The Sermons of St. Antony
Translated by Paul Spilsbury
(The fourth Gospel, for Lent: Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit, which is divided into an allegorical and a moral sermon.)
(In the allegorical sermon, first on the three-fold desert, and a sermon on the advent of the Lord: Send forth, O Lord, the lamb.)
1. Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil. [Mt 4.1]
We are told in the first book of Kings [1Kg(Sm) 24.1-2] that David dwelt in the wilderness of Engaddi. The name David means ‘strong of hand’, and stands for Jesus Christ who, with his hands fastened to the Cross, did battle with the powers of the air. What wonderful strength, to overcome his enemy with bound hands! He dwelt in the wilderness of Engaddi, which means ‘the eye of temptation’. The eye of temptation is three-fold: first greed, of which Genesis says:
The woman saw that the tree was good to eat, and fair to the eyes, and delightful to behold; and she took the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave to her husband. [Gen 3.6]
Second, pride and vainglory, of which Job speaks, in regard to the devil:
He beholdeth every high thing.
He is king over the children of pride. [Job 41.25]
Third, avarice, of which Zechariah says:
This is their eye in all the earth. [Zech 5.6]
In this way Christ dwelt in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, during which time he sustained from the devil temptations to greed, to vainglory and to avarice.
2. So it says in today’s Gospel, Jesus was led into the desert. This desert into which Jesus was led is also three-fold: first, the womb of the Virgin; second, as in today’s Gospel; third, the gibbet of the Cross. Into the first he was led by compassion alone; into the second as an example; into the third by obedience. Of the first, Isaiah says:
Send forth, O Lord, the lamb, the ruler of the earth,
from Petra of the desert, to the mount of the daughter of Sion. [Is 16.1]
O Lord and Father, send forth a lamb and not a lion, to rule and not to lay waste the earth, from Petra the Rock of the desert (that is, from the Blessed Virgin). She is called a ‘rock’ because of her firm intention of virginity, whereby she answered the angel,
How shall this be done, because I know not man. [Lk 1.34]
This means, ‘I am fully resolved not to know’. She is called ‘of the desert’ because she was infertile, a virgin before, during and after giving birth. ‘Send forth,’ I repeat, ‘to the mountain’, to the excellence of the daughter of Sion, the Church which is the daughter of the heavenly Jerusalem.
Of the second desert Matthew says: Jesus was led into the desert.
Of the third, John the Baptist says in St John’s Gospel:
I am a voice crying in the desert. [Jn 1.23]
John was a voice, because just as a voice is prior to a word, so he went before the Son of God. I am the voice of Christ, crying in the desert of the wood of the Cross:
Father, into thy hands, etc. [Lk 23.46]
In this desert all was thorny, and there was no human help.
(A sermon on the cursed three: Joab took three lances.)
3. Let us say, then: Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert. If we ask by whom he was led, St Luke gives us the answer in the clearest way:
Jesus, being full of the Holy Ghost, returned from the Jordan
and was led by the Spirit into the desert. [Lk 4.1]
He was led by the Spirit that filled him, of which Isaiah says:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord hath anointed me. [Is 61.1]
He was led by the Spirit whereby he was anointed above his fellows [cf. Heb 1.10] into the desert, to be tempted by the devil. The Son of God, our Zerubbabel (‘Master of Babylon’), came to restore a world that had been disordered by sin, came like a physician to heal the sick. It was therefore fitting for him to ‘cure opposites by opposites’, as the saying is, just as by medical skill chills are cured by warmth, and fevers by cooling.
The sin of Adam was the destruction and the weakening of the human race. It consisted in three things: greed, vainglory and avarice. A poet has said, "Greed, vainglory and desire conquered old Adam." These three things are implicit in Genesis:
The serpent said to the woman... In what day soever you shall eat thereof,
your eyes shall be opened (greed);
and you shall be as gods (vainglory),
knowing good and evil (avarice). [Gen 3.4,5]
These were like three spears with which Adam and all his children were killed, just as in the second book of Kings,
Joab took three lances in his hand, and thrust them into the heart of Absalom. [2Kg(Sm) 18.14]
Joab means ‘enemy’, so he well represents the devil, the enemy of the human race. With the hand of a lying promise he took three lances- greed, vainglory and avarice- and thrust them into man’s heart, the very source of his warmth and life. As Solomon says, Life issueth from the heart [Prov 4.23]. In this way he extinguished the fire of divine love, and took life away altogether from the heart of Absalom (‘the father’s peace’), Adam who was placed in the garden of peace and delight to keep for ever the peace of the Father by obeying him. But after Adam refused to obey God the Father, he lost this peace and the devil thrust those three lances into his heart, and took away his life altogether.
4. The Son of God came at the acceptable time, and being obedient to God the Father he restored what was lost, curing opposites by opposites. Adam was placed in Paradise, and there, seeking pleasure, he fell. Jesus was led into the desert, and there, by constant fasting, he overcame the devil. Look at the concordance between the two temptations, in Genesis and in Matthew:
The serpent said... In what day soever you shall eat...
And the tempter coming said to him: If thou be the Son of God,
command that these stones be made bread. [Mt 4.3]
This is the temptation of greed.
And: You shall be as gods...
Then the devil took him up into the holy city
and set him upon the pinnacle of the temple. [Mt 4.5]
This is the temptation of vainglory.
And: ...knowing good and evil.
Again the devil took him up into a very high mountain
and shewed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them.
