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Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent
(From the Gospel for the day)
Tells us how God drives forward some of His children by the struggle between the inward and outward man.
Matt. xv. 21-28.—“Jesus went thence and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto Him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and besought Him, saying, Send her away, for she crieth after us. But He answered and said, I am not sent, but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and worshipped Him, saying, Lord, help me. But He answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord; yet the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.”
THE gospel for this day points us to a guiding principle which is of all others the noblest, surest, most useful and most essential principle that we can have while here on earth. For be assured, that unless your conversion have within it this kernel, all your efforts to perform good works and to abstain from transgression will avail you little or nothing.283
Now let us in the first place consider these words: “Jesus went out from thence.” Whence was it that He departed? From the Scribes and Pharisees. Now give heed to the principle herein contained: the Scribes were the wise men who prided themselves upon their knowledge; and the Pharisees were those who prided themselves upon their spirituality, and trusted in their religious practices and set talks. These two classes of men are types of two of the most dangerous principles which can exist among religious people; and those who remain in their way of thinking are lost, for these two principles do ruin the soul like a worm at the root, so that men come to nothing. And yet there are few but what are in some measure under the influence of one or both of them, though some much more than others. By the Scribes we may understand men of a reasoning turn of mind, who try all things by the light of their reason, or as they appear to them through their senses. They receive ideas by means of their senses, and then exercise upon them their powers of reflection that they may attain to the comprehension of high questions. And they glory therein, and make very lofty discourses; but in the inward parts, where pure truth should gush forth from its fount, they are empty and dry, yielding nothing.
The second class are the Pharisees. These are the religious people who look upon themselves as the excellent of the earth, and think highly of themselves, and take their stand upon prescribed customs and ways, and regard these usages as of more importance than anything else, and desire to be respected on this account and to have praise of men; but their hearts are full of judging thoughts of other men who do not 284observe or approve of their ways. From these our Lord went out. The Scribes had asked him to pronounce a judgment, saying: Why do thy disciples transgress the good customs of our forefathers, by eating with unwashen hands? And He answered them: Why do ye transgress the commandments of God? Just so do those of the present day who regard their own ordinances and practices of devotion as the commandments and will of God, and condemn and think slightingly of the friends of God who refuse to follow usages of man’s prescribing, because they are constrained to follow God’s secret motions in their hearts. In thus saying, we do not mean that open evil-livers or despisers of godliness are not to be judged by the congregation, for else there would be an end of all ecclesiastical discipline; but let each beware of this pharisaical temper in himself, looking to see if any false piety lurk within him that has some other origin or end than God. For Jesus departs when that is so, and assuredly will not stay where that exists.
Thus we find many people who never look to anything beyond their outward conduct; they perform good works and behave with decorum, and then think they have done all; while their inward part is altogether overgrown and choked up with the creature, by which they are held fast to their great hurt. And while in this state, they pray much and read their Bible. So likewise did the blind Jews, they read much in the Scriptures; and yet God was an utter stranger to them, and hidden from them in spirit and in truth. So it is with this sort of religious people: they submit to Church discipline, they pray, they fast, they watch; and for all this, God is not really 285and truly the principle of their life, but poor, miserable nature, toward which all their love, and striving, and aspiration is directed, notwithstanding the abundance and the fervour of their religious exercises. No, children, the eternal God will have nothing to do with these Pharisees; for they are not plants which our Heavenly Father has planted, but weeds which must be plucked up by the roots, as our Lord Himself has said: “He who is not with me is against me;” and, “He who gathereth not with me, scattereth.” When the time of harvest is come, and the eternal God will gather His wheat into the garner, these will be found to be the called who have not gathered with Him, and He will not know them; and where He does not find His planting in the ground of the heart, He will cast the men out into outer darkness. I have shown you two false principles; I beseech you, for God’s sake, beware of them, if you would be kept unto eternal life. For this zealous activity of the natural man, after the fashion of the Scribes or Pharisees, in outward show or prescribed usages, prevails greatly, alas! at this day among all ranks. Men’s minds are now-a-days so subtle and quick, after the fashion of these Scribes [raising doubts and questions of conscience], that a conscientious confessor scarcely knows how to direct their souls by reason of their subtlety or their scrupulousness. From such men Jesus departed, as He does still to this day.
