, and have been often
meditated, not rash, or off-hand, or above our courage when we cool
down out of prayer.
If anything, they should be below what we might reasonably hope to do
and very humble. For things seem easy in meditation, so that we do not
distrust ourselves sufficiently and God rarely strengthens an
over-confident soul, and so we fail.
How many of the downcast tales which people tell about their not
advancing, should go to the account of reckless resolutions made in the
half-natural, half-supernatural heat of
Resolution must be tempered by prudence and humility. "He who thinketh
himself to stand, let him beware lest he fall." "Power is made perfect
A sick man who had just emerged from hospital would not expect to walk
at once with his accustomed stride. One who has been weakened by sin or
who is still a novice in the
spiritual life must not expect miraculous progress. Over-confidence is
a sign of ignorance or the self-deception of pride. No one would expect
to get a consistent sixty-mile-an-hour from a Baby-Austin. And if you
are still given to sin --- occasional mortal sin or frequent venial sin
--- you are still only a spiritual Baby-Austin.
Over-confidence implies that we are too proud to admit our weakness or
too ignorant to recognize it. The spiritually immature do not know what
they are up against, i.e., the strength of the opposition; nor with
what they are up against it, i.e., the weakness and treachery of the
forces of human nature. They fail to appreciate the difficulty, not to
say moral impossibility, of achieving complete sinlessness in fickle
human nature prone to evil from childhood.
The sinner knows practically nothing of temptation, sin, and human
weakness; ordinary souls know little; the Saints know much. C. S. Lewis
has made this point clear:
No one knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.
There is a silly idea about, that good people don't know what
temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist
know how strong it is.
After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting
against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by
trying to walk against it, not by lying down.
A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply doesn't know
what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in
one sense, know very little about badness. They've lived a sheltered
life by always giving in. 
The better you are, the more you will realize how bad you are. The more
your strength increases, the more conscious will you be of weakness.
The sinful and tepid follow their impulses without a second thought and
give way to self in blissful ignorance. Fervour, however, excludes one
from this fool's paradise, and intimate experience soon convinces the
fervent of the cunning of self-love and the difficulty of self-control.
Those who expect to weed the garden of the soul easily and quickly are
still wearing blinkers and betray ignorance of the extent of the
overgrowth and the tenacity of the weeds. If they had started to weed,
they would not nurse such great expectations, nor be so ready with
"To expect to keep any resolution," says Father W. Doyle, "till
repeated acts have made it solid in the soul, is like expecting to
learn skating without ever falling ... the more falls, the better,
i.e., if you don't mind bumps."
So do not doubt the reality and strength of your resolution because you
find the fight harder than ever, and do not expect swift or complete
victory. Untempered optimism leads to inevitable and shattering
discouragement and sometimes even to spite and bitterness against God.
The self-confident, who never really relied on God, tend to feel that
He has "let them down."
We shall save ourselves from disillusionment, if we strive to
appreciate what we are up against --- and what entire freedom from sin
We have, first of all, to contend against three powerful enemies ---
the devil, the world, and the flesh.
Then, it is presumed that we are struggling against a habit of sin. A
habit implies that acts in accordance with it are easy and almost
second-nature; acts against it, difficult. A habit of sin implies that
sinful acts are easy; acts of virtue difficult. When, therefore, we are
combating sinful habits Of a natural perverse inclination which is
equivalent to a habit and called a quasi-habit, the odds are against
us. Fighting against odds, we cannot reasonably expect an unbroken
succession of victories. We cannot expect to win all the time.
WITH WHAT WE ARE UP AGAINST IT
"We carry our treasure," says St. Paul, "in frail vessels." Human
nature is a damaged and second-hand instrument of war. God gave it to
Adam intact and in perfect working order, but Adam did not pass it on
to us in the same condition. Poor fickle human nature!
... Sometimes joyful, at other times sad; now at peace, again troubled;
at one time devout, at another indevout; sometimes fervent, at other
times sluggish; one day heavy, another elated. ...