And said to him: All these will I give thee, if falling down thou wilt adore me. [Mt 4.8-9]
Being a liar, he told a lie; but this is the temptation of avarice. Wisdom however, which always acts wisely, overcame the three-fold temptation of the devil by the three-fold authority of Deuteronomy.
When the devil tempted him to greed, Jesus replied:
Man does not live on bread alone, [Mt 4.4; cf. Dt 8.3]
as if to say, just as the outward man lives on material bread, so the inward man lives on heavenly bread, the word of God. The Son is called the Word of God, the Wisdom
which proceedeth from the mouth of the Most High. [Ecclus 24.5]
Wisdom or sapience is a kind of savouring or taste, and so the bread of the soul is this taste for wisdom, this savouring of the good things of the Lord, to
taste and see how sweet is the Lord. [Ps 33.9]
The Book of Wisdom says of this bread:
Thou gavest them bread from heaven,
having in it all that is delicious and the sweetness of every taste.[Wisd 16.20]
This is what is meant by the words, But in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God. Every word; because the word and wisdom of God has the sweetness of every taste, and its saviour renders tasteless the delights of greed. Because Adam refused this bread, he fell into the temptation of greed; so the words are appropriate, Not by bread alone, etc.
When the devil tempted him to vainglory, Jesus answered:
Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. [Mt 4.7; cf. Dt 6.16]
Jesus Christ is Lord in creation and God in eternity. The devil tempted him when he urged him, who was the creator of the temple, to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple; and promised the help of the angels to the God of all the heavenly powers! Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. Adam too tempted the Lord God, when he disobeyed the command of his Lord and God, and too easily believed the false promise, You will be as gods. What vainglory, to think that one could become God! What a wretched man! Because of your stupidity in setting yourself above your proper state, you fell below it in miserable ruin. That is why you should not tempt the Lord your God!
When the devil tempted Jesus to avarice, he replied:
Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and serve him alone. [Mt 4.10; cf. Dt 6.13; 10.20]
All those who love money or worldly glory are bowing down to worship the devil. For our sakes, Jesus entered the womb of the Virgin and bore the shame of the Cross. Taught by his example, let us go into the desert of penitence. With his help let us resist the wind of vainglory and the fire of avarice. Let us adore him whom the archangels adore. Let us serve him whom the angels serve, who is blessed, glorious and to be praised, most high for ever and ever. And let every creature say: Amen!
(In the moral sermon, first a sermon for enclosed religious: There were given to the woman two wings; and on the nature of the eagle and the property of the hawk.)
1. Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit. [Mt 4.1]
We read in the Apocalypse:
And there were given to the woman two wings of a great eagle,
that she might fly into the desert. [Apoc 12.14]
The woman represents the penitent soul, of which the Lord says in John:
A woman, when she is in labour, has sorrow, [Jn 16.21]
that is, the soul, confessing sin conceived in pleasure, has sorrow- and so she should! To this woman are given the two wings of an eagle. The eagle is noted for its sharp sight and sharp beak, and it represents the just man. The eagle has the keenest vision, and when with age its beak grows blunt it sharpens it on a stone and so renews it. In like manner the just man, by keenness of inward contemplation, is able to gaze on the brightness of the true sun; and when his ‘beak’- the affection of his mind- has been blunted by sin, he straightway resorts to the stone of confession to sharpen it, and so renews his youth in grace. To this effect the Psalmist says:
Thy youth shall be renewed like the eagles. [Ps 102.5]
This eagle has two wings, love and the fear of God, concerning which the Lord said to Job:
Doth the hawk wax feathered by wisdom,
spreading his wings to the south? [Job 39.26]
The eagle and the hawk in this passage stand for the just man. Take note of two characteristics of the hawk: it catches its prey in its claws, and only catches a bird in flight. Similarly the just man should take hold with the claws of his affection, but only of the good that ‘flies’, not caring for what is on the earth! By God’s wisdom he preens his feathers, the pure thoughts of the just man which, as he savours God’s wisdom, grow in an orderly way in his mind. When you savour the things of God you as it were ‘preen your feathers’, putting forth good thoughts as you enjoy the sweetness of that wisdom. The hawk spreads his wings (love and divine fear) to the south, that is to Jesus Christ who comes from the south [cf. Hab 3.3] to send forth the heat that nourishes, and to pour into them the grace that keeps them. These two wings are given to the woman, the penitent soul, so that she may be lifted up by them from earthly things, and fly into the desert of penitence, the desert spoken of in this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus was led into the desert.
2. This Sunday the Introit of the Mass is
He shall call upon me and I will hear him, [Ps 90.15-16]
and the Epistle is taken from St Paul to the Corinthians,
We beseech you, do not receive the grace of God in vain, [2Cor 6.1-10]
because "Days of penitence have come upon us, to redeem sins and save souls."1 So for God’s praise and the benefit of our souls, we shall treat of penitence, which consists in three things: contrition of heart, confession of the lips and satisfaction in deed; and their three opposites, greed, vainglory and avarice. These six things are to be found in today’s Gospel.
(A sermon on contrition of heart: With a vehement wind; and: A sacrifice to God.)
