St. Augustine in his youth led a bad life. The prayers of his holy mother, St. Monica, led to his conversion. One day he was in the garden when he heard a voice say, Take and read. He took up the Holy Scripture on a nearby table and read. From that moment his conversion started. He made a resolution to amend his ways. This firm resolution he never broke; he became one of the greatest Saints. If we should be so unhappy as to sin, let us imitate his firm purpose of amendment.
The firm purpose of sinning no more is the sincere resolve not only to avoid sin, but to avoid as far as possible the near occasions of sin.
"But when the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he roams through dry places in search of a resting place, and finds none. Then he says, 'I will return to my house which I left'; and when he has come, he finds the place unoccupied, swept and adorned. Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter in and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first" (Matt. 12: 43-45).
The purpose of amendment must accompany the act of contrition; it is necessary before sin can be forgiven. By it we determine firmly to amend ourselves. "Behold, thou art cured. Sin no more, lest something worse befall thee" (John 5:14).
Two young men had fallen into the vice of drunkenness. Every day they went to the saloon, and with other companions drank till they lost their reason. Being reproved by their parents, they promised to overcome their vice and drink no more.
From that day the first young man avoided passing the saloon, and never entered it again. The second young man though that so long as he did not enter, passing in front of the saloon was harmless. He passed in front on the first day.
The second day, as he passed, his former companions hailed him, and he entered the saloon, thinking to himself that it was harmless, provided he did not touch wine. After a week of this, he drank a little glass, for old times' sake. It was not long before he fell back into his old vice, while the first young man was cured.
The first young man not only avoided sin, but the near occasions of sin. The second young man had no real purpose of amendment; and so he soon returned to his former ways, and fell back into sin.
Our purpose of amendment must have reference to God; it must be supernatural. If we decide to amend only because we should be more popular without bad habits, that is not a supernatural purpose.
In Holy Scripture there was King Antiochus who lamented his sins because worms were eating him up. Today we have criminals, drunkards, evil men, who bewail their wicked deeds because they land in jail or lose their wealth or reputation. For this reason they determine to improve: but not to improve their souls, only their methods, so that they may not be "found out",--as if God had no eyes to see. Even if such persons determine to amend, their purpose has no merit before Almighty God. The current slate of scandals with the bishops' cover-up is a good example of prelates who are lamenting sins because the media worms are eating away at their ivory tower foundations.
Even if, after confession, we should fall again into the same sins that we have so often confessed, we should not despair, for by so doing we would become worse. If after confession we relapse into the same sins, our purpose of amendment is weak. We must strengthen our will. We should go oftener to confession, examine ourselves carefully, be watchful against temptation.
A young man once came to St. Philip Neri and told him he was the victim of a bad habit. The saint advised him to go to confession immediately after he fell into the same sin. The young man sincerely wished to get rid of the vice, and followed the advice strictly. In a short time he had not only got rid of his vice, but he had formed new virtues.
If we have only venial sins, the best way is to choose the one we commonly commit, and concentrate our efforts to eradicate it. We should correct ourselves of venial sins one at a time. Thus we can be sure of contrition, and a steady advance in virtue.
Our purpose of amendment should be firm, efficacious, and universal.
Our purpose is firm when we determine to avoid sin at any cost. Then we do not hesitate back and forth, but with decision cut ourselves off from the bonds which formerly bound us to sin and its occasions.
In one of his military expeditions, Alexander the Great, the conqueror of many lands, arrived in Gordium, Phrygia. In a certain fortress there was what people called the "Gordian knot", so well tied that many had tried to untie it but all miserably failed. It was believed that whoever could untie the Gordian knot would be the conqueror of Asia. When Alexander came, he did not waste time, but drew his sword and cut the knot apart.
Our purpose is efficacious when we resolve to use all means to carry out our determination to amend, as by avoiding the occasions of sin-persons, places, and things that ordinarily led us into sin in the past, and may do so again in the future. A good resolution is like a nail driven fast into the wall, but the resolutions of too many are like a nail badly placed, which falls out as soon as something is hung upon it.
Bad company and improper amusements and reading are such occasions. If we do not avoid them, we are not truly sorry for our sins. "He who loveth the danger shall perish in it" (Ecclus. 3:27). People who say they wish to become better, but will not fly away from occasions of sin are like a housewife who industriously sweeps away cobwebs but refuses to kill the spider that weaves them.
Our purpose is universal when we are determined to keep away from all mortal sins. A wise gardener uproots weeds, and does not merely cut off the top; otherwise they will grow thicker than ever.
St. Sebastian promised to heal the sick proconsul of Rome if he would destroy all the idols. The proconsul destroyed the idols, but did not get well, and complained to the saint about it. The saint told him he had concealed the gold idol inherited from his ancestors, and could not be cured. As soon as he destroyed it, he was healed.
It is necessary to confess every mortal sin which has not yet been confessed and forgiven; it is not necessary to confess our venial sins, but it is better to do so.
We must confess all our mortal sins. God surely can forgive us without Confession; but He has not promised to do so, whereas He very clearly promised to forgive those whom His priests forgive.
God is free to put whatever conditions He wishes on the reception of His gifts. He is certainly within His justice to impose on us the condition of Confession, that we may have our mortal sins forgiven.
It is well to confess venial sins, though we are not obliged to do so. Many Christians do not commit mortal sin; they would have only venial sins to confess.
Venial sins do not exclude from Heaven. Without confession they may be forgiven in many ways, such as by prayer, good works, and the frequenting of the sacraments. It is advisable, when confessing only venial sins, to accuse ourselves of some sin of our past life, even in general terms, such as: "I also accuse myself of the sins of my past life, especially those I committed against the Fourth Commandment."
Next Thursday: Sacramental Confession
For previous installments, see APPRECIATING THE PRECIOUS GIFT OF OUR FAITH Archives