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I said: I will confess against myself my injustice to the Lord, and thou hast forgiven the wickedness of my sin. (Ps. XXXI, 5.)
But if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Just. (1st Epist. St. John, c. II, v. 1.)
Whose sins ye shall forgive, they are forgiven them: and whose ye shall retain, they are retained. (St. John, c. XX. v. 23.)
1. The sacrament of penance is a sacrament of mercy. We should therefore approach it with confidence and in peace. Saint Francis de Sales assures us that for those who go to confession once a week a quarter of an hour is enough for the examination of conscience, and a still shorter time for exciting contrition. Not even this much is necessary, he adds, for those who confess more frequently.44
2. Faults omitted in confession either because they were forgotten or because they seemed too trivial to mention, are nevertheless effaced by the absolution. St. Francis de Sales has this to say on the subject: “You must not feel worried if you cannot remember your sins when preparing for confession, for it is incredible that any one who often examines her conscience would overlook or be unable to recall such faults as are important. Neither should you be so keenly anxious to mention every minute imperfection, every trifling fault; it is enough to speak of these to our Lord, with a sigh of regret and a humble heart, whenever you remark them.” And do not imagine in consequence that you are guilty of secret sins which you are hiding from your confessor. This fear is an artifice made use of by the devil to disturb your peace of mind.
You must not be so anxious to tell everything, nor to run to your superiors to make a great ado over each little thing that troubles you and that will, perhaps, be forgotten in a quarter of an hour. We must learn to bear with generosity these trifles which we cannot remedy, for ordinarily they are only the consequences 45 of our imperfect nature. That your will, feelings, and desires are so inconstant; that you are at one time moody, at another cheerful; that you now have a wish to speak, and presently feel the greatest aversion to do so; and a thousand similar insignificant matters are infirmities to which we are naturally prone and will be subject to as long as we live. ... It is needless to accuse yourself in confession of those fleeting thoughts that like gnats swarm around you, or of the disgust and aversion you feel in the observance of your vows and devotional exercises, for these things are not sins, they are only inconveniences, annoyances.”—St. Francis de Sales.
3. Rest assured that the more closely you examine your conscience the less you will discover that is worth the trouble of telling. Moreover, you must remember that too long an examen fatigues the mind and cools the fervor of the heart.
4. To those who in their confessions are inclined to confuse involuntarily movements with sins, Saint Francis de Sales gives the following useful advice: “You tell me that when you have experienced a strong feeling of anger, or have had any other temptation, 46 you are always uneasy if you do not confess it. When you are not sure that you have given consent to it, I assure you it is unnecessary to mention it except it may be in spiritual conference, and then not by way of accusation, but to obtain advice how to behave another time in like circumstances. For if you say: I accuse myself of having had movements of violent anger for two days, but I did not give way to them, you are telling your virtues, not your sins. A doubt comes into my mind, though, that I may have committed some fault during the temptation. You must consider maturely if this doubt have any foundation in fact, and if so, speak of the matter in confession with all simplicity; otherwise it is better not to mention it, as you would do so only for your own satisfaction. Even should this silence cost you some pain, you must endure it as you would any other to which you can apply no remedy.”
5. “Omit from your confessions”—we again quote the same Saint—“those superfluous accusations which so many persons make merely through habit: I have not loved God sufficiently; I have not prayed with enough fervor; I have not loved my neighbor as much 47 as I should; I have not received the Sacraments with all the reverence due to them; and others of a like nature. You will readily see the reason for this. It is that in speaking thus you tell nothing particular that would make known to the confessor the state of your conscience, and because the most perfect man living, as well as all the saints in Paradise might say the same things were they making a confession.”
6. Those who go to confession frequently should always bear in mind what the saintly director says in addition: “We are not obliged to confess our venial sins, but if we do so it must be with a firm resolution to correct them, otherwise it is an abuse of the sacrament to mention them.”
7. After confession keep your soul in peace, and be on your guard—this is a point of cardinal importance—against giving access to any fear about the validity of the sacrament, either as regards the examination of conscience, the contrition, or anything else whatsoever. These fears are suggestions of the devil whose aim it is to instil bitterness into a sacrament of consolation and love.