3. Let us say, then: Jesus was led into the desert.
Jesus said:
I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also. [Jn 13.15]
What did Jesus do? He was led into the desert by the Spirit. I pray you, then, who believe in Jesus and hope for salvation, to be led by the spirit of contrition into the desert of confession, so that you may perfectly fulfil the forty days of satisfaction. Contrition of heart, be it noted, may be called a spirit, wind or breath. So David says,
With a vehement wind thou shalt break in pieces the ships of Tharsis. [Ps 47.8]
Tharsis is ‘the exploration of joy’; and the ‘ships of Tharsis’ are minds of worldly folk who are blown along through the seas of this world, with the sail of carnal desire and the wind of vainglory, to explore the joy of worldly prosperity. With the strong wind of contrition the Lord breaks the ships of Tharsis, these worldly minds, so that when they are broken they will look for true joy, not that which is empty. The spirit of contrition is called ‘vehement’ for two reasons: it is a ‘driving’ wind that drives the mind to higher things, and which drives away eternal woe. Genesis says of it:
He breathed into his face the breath of life. [Gen 2.7]
The Lord breathes the breath of life, contrition of heart, into the face of the soul when he impresses upon it his own image and likeness, which has been soiled by sin, and renews it.
4. The Psalmist shows what contrition should be like when he says:
A sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit;
a contrite and humbled heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. [Ps 50.19]
In this verse there are four things to note: compunction of the spirit afflicted for its sins; the reconciliation of the sinner; the universal contrition of all sinners; the continued humbling of the contrite sinner. So he says that the spirit of a penitent which is afflicted and pricked for sins by so many trials is a sacrifice to God. It makes peace between God and that sinner, and reconciles the sinner to God; and because sorrow for sin should be all-embracing, the words a contrite heart are added.
The word used means, literally, not just ‘bruised’ but ‘broken’. Both these words should be true of the sinner. His heart should be bruised by the hammer of contrition and split open by the sword of sorrow, divided into enough pieces to cover each and every mortal sin, weeping and mourning over them. The sinner should grieve over one mortal sin he has committed, more than for the loss of the whole world and everything in it if he were their lord. By mortal sin he has lost the Son of God, who is mightier, dearer and more precious than all creatures; so he should have a contrite heart, broken altogether, to be sorry for every single thing he has done, neglected or forgotten.
The completion of every good action is humility, so in the fourth and last place we hear that God will not despise a humbled heart. Indeed, as Isaiah says:
The High and the Eminent that inhabiteth eternity...
dwelleth with a contrite and humble spirit,
to revive the spirit of the humble
and to revive the heart of the contrite. [Is 57.16]
How great is the kindness of God! How great is the dignity of the penitent! He who lives in eternity dwells in the heart of the humble and in the soul of the penitent! It is the mark of a truly contrite heart that it humbles itself in everything, reckoning itself no more than a dead dog and a mere flea [cf. 1Kg(Sm) 24.15].
(A sermon for priests, and how they should conceal confession: "Confession should be uninhabitable"; and: Take heed you go not up into the mount.)
5. So by this spirit of contrition the penitent is led into the desert of confession; and it is well called a desert for three reasons. A desert is a land which is uninhabitable, which is full of wild beasts, and which is horrible and fearful. This in literal truth was the kind of desert in which Jesus Christ lived for forty days and forty nights. In the same way, confession should be ‘uninhabited’, in the sense that it should be private and secret, concealed from anyone else’s knowledge, kept in the memory of the confessor alone under an inviolable seal, and hidden from human awareness. Even if every person in the world knew the sin of the sinner confessing to you, nonetheless you should conceal it and lock it away with the key of everlasting silence.
Truly they are the children of the devil, accursed by the living and true God, cast out from the Church Triumphant and excommunicate from the Church Militant, to be deposed from every office and benefice, who (not by word, which would be worse than murder) even by sign or in any way at all, hidden or open, whether to blame or even to praise, reveal or manifest a confession. I dare to say that whoever reveals a confession sins more gravely than the traitor Judas, who sold Jesus Christ the Son of God to the Jews. I make my confession to a man, but not simply as to a man, but as to God. The Lord says in Isaiah:
My secret to myself! My secret to myself! [Is 24.16]
and shall not man, born of earth, seal up the secret of confession in the depths of his heart?
6. So it is appropriate that confession should be called an uninhabited and inaccessible land, because the secret of confession should be disclosed to nobody. The Lord warns and commands in Exodus:
Take heed you go not up into the mount, and that ye touch not the borders thereof. Everyone that toucheth the mount dying he shall die. No hands shall touch him, but he shall be stoned to death, or shall be shot through with arrows. Whether it be a beast or a man, he shall not live. [Ex 19.12-13]
Mount Sinai (‘measure’) here stands for confession, which is called a ‘mount’ because of its excellence, namely the remission of sin. What could be more excellent or lofty than the remission of sin? And it is called ‘measure’ because of the correspondence between that confession and the guilt of sin. The sinner should measure out his confession so that it corresponds exactly to his guilt, neither leaving anything out for shame or fear, nor adding anything through imagined humility, more than is strictly true. It is not right to say what is untrue, for humility’s sake.
Beware then, you confessors, you priests, lest you go up onto that mountain! To ‘go up the mountain’ would be to disclose the secret of confession. You are bidden not merely not to go up, but not even to touch the borders. The borders of the mountain are the circumstances of confession, which no-one should touch by word, sign, or in any way at all. For shame! There are those who are afraid to go up the mountain, but are not afraid to touch its borders by disclosing the circumstances of sin by word or sign. Let these unhappy men hear their death sentence: Everyone that toucheth the mountain, dying he shall die, says the Lord. And by what death, Lord? The hand of the secular power shall not touch them, to hang them like a thief or a murderer. Maybe that would be a lesser punishment. They will be stoned with the stones of the harshest excommunication, and shot through with the arrows of eternal damnation. Whether he be a ‘beast’ (a simple priest) or a ‘man’ (an educated and knowledgeable priest) he shall in no wise live. Another interpretation would be, whether a ‘beast’ (a layman or lesser cleric to whom one may confess in case of necessity) or a ‘man’ (a priest of the Church), he shall not live for evermore because he has gone onto the mountain or touched its borders. So it is appropriate to call confession an uninhabited and inaccessible land!
