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." [1]

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 them out.

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." [2]

"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 every case.

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 disaster.

"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 forearmed.

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.


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 in infirmity."

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. [3]

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 stern rules.

"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 would imply.

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.


"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. [4]

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 asserted:

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 take courage."

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 ourselves. 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. [7]

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 increased.

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 infirmity."

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 discouragement.

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 failures.

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 strengtheneth me."

1. Scharsch, op. cit., p. 189 (to whom I am much indebted in this chapter).
2. III, Q. 87,  a. 1, ad. 1.
3. Christian Behavior (Macmillan), pp. 57-8.
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.