As long as we carry about this frail body, we cannot be free from sin,
nor live without weariness or sorrow. ... Oh, how great is human
frailty, which is ever prone to vice! Today thou confessest thy sin,
and tomorrow thou again committest what thou didst confess. Now thou
purposest to be upon thy guard, and an hour after thou art acting as if
thou hadst made no resolution. 
We are liable to an endless variety of evil inclinations; inclinations
to unkindness, obstinacy, defiance, impatience, quarrelsomeness,
annoyance, touchiness, desire for revenge, pride, overbearing vanity,
ambition, selfishness, contempt of others, egoism, hypocritical piety,
lying, cowardice, human respect, disloyalty, self-deception, deceit,
carping criticism, rash judgment, idle gossip, tale-bearing, temper,
sloth, waste of time, laziness, effeminacy, neglect of duty, immoderate
worry about worldy affairs, sensuality, impurity, lust, injustice,
intemperance, gluttony, et cetera. What a list one could compile!
Promptly and decisively to oppose these natural tendencies towards sin,
i.e., as soon as we become aware of them and without hesitation and
dilly-dallying, would require a persevering vigilance, a supremely
alert and firm will and tremendous spiritual energy such as only the
Saints had: and even they not without failure.
Not to oppose these tendencies at once means semi-deliberate venial
sin. If this doctrine seems discouraging, think again, and on second
thought you will find it pregnant with encouragement. In any case,
discouraging or not, it is true. Face facts, but please take careful
note of the facts.
Note well what is asserted and what is not asserted. It is not
1. That these tendencies are in themselves sinful; or
2. That failure to oppose them at once, i.e., semi-deliberate consent,
is ever a mortal sin; or
3. That these failures may not easily be corrected and are not
generally repaired. Father Faber was fond of quoting the saying of St.
Francis of Sales that as we often fall almost without advertence, so we
often rise almost without advertence.
In other words, what is asserted is simply this, and no more, that to
oppose, invariably and without delay, the evil tendencies to which
human nature is prone, is extremely difficult; in fact, without a very
close union with God and an outstanding development of the gifts of the
Holy Spirit, morally impossible.
Without a doubt, the grace of God confers on us power to vanquish all
our spiritual enemies, "I can do all things in Him Who strengtheneth
me." "My grace is sufficient for thee." Invariable victory, however,
implies invariable and instant recourse to God; and, for the moment, we
are speaking of those who, because they do not realize the strength of
the opposition or the frailty of human nature, rely on themselves and
therefore do not call upon God.
"Power is made perfect in infirmity ... When I am weak, then am I
strong." Until self-reliance is shattered to bits, until we despair of
ourselves, until we are stunned by the magnitude of the task before us,
we shall go on unconsciously trusting in ourselves, subtly flattering
ourselves that we are something "in ourselves, as of ourselves," and,
in consequence, we shall not employ, or only half-heartedly employ, the
power of God. "Power is made perfect in infirmity" and only in
infirmity, fully admitted and firmly embraced.
Our impotence need not scare us; in fact, we should love and hug it.
"Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmity, that the power of
Christ may be made manifest in me."
If our spiritual incapacity does scare us, we have still an inadequate
comprehension of it. Our failures are due, not to our weakness, but to
our refusal --- or, better, our neglect --- to employ God's strength.
The remedy for failures is to be found neither in bemoaning our
weakness nor in trying to bolster it up by practising spiritual
gymnastics recommended by psychologists, but in striving for closer
union with God and in turning with renewed confidence to His power and
omnipotence. If we clung to God without fail, we should advance without
failure. The weapon of spiritual victory is always at hand --- God's
omnipotence; and failure means that we have neglected to use that
weapon. The remedy is obvious --- use it now. The power of Christ will
not be made manifest in us until we give it full scope and full credit.
We must not expect self-conquest to be easy. There would not be much
point in it, if it were. An athlete would not derive much satisfaction
from beating a rabbit. A victory is hardly worth winning unless our
opponent is a match for us. Now, if you wrestled with an opponent who
was a match for you, you would not hope to win easily and quickly and
to have things all your own way. You would be up one moment and down
the next; the contest would sway backwards and forwards. The strength
and agility which you showed in the contest would not be so important
as the spirit. An actual defeat might be a moral victory.