(A sermon on the seven vices, and the properties of the ostrich, the ass and the hedgehog: It shall be a habitation of dragons.)
7. Again, confession may be called a ‘desert’ inasmuch as it is full of wild beasts. What these beasts are, with which confession should abound, we shall see. These beasts are mortal sins, which ravage and wound the soul. Isaiah, speaking of faithless Judah (the sinful soul) says:
It shall be the habitation of dragons
and the pasture of ostriches.
And demons and monsters shall meet,
and the hairy ones shall cry out to one another.
There hath the lamia lain down and found rest for herself.
There hath the ericius had its hole and brought up its young ones,
and hath dug round about and cherished them in the shadow thereof. [Is 34.13-15]
In this text seven kinds of beast are mentioned: the dragon, the ostrich, the "monster" (a hybrid of ass and ox), the hairy one, the lamia and the ericius. By these beasts we are to understand seven kinds of sin, which should all and individually be fully disclosed in confession, just as they were committed by the consent of the mind and the effect of the deed. This is the meaning of, It shall be the habitation of dragons, etc.
The ‘dragon’ is the poisonous malice of hatred and detraction;
The ‘ostrich’ is the deceitfulness of hypocrisy;
the ‘ass’ is lust;
the ‘ox’ is pride;
the ‘hairy beast’ is avarice and usury;
the ‘lamia’ is heresy and lack of faith;
the ‘ericius’ (hedgehog) is the crafty excusing of the sinner.
8. Let us say, then: It shall be the habitation of dragons.
The mind or conscience of the sinner is the habitation of dragons by the poison of hatred and detraction. It says in the Song of Moses:
Their wine is the gall of dragons, and the venom of asps, which is incurable. [Dt 32.33]
The hate and detraction of sinners is like a wine that inebriates the mind, and intoxicates those who listen to it. It is the gall of dragons and the incurable venom of asps. As Solomon says in Ecclesiastes,
If a serpent bite in silence, he is nothing better that backbiteth in secret. [Eccles 10.11]
It is incurable because, as Ecclesiasticus says,
The stroke of a whip maketh a blue mark;
but the stroke of the tongue will break the bones. [Ecclus 28.21]
The mark of a whip is only a bruise on the outside of the body, but the wound made by a critical tongue breaks the bones of inner virtue- so, yes, it is the habitation of dragons.
9. There follows: and the pasture of ostriches.
The ostrich has wings, but it cannot fly because of the size of its body. Likewise, the hypocrite is weighed down by love of earthly things, yet pretends to be a hawk who, with wings of false religion, takes flight in contemplation. Job says:
The wing of the ostrich is like the wing of the heron and of the hawk. [Job 39.13]
The ‘pasture of ostriches’ is in the mind of a false religious; and ‘pasture’ is a most apt word, because the hypocrite who is praised for his hawk-like wings feeds on this praise. He behaves like a peacock which, when children praise it, shows off the glory of its plumage, making a great wheel of its tail. But when it turns round, it shows the unsightliness of its backside! Just so the hypocrite, when he is praised, shows off the feathers of his apparent holiness, and makes a ‘wheel’ of his devout behaviour. He says, "I have done this, and that; I have begun, and carried through to completion." And as he turns himself about he only shows off his baseness. The fool causes disgust by the very things he tries to please with.
10. And demons and monsters shall meet.
The word used, ‘onocentaur’, comes from the Greek for ‘ass’ and ‘ox’. The ‘ass’ stands for the lustful person. It is stupid, lazy and timid. In the same way the lustful person is stupid, having lost the true wisdom which fills the wise and sober man, and which drives out the lust of the flesh which beguiles a man and makes him dull-witted. He is also lazy, for, as the Poet2 says:
"If you ask why Aegisthus became an adulterer,
the reason is clear: he had nothing better to do!"
He is also timid, like the ass as described in Natural History: An animal which has a large heart is timid, while that which has a smaller one is brave. What happens is this: when such an animal is afraid, the heat of the heart is too little to fill it. A little heat in a large heart grows weaker, and the blood becomes cooler. Hares, deer, asses and mice have large hearts. Just as a little heat will warm a large house less than a small one, so is the heat in these. The lustful man has a large heart for thinking about and committing wicked and lustful actions, but he has little or no heat from the love of the Holy Spirit. That is why he is timid and unstable, and inconstant in all his ways [cf. Jas 1.8].
The ‘bull’ means the proud man. The Lord complains in the Psalm:
Fat bulls have surrounded me. [Ps 21.13]
‘Fat bulls’ are proud men in their worldly wealth. They have surrounded me (says our Lord) like the Jews who repeatedly called for me to be crucified. At the hour of death the demons meet the ‘onocentaur’, the monster combining lust and pride, so as to receive such sinners as they leave this world, and drag them away with them to eternal punishment. So it is that those who incited the sin now inflict the torment that punishes it.
11. There follows: and the hairy ones cry one to another.
The ‘hairy ones’ are the avaricious and usurious. Their ‘pelt’ is pelf! Avarice cries out for usury, and usury for avarice. The one invites the other. For shame! The cry of these ‘hairy ones’ has already filled the whole world. Hairy Esau is their model. His name means ‘oak’. The avaricious and usurious are ‘hairy’ in taking, but ‘oakish’ (hard and inflexible) in paying back.