“After confession is not the time to 48 examine ourselves to find if we have told all our sins. We should rather remain attentively and in peace near our Lord, with whom We have just been reconciled, and thank Him for His great mercy. Nor is it necessary subsequently to search out what we may have forgotten. We must tell simply all that comes to mind; after that we need think no more about it.”—St. Francis de Sales.
8. It is essential to be sorry for our sins—it is not essential to be troubled about them. Repentance is an effect of love of God, anxiety is an effect of self-love. In the midst of the keenest and most sincere repentance we can still thank God that He has not permitted us to become yet more culpable. Let us promise Him a solid amendment, relying for success solely upon the assistance of divine grace; and should we fall again a hundred times a day, let us never cease to renew the promise and the hope. God can in an instant raise up from the very stones children to Abraham and exalt the most corrupt natures to the highest degree of sanctity. At times He does so, but usually it is His will that we long continue to bear the burden of our infirmity: let us not then lose our trust in Him, nor mistake a state of trial for a state of reprobation.49
*God has, indeed, on some occasions cured sinners instantaneously and without leaving in them any trace of their previous maladies. Such, for instance, was the case with the Magdalen. In a moment her soul was changed from a sink of corruption into a well-spring of perfection, never again to be contaminated by sin. But, on the other hand, in several of the beloved disciples this same God allowed many marks of their evil inclinations to remain for some time after their conversion, and this for their greater good. Witness Saint Peter, who, even after the divine call, was guilty of various imperfections and once fell totally and miserably by the triple denial of his Lord and Master.
“Solomon says there is no one more insolent than a servant who has suddenly become mistress.44Proverbs, XXX, 21-23: “By three things is the earth disturbed ... by a bondwoman, when she is heir to her mistress....” A soul that after a long slavery to its passions should in a moment subjugate them completely, would be in great danger of becoming a prey to pride and vanity. This dominion must be gained little by little, step by step; it cost the saints long years of labor 50 to acquire it. Hence the necessity of having patience with every one, but first of all with yourself.”—St. Francis de Sales.*
*There is no sight more pleasing to Heaven than to witness the persevering and determined struggle of a soul which, throughout, remains united to God by a sincere desire and a firm resolution not to offend him—and maintaining this struggle calmly and patiently even when it is to all appearance fruitless. Such a soul, resigned to retain its defects if it is God’s will, yet determined notwithstanding to fight against them relentlessly, is more precious in the eyes of God than if the practice of virtue were easy for it and it were in peaceful possession of spiritual gifts. Labor, then, in the presence of your heavenly Father; struggle on with strength and courage; but do not be too desirous of success, for when this craving for self-satisfaction is excessive it is sure to be accompanied by vexation and impatience.
“Evil things must not be desired at all,” says Saint Francis de Sales, “nor good things immoderately.” And elsewhere: “I entreat of you, love nothing too ardently, not even the virtues, for these we sometimes forfeit by 51 exceeding the bounds of moderation.” And again: “Why is it that if we happen to fall into some imperfection or sin we are surprised at ourselves and become disquieted and impatient? Undoubtedly it is because we thought there was some good in us, and that we were resolute and strong. Consequently when we find this is not the case, that we have tripped and fallen to the earth, we are anxious, annoyed and troubled; whereas if we realized what we truly are, in place of being astonished at seeing ourselves down, we should wonder rather how we ever remain erect.”
“We should labor, therefore, without any uneasiness as to results. God requires efforts on our part, but not success. If we combat with perseverance, nothing daunted by our defeats, these very defeats will be worth as much to us as victories, and even more. But beware!--there is a rock here! If this conflict is not undertaken in perfectly good faith, we will try to deceive ourselves as to the genuineness of our efforts by calling the cowardice which caused us to refuse the battle a defeat, and by dignifying with the name of trial the results of our own effeminacy and sloth.”*
9. Contrition is essentially an act of the 52 will by which we detest our past sins and resolve not to commit them in future. Hence sighs, tears, sensible sorrow are not necessary elements of true contrition. Contrition can even attain that degree of disinterested perfection which suffices for the justification of a sinner, in the midst of the greatest dryness and an apparent insensibility. Therefore never allow yourself to be disturbed by the want of sensible sorrow.
