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CHAPTER V: That through the Sacrament of Penance (that consisteth in Contrition, Confession and Satisfaction) this Image is reformed from Actual Sin
MOREOVER, Christian men or women that have lost the likeness of God through a deadly sin in breaking God’s commandments, if he through the touching of grace in his heart doth truly forsake his sin, with sorrow and contrition of heart, and be in full purpose to amend and turn to a good life; and in this foresaid purpose and will receiveth the Sacrament of Penance, if he may come by it, or if he cannot have a will and desire to come by it, surely, I say, that this man or woman’s soul, that was before misshapen to the likeness of the devil through deadly sin, is now by the Sacrament of Penance restored and shapen again to the image of our Lord God.
This is a great courtesy of our Lord, and an endless mercy, who so lightly forgiveth all manner of sin, and so suddenly giveth plenty of grace to a sinful soul that asketh mercy of Him. He requireth not great doing of Penance, nor painful suffering in the flesh, before He forgiveth it. But He requireth a loathing of sin, and a full forsaking in the will for love of Him, and a turning of the heart to Him. This He asketh, for this He giveth. And then when He seeth this, without any further delay He forgiveth the sin, and reformeth the soul to His likeness. The sin is forgiven, that the soul shall not be damned, nevertheless, the pain due to the sin is not yet fully forgiven, unless that the contrition and love be the greater. And therefore shall he go and show himself, and make his confession to his ghostly Father, and receive the penance which he enjoineth him for his trespass, and perform it gladly, so that both the sin and the punishment may be done away before he pass hence.
And this is the wise ordinance of holy Church, to the great benefit of man’s soul, that though the sin be forgiven through the virtue of contrition, nevertheless for the exercise of humility, and for to make entire satisfaction, he shall (if he have means for it) show to his priest a plenary confession, for that is his token and warrant against all his enemies, of the forgiveness of his sins, and such a token or warrant will it be needful for him to have. Just as if a man had forfeited his life against a king on earth, it were not enough for him (as to his full security and discharge) to have only forgiveness of the king, unless he have a charter from him, which may be his token and warrant against all other men. Right so may it be said spiritually, if a man through deadly sin have forfeited his life against the King of Heaven, it is not enough for him (as to his full security) to have forgiveness of God only by contrition between God and him, unless he have a charter also made by holy Church (if he may come by it), and this is the Sacrament of Penance, which is his charter and token of forgiveness. For sith it was so, that he had offended and forfeited both against God and His Church, it is skilful that he have forgiveness from that one, and a warrant from that other. And this is one cause why Confession is needful.
Another reason is this: That since this reforming of a soul standeth in Faith only, and not in Feeling (for the forgiveness is only believed and not felt) therefore a fleshly or sensual man, that is at first gross and rude in understanding, and cannot easily judge and conceive, but only outward bodily things, would not easily have believed that his sins had been forgiven him, if he had not received some outward or bodily token of it, and that is Confession, through the which token he is made secure of forgiveness if he do his part and duty in the business. This is the belief of holy Church, as I understand it. Another reason is this: Though the ground of forgiveness stand not principally in Confession, but in contrition of the heart, and in detestation or forethinking of sin; nevertheless, I believe that there is many a soul that would never have felt true contrition, nor had arrived at forsaking of sin, if Confession had not been, for it falleth out oftentimes, that in the time of Confession, grace of compunction cometh to a soul that before never felt grace, but ever was cold and dry, and farther off from feeling of grace. And therefore sith Confession was so profitable to the more party of Christian men, holy Church ordained, for the more security generally to all Christian men, that every man and woman should once in the year, at the least, confess all their sins to their ghostly Father, that come to their mind, though they had never so much contrition before time. Nevertheless, I hope well, that if all men had been as careful about the keeping of themselves and eschewing of all manner of sin; and had arrived at as great knowledge and feeling of God as some men have, holy Church would not have ordained the said token of Confession as an obligation, for it had not been needful. But because all men are not so perfect, and peradventure much or the greater part of Christians are imperfect, therefore holy Church ordained Confession by way of general obligation, to all Christians that will acknowledge holy Church as their Mother, and will be obedient to her laws.
If this be true, as I hope it is, then erreth he greatly that generally saith that Confession of sins to the priest is neither necessary nor profitable, and that no man is bound thereto; for by that which I have said, it is both necessary and profitable to all those souls who in this wretched life are defiled with sin, and namely to those who through deadly sin are misshapen from the likeness of God, who cannot be reformed to His likeness but by the Sacrament of Penance which principally standeth in contrition and sorrow of heart, and secondarily in confession of mouth following after it if it may be had. And thus through this Sacrament of Penance is a sinful soul reformed to the image and likeness of God.
But this reforming standeth in Faith and not in Feeling. For right as Faith’s property is to believe that which thou seest not, so also is it to believe that which thou feelest not. For he that is reformed in his soul by the Sacrament of Penance to the image of God, feeleth not any change in himself, neither in his external corporal nature, nor within in the substance of his soul, other than he did before. For as to his feeling, he is as he was, and feeleth the same stirrings of sin, and the same corruption of his flesh in his passions and worldly risings in his heart, as he did before. Yet he ought to believe that through grace he is reformed to the image of God, though he neither feel it nor see it. He may easily feel in himself a sorrow for his sins, and a turning of his will from sin to cleanness of living, if he have grace and take good heed of himself. But he can neither see nor feel the reforming of his soul, how it is wonderfully and unperceivably changed from the foulness of the fiend unto the fairness of an Angel, through a secret gracious working of the Holy Ghost. This cannot he see but only believe it; and if he believe it, then is his soul reformed in truth. For right as Holy Church believeth, a Jew or Saracen, or a child, by the Sacrament of Baptism duly administered, to be reformed in soul to the image of God, through a secret unperceivable working of the Holy Ghost, notwithstanding all the fleshly stirrings of his body of sin, which he feeleth, after his Baptism as well as before; right so, by the Sacrament of Penance humbly and truly received, a bad Christian who hath been encumbered with deadly sin all his lifetime, is reformed within in his soul, unperceivably, saving that he finds a turning of his will to God through a secret power, and a gracious working of the Holy Ghost, which suddenly worketh, and in a moment or the twinkling of an eye, setteth right a froward soul, and turneth it from a spiritual foulness to an invisible fairness, and maketh her, of a servant of the fiend, a son of joy; and of a prisoner of hell, an inheritor of Heaven, notwithstanding all the fleshly feelings of this sinful image, that is the corporal nature.
For thou must know, that the Sacrament of Baptism or of Penance, is not of that virtue to hinder and destroy utterly all the stirrings of fleshly lusts and of inordinate passions, that the soul should never feel any risings nor stirrings of them at any time; for if it were so, then were a soul fully reformed here to the dignity it had at its first creation. But that cannot be fully in this life. But it is of that virtue, that it cleanseth the soul from all sins before done; and if she, being in that case, chance to die, it saveth her from damnation; or if it continue in the body, it giveth her grace to withstand the stirrings of sin, or of the passions of the flesh, so that be they never so grievous, they shall not hurt her, nor separate her from God, as long as she doth not willingly consent thereto. So meant St Paul when he said thus:—There is no condemnation to them that walk not after the flesh.164164 Rom. 8. That is, those souls that are reformed to the image of God by Faith, through the Sacrament of Baptism or of Penance, shall not be damned for the feeling of this image of sin, if so be that they go not after the motions of sensuality by deed doing.
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