12. There hath the lamia lain down and found rest for herself.
The ‘lamia’ was supposed to be a beast with a human face, but the rear part of an animal. It represents heretics who, in order more easily to deceive, make a pretence of a human appearance and smooth words. Jeremiah says of them, in Lamentations:
Lamias have exposed their breast and suckled their young. [Lam 4.3]
Heretics ‘expose their breast’ when they promote their sect; and they ‘suckle their young’ when they foster the faithlessness of those who believe them. The word used means ‘whelps’ rather than ‘children’, because like uneducated folk, cobblers and tanners, they know nothing except to cry out against the Church, and to curse Catholics who belong to it.
13. There follows: There the ericius has its hole.
The hedgehog is all prickly, and if anyone tries to catch it, it rolls itself up into a ball in the hand of the one holding it. It has its head and mouth underneath, and five teeth in its mouth. The hedgehog is the obstinate sinner, clad all around with the spines of sin. If you try to rebuke him for the sins he has committed, immediately he gets prickly and hides his guilt with excuses. His head and mouth (that is, his mind and speech) are underneath. While excusing the wicked things he has done, the sinner is just turning his mind and speech to earthly things below. The five teeth in his mouth are the five kinds of excuse which a stubborn man uses. When he is rebuked, he blames ignorance, bad luck, the devil’s tempting, the weakness of the flesh or the provocation of other people. In this way, as Isaiah says, he ‘nourishes his young’, the impulses of his mind, and digs round them and hides them in the shadow of excuses.
(A sermon for those confessing, how they should confess their sins and the circumstances of them: Take a harp.)
14. These seven beasts (their number includes all kinds of sins) should appear abundantly and fully in the desert of our confession, so that nothing is hidden from the priest, or glossed over, but everything is confessed to the last detail and circumstance. As the Lord says through Isaiah:
After seventy years there shall be unto Tyre as the song of a harlot.
Take a harp, go about the city, thou harlot that hast been forgotten:
sing well, sing many a song, that thou mayst be remembered. [Is 23.15-16]
The seventy-fold and seven-fold number here stands for all sins universally. So it is said that the Lord cast out seven demons from Magdalene, that is, all vices. So by the seventy years and seven beasts we understand all vices. And so Isaiah says, After seventy years, that is, after committing all crimes, unto Tyre (meaning ‘a narrow place’, the soul hemmed in by sins) there shall be a song, the confession of sins. After committing all crimes, there is no remedy left for the unhappy soul but the confession of sins which is ‘the second plank after shipwreck’. The soul is addressed as ‘harlot’ because she has put away her true spouse, Jesus Christ, and clung to the adulterous devil; and unless she is converted she will be given to eternal oblivion. So, Take a harp! Note that the word ‘take’ implies a prompt will to confess, not forced or extorted; while the ‘harp’ is the confession of every sin and its circumstances. Take a harp, then, to confess voluntarily;
Confess whilst thou art alive and in health. [Ecclus 17.27]
15. Just as the strings are drawn out in a harp, so the circumstances of sin must be drawn out in confession- who, what, where, with whose help, how often, why, how and when. A confessor should distinguish all these, and whether dealing with a man or a woman should enquire discreetly and carefully.
‘Who?’: whether married or single, lay-person or cleric, rich or poor, whether occupying any office or dignity, whether free or slave, of what religious order or congregation.
‘What?’: how serious the sin, and of what kind. For instance, [if sexual sin,] was it a case of simple fornication between two unmarried people? Was the woman a hired prostitute? Was it adultery? Was it incest, between those related by blood or marriage? If a man seduces a virgin, he sins particularly grievously, because he opens the door of sin for her, and so becomes liable to share the guilt of any sins she commits afterwards (unless he provides properly for her in a place where she can do penance, or unless he arranges a marriage for her, if he can.) Was it a sin against nature, which includes every case where seed is spilt other than in a woman’s vagina. These things should only be asked about very cautiously and indirectly. Or was it a case of murder? Was this by thought, word or actual deed? Was it a sacrilege, a robbery or theft? From whom? And was it openly or in secret? Was it usury? In what way? "To take any return over and above the principal is called usury." Was it perjury? False witness? How was it done? Was it pride? There are three sorts: refusal of obedience to a superior, refusal to tolerate an equal, and contempt for an inferior. All this we must confess.
‘Where?’: in a church (consecrated or not), or near a church; in a cemetery where the faithful are buried; or in any place dedicated to prayer- was sin committed here, or something unlawful spoken of?
‘With whose help?’: with whose help or advice did he sin, or cause others to sin? With a few companions, or many? Were they aware of the sin? Did he commit sin because money was offered or taken?
‘How often?’: He should confess how many times he sinned (at least approximately); frequently or infrequently; whether he was in a state of sin a long or a short time; whether he often sinned again after confession.
‘Why?’: did he give mental consent or do wrong even before temptation? Did he in any way do violence to nature, to accomplish the sin, and thus offend in the most serious way?
‘How?’: was the sin committed in an unusual or unbecoming way (by unlawful touching, for instance) and the like?
‘When?’: in a time of fasting, or on a saint’s day; was the offence committed at a time he should have been in church? How old was he when he committed this or that sin?
All these circumstances, and similar ones, can add greatly to the seriousness of sin, and hurt the soul of the sinner. They should all be laid bare in confession. These are the strings, drawn out in the harp of confession, of which we are bidden, Take a harp.