10. Do not make violent efforts to excite your soul to contrition, for these only have the effect of producing anxiety, weariness and oppression of mind. On the contrary seek to become very calm; say lovingly to God that you wish sincerely you had never offended Him and that with the assistance of His grace you will never offend Him more—that is contrition. True contrition is a product of love, and love acts in a calm.
11. “An act of contrition,” says St. Francis de Sales, “is the work of a moment.” Cast a rapid glance at yourself to see and detest your sins, and another towards God to promise Him amendment and to express a hope of obtaining His assistance in keeping this promise. David, one of the most contrite 53 penitents that ever lived, expressed his act of contrition in a single word: Peccavi—I have sinned, and by that one word he was justified.
“You ask how an act of contrition can be made in a short time? I answer that a very good one can be made in almost no time. Nothing more is needed than to prostrate oneself before God in a spirit of humility and of sorrow for having offended Him.”—St. Francis de Sales.
12. You say you would wish to have contrition but cannot succeed in feeling it. Saint Francis de Sales replies: “The ability to wish is a great power with God, and you thus have contrition by the simple fact that you wish to have it. You do not feel it indeed at the moment, but neither do you see nor feel a fire covered with ashes, nevertheless the fire exists.” The immoderate desire of sensible sorrow comes from self-love and self-complacency. A sorrow that satisfies only God is not sufficient for us, we wish it to satisfy us also; we like to find in our sensibility a flattering and reassuring testimony of our love of good.
13. If God does not grant you the enjoyment of sensible sorrow, it is in order that you may gain the merit of obedience, which 54 should suffice to reassure you as to your perfect reconciliation. Believe therefore with humility, obey with courage, and you will earn a twofold reward. The greatest saints have at times believed they had neither contrition nor love, but in the midst of this darkness of the understanding, their will followed the torch of obedience with heroic submission.
14. Do not conclude that you lack contrition or that your confessions are defective, because you fall again into the same faults. It is very essential to make a distinction in regard to relapses. Those that are the offspring of a perverse will which has preserved an affection for certain venial sins, takes pleasure and wishes to take pleasure in them,—these should not be tolerated; we must vigorously attack them at the very root and not allow ourselves any respite until they are utterly exterminated. But those relapses that proceed from inadvertence, from surprise notwithstanding constant vigilance, from the infirmity and frailty of our nature, to these we shall remain partially subject until our last breath. “It will be doing very well,” says Saint Francis de Sales, “if we get free of certain faults a quarter of an hour before our 55 death.” And elsewhere: “We are obliged not only to bear with the failings of our neighbor, but likewise with our own and to be patient at the sight of our imperfections.” We must try to correct ourselves, but we should do it tranquilly and without anxiety. We cannot become angels before the proper time.
“You complain that you still have many faults and failings notwithstanding your desire for perfection and a pure love of God. I assure you that it is impossible to be entirely divested of self whilst we are here below. We shall always be obliged to bear ourselves about with us until God transfers us to heaven; and whilst we do this we carry something that is of no value. It is necessary, therefore, to have patience, and not to expect to cure ourselves in a day of the numerous bad habits contracted through past carelessness in regard to our spiritual welfare. Pray do not look here, there and everywhere: look only at God and yourself; you will never see God devoid of goodness, nor yourself without wretchedness and that wretchedness the object of God’s goodness and mercy.”—St. Francis de Sales. (After the examination of conscience read the Following of Christ, B. III., Chap. XX.)56
Fénelon speaks in the same tone:
“You should never be surprised or discouraged at your faults. You must bear with them patiently yet without flattering yourself or sparing correction. Treat yourself as you would another. As soon as you find you have committed a fault make an interior act of self-condemnation, turn to God to receive a penance, and then tell your fault with simplicity to your director. Begin over again to do well as though it were the first time, and do not grow weary if you have to make a fresh start every day. Nothing is more touching to the Sacred Heart of Jesus than this humble and patient courage. We should not be cast down if we have many temptations and even commit numerous faults. ‘Virtue,’ says the Apostle, ‘is made perfect in infirmity.’55II. Cor., xii., 9. Spiritual progress is effected less by sensible devotion, relish and spiritual consolations, than by means of interior humiliation and frequent recourse to God.”