But whither did the Lord Jesus go? He went into the land of Tyre and Sidon. Now Tyre signifies a state of apprehension, and Sidon signifies the state of one driven by the hunters. Ah, children! few, alas! are willing to experience in themselves what it 286is to go thither; and yet it is a wondrously ennobling and profitable thing that these two trials should be laid upon a man together; and if under them he can act rightly and well, what nobleness, growth in grace, and good fruit will be born of this sharp tribulation! Now what is this being hard pressed by the hunters? Nothing else but that the inward man would always fain be with God (who is his proper resting-place); and thus it ever drives the outward man towards and after God; but the outward man strives in the contrary direction, always going outwards after lower things, where indeed is his proper place; and thus there is a division in the man. The inward man’s own place is God, and towards this centre all his desire, and free will, and endeavours are turned, and he is continually called and drawn this way by God his Lord. But this is contrary to the outward man, by his very nature, which wars against it every day and hour. As St. Paul says: “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” Wherefore, “the good that I would, I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do.” Thus the flesh and the spirit strive and fight against each other; and then cometh God from above, and pursues after them both with His grace. And where this is rightly and duly understood, it stands well with the man; for all who are thus led by God’s spirit, are the children of God.
Now this conflict causes to the man sharp and bitter pain and tribulation. But while he is plunged in the thick of the strife, perceiving nothing beyond 287it, and destitute of consolation, then comes Jesus and enters in of a surety. And to the man who does not obey the strivings of God’s spirit, nor experience this inward conflict, Jesus does not enter in. For all those who have never felt this inward strife, nor God’s hand heavy on their soul, and truly yielded to it in their life, these will never bring any good to pass so long as they live. Moreover, they never come to themselves, and therefore know nothing of all that is lying hidden within them. For many assaults come upon us, both carnal and spiritual, which we can best withstand by meeting them with a spirit of humility and gratitude; and if we await these trials with a cheerful spirit, we may be assured that God will stand by us with His grace. And then, when the world comes with its raging storms, beating upon his head, and the Devil with his crafty wiles, and the man’s own flesh and senses and lowest powers are beset with great weakness and passionate impulses towards outward things, and all this while the inward man is urged on by God, and by the thirst which he by nature has after God,—then, indeed, there must needs be within him a bitter agony and tearing strife. And what shall the poor, wretched, comfortless man do, hunted and assailed as he is, without way or means of escape? He shall do as this poor woman did; go to Jesus and cry with a loud voice of strong desire; “O, Lord, thou son of David, have mercy on me!” And then from the depths of the struggle an impetuous cry leaps forth; and this cry of the spirit flies over thousands and thousands of miles with its piercing call: it is an infinite sighing from the fathomless abyss. This is something far above nature, whereunto 288the Holy Spirit must supply what is lacking because of our infirmities: as St. Paul says: “The Spirit maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” And by these means the Holy Spirit doth better prepare the ground of the heart than by any other preparation on earth that can be imagined.
And when a man is thus hunted and plunged into the bottomless pit of temptation and suffering, and then, amidst “groanings which cannot be uttered,” cries to God with a loud voice, so that the accents of his strong desire pierce through the heavens; and yet God makes as though He did not hear, or would not listen, O, how utterly must the man yield up his own self, and suffer his wishes to melt into the depths of God’s will, waiting with ever-strengthening patience upon God, till His appointed time come to visit him and all creatures! For, oh! how impossible were it that the fount of all mercy should be sealed up! yet, when this woman came crying after Jesus with a loud voice, the stream from this fount of mercy was not suffered to flow out unto her. The disciples prayed that it might be opened; and at last, with severe aspect and harsh words, Jesus answered them that He was not sent save to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, saying: “It is not meet to take the children’s bread and to cast it to the dogs.” He not only refused her the blessing she sought, but did what was much harder to bear,—proved in clear, cutting language that it was reasonable and just that He should do so. He not only refused to give her bread, which is necessary to life, and a common blessing, but denied her the name of a child, thus depriving her of humanity, and called 289her a dog. Could our Lord have tried her by a harder, sharper test,—could He have pressed her harder, or overwhelmed her more completely? But what does she do in this her distress and anguish? She takes it all meekly and patiently, and suffers herself to be driven and buffeted as He will. Nay, she sinks much lower than He had plunged her, and casts herself into the very depths of humiliation, saying: “No, Lord, not a dog, but even less, one of the least of the little whelps.” But in her self-abasement and self-annihilation she holds fast her confidence, and says: “Yet, O Lord, the little whelps are wont to be fed and satisfied with the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Oh, how blessed and holy were men who could thus strike into the very truth of things, and see themselves with the mind of God, not through figures of speech, or customary phrases, or as the world judges. Neither God nor all His creatures could then abase and annihilate them so thoroughly as they would abase, and accuse, and annihilate themselves in the sight of the truth! Blessed indeed, if then, notwithstanding this wretched tumult of suffering and humiliation, they should be constant in their hope and confidence in the goodness of God, and abide therein without wavering; so that under all these afflictions their desire and earnest purpose towards Him should strengthen more and more, as it was with this woman. However harshly our Lord spoke to her, and denied her His acts of mercy, yet she never let go her trust in His grace. Therefore everything was granted to her that she had sought and desired of the Lord. Dear children, this is the right, true, godly way unto 290eternal truth. Oh! this way leads unto the truth; this alone leads straight to God without a means. And some have not strength to try the depth of this fathomless annihilation of self. This was the way the woman of Canaan took, and she received at last the blessed answer: “O, woman, great is thy faith; be it unto thee according to thy will!”