16. There follows: Go about the city. The city is human life, which he must ‘go about’ in terms of time and age, sin and manner of sin, place and the persons with whom he consorted, and whom by his bad example, by word or deed, he caused to sin; or whom, if they were sinning, he failed to draw back from sin. As we have said, all these things must be confessed nakedly and openly, after the manner of the Psalmist, who said:
I have gone around and sacrificed in his tabernacle the sacrifice of vociferation. [Ps 26.6]
I have gone round my whole life, like a good soldier who goes round his camp, lest there be any gap whereby enemies may get in. And I have sacrificed in his tabernacle, the Church, before his priest, the sacrifice of vociferation (confession) which is aptly so-called because the sinner should confess clearly and distinctly, not with lowered voice and mumbling. Well-expressed, Go about the city!
17. There follows: Sing well, accusing yourself and not the devil, fate or someone else. Sing well, confessing all your sins to a single priest, not sharing them out among several. Maybe you would like my advice about the following case: you say, "I made a general confession of all my sins to one priest, but later I fell again into mortal sin. Must I confess all my sins again?" My advice, sound, salutary and good for your soul, is this: As often as you go to a new confessor, confess as if you had never confessed before. But if you go to someone who knows your conscience, and to whom you have made a general confession, you need only mention the sins you have committed since, or which you had forgotten. Sing well, then, sing many a song, confessing your sins again and again. Why? So that you may be remembered before God and his angels, and so that he may forgive your sins, pour his grace into you and confer eternal glory on you.
(A sermon on confession: How terrible is this place.)
18. Here, then, are the beasts with which the desert of your confession should abound. Sins and their circumstances should appear naked and clear in confession, and thus the desert of confession will be horrible and fearful. To whom? To the unclean spirits! We read in Genesis:
How terrible is this place! This is no other than the house of God and the gate of heaven. [Gen 28.17]
The place of confession, and indeed confession itself, is terrible to the unclean spirits. Job says:
As overflowing waters, so is my roaring. [Job 3.24]
When the lion roars, all other beasts stand still. Overflowing waters uproot whatever stands in their path. The roar of the lion is the confession of the penitent, of whom the Psalmist says:
I roared with the groaning of my heart, [Ps 37.9]
because from the groaning of the heart should go forth the roaring of confession. When the evil spirits hear it, they are terrified and do not dare to tempt. The overflowing waters are the tears of the contrite, which totally dissolve and uproot whatever the evil spirits are plotting against these penitent tears.
Confession is also called ‘the house of God’, on account of the reconciliation of the sinner. In confession, the sinner is reconciled to God, like a son to his father when he is received back into his father’s house. You can read in Luke how when the elder brother drew near to the house, in which the penitent son was feasting with his father, he heard music and song. Note the three things that were in the house: feasting, music and song. Just so there should be three things in the house of confession, where the sinner is received when he returns from the region of deceit: the feasting of contrition, the music of confession and the song of amendment. Just as you accuse yourself of your sins, so also you should take care to amend yourself. Hear the sweet music:
I acknowledge my iniquity, and my sin is ever before me. [Ps 50.5]
Hear the choir singing in response,
I am ready for scourges, and my sorrow is continually before me. [Ps 37.18]
How many people make the sweet music of confession, yet do nothing to amend themselves!
19. Alternatively: if the music of weeping and bitter compunction resounds in the house of confession, the choir of divine mercy will respond immediately, forgiving the sin. This is the promise made in the Introit of today’s Mass:
He shall cry to me and I will hear him:
I am with him in tribulation:
I will deliver him, and I will glorify him.
I will fill him with length of days:
and I will shew him my salvation. [Ps 90.15-16]
Four things are promised to the penitent:
He shall cry to me, that I may forgive his sin; and I will hear him and will pour my grace on him;
I will deliver him from the four things mentioned in this Sunday’s Tract:
The terror of the night;
the arrow that flieth in the day;
the business that walketh about in the dark;
invasion, or the noon-day devil. [Ps 90.5-6]
The terror of the night is the hidden temptation of the devil; the flying arrow is his open assault; the business walking in darkness is the falseness of hypocrites; and the noon-day devil is the burning lust of the flesh. From all these the Lord will deliver the true penitent. I will glorify him in the day of judgement with the glory of a two-fold robe.I will fill him with length of days in the endlessness of eternal life.
Confession is also called ‘the gate of heaven’. Truly, truly it is the gate of heaven! Truly it is the gate of paradise! Through it, as through a gate, the penitent is led in to kiss the feet of divine mercy; to be raised up to kiss the hands of heavenly grace; and to be accepted with the kiss on the mouth of fatherly reconciliation. O house of God! O gate of heaven! O confession of sin! Blessed is he who dwells in you! Blessed is he who enters by you! Blessed is he who humbles himself in you! My beloved brothers, be humbled and enter by the gate of confession. As you have been taught, confess your sins and their circumstances, because now is the acceptable time for confession, now is the day of salvation for making amends [cf. 2Cor 6.2]. This is what is meant by, When he had fasted forty days and forty nights.
(A sermon on the forty-day fast: And when he had fasted forty days; and: The scouts sent by Moses.)
20. The forty-day fast of Jesus Christ teaches us how we may make satisfaction for our sins, and how we may work so as not to receive the grace of God in vain. As the Apostle says in today’s Epistle:
We exhort you that you receive not the grace of God in vain. For he (i.e. the Lord, in Isaiah) saith: In an accepted time have I heard thee and in the day of salvation I have helped thee. Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. [2Cor 6.1-2; Is 49.8]
He receives the grace of God in vain, who does not live according to the grace he has been given. He receives the grace of God in vain, who imagines that the grace freely given him is due to his own merits; he receives in vain, who after confessing his guilt in the acceptable time, the day of salvation, refuses to do penance for his sins.