15. Habitually add to your confession some general accusation of all the sins of your past life, or of such of them as occasion you most 57 remorse. Say, for example, I accuse myself of sins against purity, or charity, or temperance. You thus preclude the possibility of there being lack of sufficient matter for the validity of the Sacrament.
16. Banish from your mind the dread of having omitted any sins in either your general or ordinary confessions, or of not having explained their circumstances clearly enough. The learned theologian Janin sets forth the following rules on the subject: The Church, the interpreter of the will of Jesus Christ, requires sacramental integrity in confession, and not material integrity. The former consists in the confession of all the sins we can remember after a sufficient examination, the duration of which should be regulated by the actual state of the conscience. Material integrity would require a rigorously complete accusation of all the sins we have committed with their number and circumstances, without the slightest omission. Now sacramental integrity may be reasonably exacted since it exceeds no one’s ability; whilst material integrity, on the contrary, could not be exacted without the sacrament becoming an impossibility; for, no matter how carefully we make our examination 58 of conscience, some sin, or some detail in regard to number or circumstance, will always escape us. In a word, all that the Church demands of the faithful is a sincere and humble avowal of every sin that can be brought to mind after a suitable examen: for the rest, she intends good will to supply for any defect of memory.
*Do not be uneasy because you fail to remember all your failings in order to tell them in confession. This is unnecessary, because as you often fall almost without being aware of it, so you often get up again without perceiving it; just as in the passage you quote it is not said that the just man sees or feels himself fall seven times a day, but simply that he falls seven times a day: in like manner he gets up again without noticing particularly that he has done so. Hence have no anxiety about this, but frankly and humbly confess whatever you remember, and commit the rest to the tender mercies of him who puts his hand under those who fall without malice that they may not be bruised, and raises them up again so gently and swiftly that they scarcely realize they had fallen.—St. Francis de Sales.*59
17. By a diligent examination of conscience you have thoroughly satisfied all the requirements for sacramental integrity; therefore banish whatever doubts and fears may come to beset you, for they are nothing but temptations.
18. Should you suspect that you failed to fulfil these requirements owing to not having been particular enough about your examination of conscience, you may feel sure that your confessor has by prudent interrogations supplied for whatever may have been wanting on your part. And if he did not question you further it was due to the fact that he understood clearly enough the nature of your sins and the state of your soul, and this is the object of sacramental accusation.
19. How great then is the error of those poor souls who wish continually to make their general confessions over again, either through fear of incomplete examination or of insufficient sorrow; and how blameworthy the weak complaisance of those confessors who offer no opposition to their doing so! If such fears were to be listened to, every one would be obliged to pass his entire life in making and repeating general confessions, for they 60 would incessantly spring up afresh and even the greatest saints would not be exempt from them. A sacrament of consolation and love would thus be transformed into a perfect torture for the soul—an heretical perversion anathematized by the Council of Trent.
“I have found in your general confession all the marks of a sincere, good and earnest confession. Never have I heard one that more thoroughly satisfied me. You may rely on this, for in these matters I speak very plainly. However, if you really omitted something that ought to have been told, consider if you did so consciously and voluntarily, in which case, if it was a mortal sin or you thought it one at the time, you would undoubtedly have to make the confession over again. But if it were only a venial sin, or though mortal you omitted it out of forgetfulness or some defect of memory, have no scruples; for at my soul’s peril, I assure you there is no obligation to repeat your confession. It will be quite sufficient to mention the matter to your ordinary confessor. I will answer for this.”—St. Francis de Sales.
20. It is the teaching of the saints and doctors of the Church that when a general 61 confession has been made with a sincere and upright intention and with a desire to change one’s life, the penitent should remain in peace in regard to it, and not make it over again under any pretext whatsoever. Those who do otherwise recall to their memory things that should be banished from it, and increase the trouble of their soul by a too eager desire to purify it. For, as Saint Philip de Neri so well expresses it: the harder we sweep, the more dust we raise.
21. Remember, in conclusion, that according to the common opinion of the saints, the fear of sin is no longer salutary when it becomes excessive.62
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