Suppose John and Tom are contesting the high jump. The pole is at five
feet. John clears it easily at the first attempt. Tom has to make four
attempts before he succeeds. Which of the two requires and shows the
greater determination and spirit?
To refuse to be daunted by failure shows a brave and determined spirit.
V.C.'s are not always given to those who succeeded at the first
attempt. The steadfast refusal to be stopped by failure reveals a
strong purpose of amendment, not lack of it.
When it is asserted, therefore, that the proof of contrition is in
effective reform, it is not implied that if you are truly penitent you
must be winning non-stop and convincing victories, with never a stumble
nor a check. Do not decide, therefore, that your purpose of amendment
is dubious because you have not yet managed to crush habitual faults.
If you are determined to go on trying, all is well. "He to whom God has
given a firm will to serve Him," says Blessed Claude de la Colombiere,
"should be discouraged by nothing." "Strive manfully, and let thy heart
We cannot command victory. Our task is to sow the seed, but it is
God Who gives the increase. "We must, therefore," says the Imitation,
"have patience, and wait God's mercy, 'till this iniquity pass away,
and mortality be swallowed up." [5
To persevere without faltering we shall need great patience with
Patience, like charity, begins at home, for we need far more patience
with ourselves than with others. The idea is very prevalent that
impatience with self is commendable and a sign of earnestness, whereas
it is almost certainly a sign of ignorance or pride.
Reflect well on the admirable advice of St. Francis of Sales: [6
Believe me, Philothea, as the mild and affectionate reproofs of a
father have far greater power to reclaim his child than rage and
passion; so when we have committed any fault, if we reprehend our heart
with mild and calm remonstrances, having more compassion for it than
passion against it, sweetly encouraging it to amendment, the repentance
it shall conceive by this means will sink much deeper, and penetrate it
more effectually, than a fretful, injurious, and stormy repentance. ...
Raise up your heart, then, again whenever it falls, but fairly and
softly; humbling yourself before God, through the knowledge of your own
misery, but without being surprised at your fall, for it is no wonder
that weakness should be weak, or misery wretched: detest, nevertheless,
with all your power, the offence God has received from you, and return
to your way of virtue, which you had forsaken, with great courage and
confidence in His mercy.
The whole chapter could be read with great profit. Elsewhere the same
wise director says:
Whenever we commit a fault, let us at once examine our heart and ask
whether it does not still entertain an ardent and definite wish to
serve God. I hope it will answer "Yes" and will rather suffer death a
thousand times than be false to this resolution.
Let us then ask: "Why did you stumble now? Why are you such a coward?"
It will answer: "I was taken by surprise, I know not how; I feel so
dull at present."
Ah, our heart must be forgiven; it failed not because it was
perfidious. We must correct it meekly and calmly, but not grow angry at
it and thereby add to its confusion. We should say to it: "Dear heart,
take courage in the name of God! Let us rise and go ahead; let us be on
our guard and soar up to God, our Saviour." Our soul deserves to be
treated kindly as long as she does not deliberately fall into sin. 
In the spiritual life, real success and apparent success may be poles
apart. Real success is proportioned to our effort not our victories. It
is possible to be making a greater effort than ever before and yet not
be as successful as we were.
This apparent retrogression may be due to a variety of causes, amongst
others, to the fact that the strength of the opposition has been
For example, suppose your major habitual difficulty is impatience due
to temperament. If you have become a confirmed invalid, your nervous
system will be adversely affected and your tendency to impatience
increased. The opposition will be, let us say, twice as strong as
before, and victories may be halved, no matter how hard you try.
Or you may have been transferred to a more trying environment, and,
instead of being surrounded by agreeable people, be thrown in with
disagreeable and uncongenial ones. Obviously, results will tend to
vary. Examples could be multiplied.