Behold, then: now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation given us to promote our salvation. St Bernard3 says, "No time is more precious; but, alas, today nothing is valued less! The days of salvation pass by, and no-one thinks about it, no-one even makes the excuse that the day for him to perish is never going to come. Like the hair of your head, not a moment of time is going to perish." And Seneca4 says, "Even if there were much time to spare, it should still be used carefully; what is to be done, then, in such pressing danger?" And Ecclesiasticus: Son, observe the time [Ecclus 4.23] as if it were sacred.
Let us do penance in these holy forty days. The number forty is the product of four and ten. God the Creator of all created body and soul, and bestowed a four and a ten on each. The body is made up of the four elements, and is ruled and controlled by ten senses, as though by ten princes, namely: two eyes, two ears, smell, taste, two hands and two feet. God gave the soul four principal virtues- prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance- and the ten Commandments. These are:
Hear, O Israel: the Lord thy God is One;
Thou shalt not take the name of thy God in vain;
Remember to keep holy the sabbath day. [Dt 6.4; Ex 20.7,8]
These three, which concern the love of God, were written on the first tablet. The other seven, which concern the love of neighbour, were on the second:
Honour thy father and thy mother;
Thou shalt not kill;
Thou shalt not commit adultery;
Thou shalt not steal;
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour;
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbours house;
Thou shalt not desire his wife, nor his servant, nor his maid, nor his ox, nor his ass,
nor anything that is his. [Ex 20.12-17]
Because every day we sin against the four virtues and the ten commandments, in this mortal body made up of the four elements and ruled by ten senses, we should make satisfaction to the Lord by the fast of forty days.
21. As to how this is to be done, we are told in the Book of Numbers that the spies sent out by Moses and the children of Israel went about the Land of Canaan in forty days. ‘Canaan’ means ‘business’, or ‘humble’. The Land of Canaan is our body, in which we do business, exchanging by a happy trade earthly things for eternal, and transitory things for what is lasting, and always in humility of heart. Regarding this business, Proverbs says of the valiant woman:
She hath tasted and seen that her traffic is good. [Prov 31.18]
It says two things: that she tastes and that she sees. The ‘valiant woman’, the soul, ‘tastes’ when with the healthy palate of the mind she experiences the sweetness of heavenly glory, for love of which she despises the kingdom of the world and all worldly adornments. So, as time goes by, with the eye of enlightened reason she may see and understand that ‘her traffic is good’, namely, "To sell all she has and to give to the poor, and naked to follow the naked Jesus Christ"5 . This is what the Book of Job says:
Skin for skin, and all that a man hath he will give for his life. [Job 2.4]
A man who tastes and sees how sweet the Lord is will give and exchange the skin of worldly pomp for the skin of heavenly glory; or he will give his skin (this material and mortal body) to the executioner and torturer, and will expose it to death and the sword for the glorious skin of immortal glory. Our body is well-called ‘skin’. The more a skin or hide is washed, the more discoloured it gets. So our body, the more it is delicately nourished and favoured with pleasures, the more quickly it grows old and wrinkled. A man will give not only his skin, but everything he has, to save his life. Just so the Apostles, who left skin and everything, were found fit to hear the words;
You will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. [Mt 19.28]
(A sermon on the circumstances of sin to be confessed and put away: Josue took Maceda.)
22. We, like true and vigorous explorers, should in these forty days go about the whole region of our body, carefully seeking out whatever sins we have committed by sight, hearing, taste, smell or touch; confessing our sins and their circumstances so that no remnants remain, following the example of Joshua who (as his Book tells),
Joshua took Maceda and destroyed it, with the edge of the sword; and killed the king and all the inhabitants thereof. He left not in it the least remains. [Jos 10.28]
Maceda means ‘first’, or ‘scorching’. It stands for sin, from which man is first scorched in Baptism. This sin is taken captive in penance. The ‘king’ of the city is evil will, which is struck by the edge of the ‘sword’ (oral confession). The ‘inhabitants’ thereof are the five senses which obey the will, which must similarly be killed by penance and recalled from sin. The ‘remains’ are the remembrances of sin and the inclination to pleasure, and these are not to be spared either.
In the same passage,
Joshua conquered all the country of the hills and of the south of the plain, and of Asedoth, with their kings. He left not any remains therein, but slew all that breathed. [Jos 10.40]
The ‘hill country’ is pride; the ‘south’ is cupidity; the ‘plain’, lust (in it the lustful horse wanders unbridled as through fields). Asedoth is ‘things to be made, of the people’: it stands for every unclean imagination which feeds the fire of sin. All these we must lay waste in confession, with the intention of never sinning again; and for these we must make suitable satisfaction so that when the body has elevated itself we must humble it the more in confession; and to the extent that it took pleasure, the more we must give it pain- bread and water, the discipline, staying awake. Then like the daughter of Jephthah it will hear these words:
Thou hast deceived me, my daughter
(my flesh, with the pleasures of greed and lust),
and thou thyself are now deceived, [cf. Jg 11.35]
that is, afflicted with disciplines, vigils and fasts.
Now we have gone over these things concerning the spirit of contrition, the desert of confession, and the forty days of satisfaction (on which is based the remission of all sins, the infusion of grace, and the reward of eternal life), we must proceed to describe their opposites: greed, vainglory and lust.