Children, I tell you of God’s truth, that to every man who shall be found really and truly thus walking in this way, God will assuredly one day declare: “My beloved friend, whatsoever thou choosest or desirest, it shall be done unto thee according to thy will; forasmuch as thou hast willingly given up all that was thine. Therefore, thy will is swallowed up in mine, and thou hast become one with me by grace, and a partaker of my nature.” Now this becoming one with the eternal Goodness cannot come to pass but by an absolute renunciation of our Self, and all that is ours, natural or spiritual; for in the same measure that a man comes out from himself, in that measure does God enter in with His divine grace, and he who loseth his life shall find it.
Children, I will say no more now, but tell you a little story that is very apt to our purpose. I knew a “woman of Canaan,” well deserving of the name. What I am about to tell you, happened within these four years, and she is yet living. This woman lost her senses, and fell into a trance, and was borne up on high, till she came into the presence of God, and beheld our Lady and all the saints. And as she looked upon this vision she saw herself to be at an immeasurable distance from God. Then her spirit was seized with such unutterable woe that it seemed as if she must perish that moment with the bitter, 291smarting, hellish pain that it gave her to see herself so far off from God. (For know ye that this is the worst torment which the souls in hell have to endure, that they know themselves to be afar off, and utterly parted from God and all His elect, and know that it will last for ever, and that they shall never see God.) Now in this unspeakable distress she turned to our Lady and all the saints, and besought them all that they would intercede for her. But then she saw that the blessed saints were so utterly lost in the contemplation of God that none of them for a moment listened to her cries and appeals. In their overwhelming bliss and joy they never even heard her voice. Then she turned after a human fashion to the sacred sorrow and bitter death of our Lord Jesus Christ, and it was answered her, why should she appeal to that to which she had never shown due honour and reverence? But when she saw that neither our Lady, nor the saints, nor the sufferings of our Lord brought her help, she turned herself with all earnestness to God, and said: “Ah, Lord! since none will come to my help, behold, O beloved Lord, that I am Thy poor creature, and Thou art my God; I fall down before Thy righteous sentence, according to Thy most blessed will; and whether Thou wilt have me to remain for ever in this horrible, hellish torment, I leave, dear Lord, altogether to Thy most blessed will.” But when she had thus utterly surrendered herself to God for all eternity, that moment she was lifted up far away beyond all intervening things, and wafted into the abyss of God’s love. O what a glorious abyss is that! This same person is still often brought either into this state of mind, or carried into the abyss of the divine love. 292She is a young maiden, and I firmly believe that she had never in her life committed any gross sins, wherewith she had provoked God; and yet she needed thus to suffer. Children! how great and manifold, then, must be the pangs of those who have often and deeply angered God, and withal are still cleaving while on earth so closely to the miserable creature delights? But this maiden resigned herself humbly to the will of God, content to bear an eternity of pain in hell, if God in His righteousness saw fit to condemn her thereunto.
How unlike this woman are those who fancy that in four or five years they shall work wonders, and say to others: “Ah, my dear friend, pray the Lord for me that I may become one of his dearest friends.” Now know that, if thou wert in the right way, thou wouldst never think thyself worthy to become one of the least of the friends of God; therefore set thyself humbly in the lowest place, as the Gospel teaches, and then thou wilt be bidden to come up higher. But those who lift themselves up, God will assuredly cast down. Wherefore beseech Him that His good pleasure may be wrought in and with thee, according to His ever-blessed will, and so wilt thou find thy dwelling-place and rest in Him, and not else. Children, on this wise God entereth into the soul immediately, without a veil; that is, when a man wholly renounces Self—all that he has. Now, if any man while here on earth should obtain one drop of this blessing, and one spark of this love should be kindled in his soul, he would be more truly and really made fit for God’s dwelling, and led farther into the truth, than if he were to strip all the clothes off his body and give them to the poor, or to macerate 293his flesh with penances. One moment in this state were more worth living than forty years spent in doing and leaving undone what we pleased. Moreover this would be the noblest and shortest, and also the easiest, of all courses that reason can conceive. O God! with what things are men taken up, while they waste this precious, blessed season of grace, and come short of that pure, exalted good which might and ought unceasingly to be wrought in them; and so the long years roll slowly by, and they are as one in a sleep, never coming any farther, unstirred by God’s grace; and after the many years that they have lived, they are as far from true perfectness as the first day that they set out. This is indeed a terrible and awful thought for all religious persons; for if they knew the great and perilous injury that they do to their souls with their own devices, their very marrow and blood would dry up within their body. Now let us pray God that we may thus sink into the divine abyss, and fall down before God’s sentence, that we may be also found in Him like this woman of Canaan! Amen!
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