Novices in the spiritual life usually make rapid initial progress, and
faults are quickly eliminated and narrowed down to a few. Then progress
seems to stop or become negligible. The tenacity of faults increases as
their number decreases. The remaining faults we shall never completely
vanquish and drive from the field --- not even if we become Saints. "We
shall be lucky," says St. Francis of Sales, "if we get rid of some
faults half an hour before our death." And elsewhere: "Self-love dies
with our natural death ..." --- and not a second before!
This truth should neither discourage nor dismay us. It is God's Plan.
Our weakness is permitted, to drive us like frightened children into
the arms of our heavenly Father, to prevent us from acquiring that
independence which was the undoing of Adam and the fallen Angels, and
to present us with innumerable opportunities of self-conquest and
increase in grace.
"If strength were always our share," says Bossuet, "we should soon grow
proud and overbearing; therefore, God has found a middle way: He gives
us strength, that we may not perish in our infirmity; but lest we
become overbearing in our strength, He wills that it be perfected by
St. Francis of Sales puts the truth still more forcibly:
Solomon says that the bond-woman who is raised to the rank of mistress
is an unbearable cad. A soul that has been the slave of evil passions
for a long time, would be in great danger of becoming proud and vain if
she suddenly became sole mistress over them. This dominion must be
acquired gradually, step by step, as the lives of many holy men and
women, who spent years in attaining it, bear evidence.
We must have patience with the whole world, and most of all with
ourselves. As soon as you begin to exercise yourself a little in
patience, everything will move along splendidly; for the meek and
loving Redeemer, Who has inspired us with an ardent desire to serve
Him, will furnish us with opportunities to do so.
He undoubtedly delays the hour of fulfillment, in order that it may be
more beneficial for you; for behold, His loving heart calculates all
events of this world and disposes them to the advantage of those who
wish to submit without reserve to His Divine love. The happy hour for
which you long will come on the day which Divine Providence in the
sweet councils of His mercy has set aside for it.
"I do not say to you," writes St. Teresa, "that no imperfections must
creep into your life; but I do say that, when something of this nature
occurs, we should take notice of the fault and realize that we have
failed." Apparently she thought honesty and sincerity with self more
important than victory. One of the major difficulties of the spiritual
life is to learn to face our faults without bluff, presumption or
The weakness of human nature should not scare us, but it should chasten
us and make us chary of rash promises. Those who, at each Confession,
glibly promise to sin no more and say without qualms or hesitation: "I
will not commit any more venial sins," obviously do not realize the
full import of their words and reveal rash self-confidence or
superficiality and spiritual immaturity.
It is laudable to wish not to sin again, but to wish is not to will.
Let us beware of emotional bluff and wishful thinking. When we make our
resolutions, our dispositions should resemble those of a man throwing
at coconuts. There is nothing to stop him from knocking a coconut over
at every throw, but, in his heart of hearts, he does not really expect
to do so, and he is not discouraged, but even made more determined, by
Each time, when he is about to throw, he is certain that he is going to
succeed this time and puts all his energies into his effort. "Every
time a coconut," cries the stall-owner, and we smile and don't believe
him. "Every time a coconut," whispers our wishful-thinking,
presumptuous self-love, and without a smile we do believe, to our own
detriment and discouragement.
Let us learn wisdom from experience and not go on forever making the
same elementary and childish mistakes. We must not allow the blinking
of our weakness to produce false optimism and presumption, nor must we
permit the recognition of our weakness to produce discouragement and
despair. "Our help is in the name of the Lord."
"Man's perfection does not consist in being perfect, but in constantly
striving to be perfect," says St. Bernard.
Virtue results from perfect co-ordination of distrust of self and trust
in God. The secret of perseverance and spiritual success is to be found
in a careful assimilation of two texts of sacred Scripture: "Without
Me, you can do nothing," and "I can do all things in Him Who
1. Scharsch, op. cit., p. 189 (to whom I am much
indebted in this chapter).
2. III, Q. 87, a. 1, ad. 1.
4. Imitation of
Christ, Bk. III, Ch.
33; Bk. I, Ch. 22.
5. 2 Cor. 5:4.
6. Op. cit., III, Ch. IX.
7. Quoted by Scharsch, pp. 190-191.