(A sermon on the cursed three, wherein the devil tempts us: Let us put on the new man.)
23. There follows: And the tempter coming said to him: If thou be the Son of God, etc. [Mt 4.3]
The devil always acts according to the same manner. In the same way that he tempted Adam in Paradise, he tempted Christ in the desert, and he tempts every christian in this world. First he tempted Adam by greed, vainglory and avarice, and overcame him by this temptation. Then he tempted Christ, the second Adam, in the same way; but in tempting he himself was overcome, because it was not just a man, but God, whom he was tempting. We share in both Adams, the first by the flesh and the second by the spirit. We must put off the old man with his actions (greed, vainglory and avarice) and put on the new man by confession and renewal, so as to restrain the unbridled heat of greed by fasting, to repress the uprising of vainglory by humble confession, and tread down the thick mud of avarice by contrition of heart. Blessed are the poor in spirit, says the Lord, meaning the humble and contrite of heart, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven [Mt 5.3].
24. Just as the devil tempted the Lord in the desert by greed, in the temple by vainglory and on the mountain by avarice; so he tempts us every day: by greed in the desert of fasting, by vainglory in the temple of prayer and Office, and by multiple avarice on the mount of dignity. While we fast, he tempts us by greed, wherein (as the verse goes6 ) we may sin in five ways: "Hastily, sumptuously, excessively, eagerly, carefully."
HASTILY, before the proper time;
SUMPTUOUSLY, when taste is excited though appetite is depressed, with all kinds of sauces, decorations and fancy foods.
EXCESSIVELY, when we take more food than the body needs. Gluttons say, "We are bound to fast, so let us eat at one meal enough to make up for breakfast and supper." They are like locusts who, once they settle on a tree, do not leave it until they have eaten everything. The locust is all mouth, the image of a glutton who consists entirely of a greedy belly. They lay siege to their plate as to a castle, not abandoning it until they have consumed the lot. Their belly goes on rumbling until the plate is clean!
EAGERLY, rushing upon the food and, like a man about to do battle against an army, stretching out their arms, extending their hands, and just scoffing! At the table, they behave like the proverbial dog, who wants no companion in the kitchen.
CAREFULLY, demanding dainty foods that must be prepared, Oh! so precisely. Remember the sons of Eli in I Kings, who would not take cooked meat, only raw, so as to prepare it with greater care and delicacy [cf. 1Kg(Sm) 2.15].
25. The devil tempts us in the temple of vainglory. While we are at prayer, at Office or in preaching, we are assailed by the lances of vainglory from the devil. Alas! How often we are wounded! There are those who kneel and sigh as they pray, wanting to be noticed. There are others who, when they sing in choir, strain their voices and warble in their throats, so as to be heard. Others again, when they preach, thunder with their voices, quote learned authors, applying them according to their own ideas, and go round in circles to be praised. Believe me, all these hirelings have received their reward already. Moses says in Leviticus:
Do not make your daughter a prostitute. [Lev 19.29]
My work is my ‘daughter’, and I prostitute it and put it in a brothel when I sell it for the coin of vainglory. In Matthew, the Lord gives this advice:
But thou, when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber and, having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret. [Mt 6.6]
When you want to pray or do some good deed (which is to pray without ceasing [cf. 1Thess 5.17], enter into the secret chamber of your heart and close the door of your five senses, so as not to try to be seen, heard or praised. Luke says that Zacharias went into the Temple of the Lord at the hour of incense. At the time of prayer, which goes up like incense in the sight of the Lord, you must enter the temple of your heart and so pray to your Father; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you [cf. Lk 1.9].
26. On the mountain of transitory dignity we are tempted with the sin of multiple avarice. Avarice may be not only for money, but for eminence. The more misers have, the more they want; and when promoted, the higher they are the higher they want to go. So a greater fall ruins them, because "The winds blow hardest in the highest places"7 ; and it was on the ‘high places’ that sacrifice was made to idols [cf. 1Kg 3.2; 22.44; 2Kg 12.3; 14.4; 15.35; 2Chr 20.33]. Solomon says of these two,
Fire never says Enough. [Prov 30.16]
‘Fire’ (avarice for money or position) never says "Enough!", but "Give, give!" [cf. Prov 30.17]. O Lord Jesus, take away these two ‘Gives’ from the prelates of your Church, take them away! >From your inheritance- which you gained by blows, spitting, scourging, the cross, nails, vinegar, gall and spear- they take pleasure and glory on the mountain of ecclesiastical dignity.
Let us, then- who take the name Christian from Christ- with singlehearted devotion pray Jesus Christ the Son of God, and earnestly beg him to grant us that we may be led by the spirit of contrition into the desert of confession; so that in these forty days we may receive the remission of our sins. Then, renewed and purified, may we be found fit to enjoy the gladness of his holy Resurrection, and to be established in the glory of everlasting happiness. May he grant this, to whom be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
1 BREVIARIUM ROMANUM, Antiphon at Terce in Lent.
2 OVID, Remedia amoris, 161-162
3 BERNARD (=GAUFRIDUS), Declamationes, 44,54; PL 184.465
4 SENECA, Epistola 48,12
5 cf. INNOCENT III, sermo 26, PL 217.573
6 cf. GREGORY, Moralium XXX,18,60; PL 76.556-557
7 OVID, Remedia amoris, 369

Copyright in this translation belongs to Revd Dr S.R.P.Spilsbury



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